The story so far:
An artist created a drawing that came to life. When it opened its eyes, its creator was gone.
Dean staggered as he opened his eyes. His vision drifted sideways against his will, then jerked back to center only to wander off again. Nausea twisted his stomach. He planted his hands on his knees for support, then tried to stay still. It felt like he might slide out of the world again if he moved at all. The idea of floating out there, lost in the Aether forever, filled him with dread.
When the dizziness finally passed, he focused on a circle of purple and gold beneath his feet. The words Central Public School glittered around its border, proving that he’d left the real world behind. Sounds became crisp in his ears: the ping of metal on metal. Low voices that chatted anxiously. He dared to raise his head and breathed a sigh of relief when the world didn’t turn on its ear.
Torchlight and campfires illuminated the yard, exposing a stone cabin that shepherded over an endless mob of canvas tents. Soldiers bustled about in threadbare cloaks, some with towels bound around their feet to help ward off frostbite. The air was full of nervous excitement. A sudden chorus of cheers erupted in the distance. On its heels, someone recited American Crisis for what might have been the first time.
Dean lifted his hand to catch a snowflake. “Merry Christmas to me,” he whispered, relieved that luck had finally caught up with him tonight. It melted on his skin harmlessly, but he knew this camp would see a hurricane before the sun peeked over the horizon again. He would be gone long before that happened.
A part of him just wanted to stand there and soak it all in. The nostalgia was overwhelming. How many times had he come to this particular lesson as a student? Other, darker feelings surfaced on its heels, picking fights with each other until he cast them all aside. He didn’t have time for them tonight. If the program was running, Mara was already out there, somewhere.
The weight of urgency settled on his shoulders, pushing his spirits down when he needed to be light and quick. He tapped his wrist and checked the time. There was, at most, an hour before his parents came to wake her up. An hour before this dream haven collapsed, and took him with it. He was cutting things close, but he couldn’t turn back now. It might be his last chance to see her, and nothing would keep him from saying goodbye.
His face grim, he quickly scanned the camp. He could feel the seconds ticking away, but he was still a little relieved when he didn’t see her dancing through the firelight. That meant she had to be on the river, where he would find an old friend.
As soon as he stepped away from the school’s logo, a commanding voice at his shoulder made him jump. “Classes attended outside of normal school hours will not be guided by a registered teacher,” she recited too loudly, then her eyes seemed to finally focus on him. The smile she conjured was warm; motherly. “It’s very late. Do you need a tutor?”
Memories of her floated to the surface. The substitute teacher’s purple and gold jumper hadn’t changed a bit. Her entire existence had slipped from his mind and he felt vaguely guilty about that, especially after all the time they had spent together. “Thanks to you, I think I need a doctor. Hello, Sub.”
She cocked her head to the side. Her eyes shimmered as she tried to access the school’s database. “The network is not accessible. I cannot access your student file.”
His lips twisted into a self-satisfied smirk. “You’re damn right, you can’t. I just wasted half the night locking you down.”
A flash of concern darkened her smile, and it caught him off guard. He hesitated a moment to appreciate the emotional upgrades she must have gotten since he graduated. “This conversation will be logged and sent when the network is available. Please state your name and student ID.”
A scowl twisted his face, but only for a moment. He sighed heavily, then bobbed his head. “Fine,” he agreed, and he patted her shoulder like an old friend. She glanced sideways at his hand, her warm smile faltering at the unexpected contact.
He thrust the fingers of his other hand into her chest like a knife. She tried to pull away, but his grip on her shoulder was absolute. “Sorry,” he growled. “It’s not your fault, but… I can’t let you tell anyone I was here.”
Her eyes fell slowly to her chest, and she screamed. She didn’t used to do that. He didn’t expect for it to sound so real. He muttered a curse under his breath, his eyes wide as they darted to the soldiers around them. They stuck to their own programming, oblivious to the struggle in their midst.
“Honestly?” he yelled back at her, his heart still racing. “Was that really necessary?”
“Modification of District programs is expressly prohibited,” she said sweetly, her smile restored for the moment. Then she gasped for a breath that she didn’t actually need. Her fingernails clawed at his arm, but they felt like feathers whispering across his skin.
Dean rolled his eyes. The spell had been broken. The District would never allow a Sub to harm a child, though he suspected it was to avoid a long, expensive lawsuit and not from any real sense of affection. But, he had to admit, no kid was going to hack Subs like he used to if this was what they were up against.
On the inside, not much had changed. The texture was soft with a little resistance, like gelatin. His fingers dug deeper as they searched for her core. When he pressed his thumb against it, a wave of light rippled through her body as his program took hold. Eventually it faded, and her smile reappeared once more. It was a little too wide, and her eyes were open a bit too far. It gave her a sinister look that he just had to hope wouldn’t be a problem.
“Set an alarm for forty-five minutes,” he told her with just a hint of unease riding his voice.
“Alarm set,” she replied obediently, but there was a low, glitchy echo in her voice that hadn’t been there before.
Dean gave his hand a vigorous shake to erase the feel of her insides. Then he sighed heavily, letting relief wash away some of the tension. With the Sub’s help, he wouldn’t have any trouble finding his sister. “Where’s Mara?”
She raised a pointing finger, and for a moment it seemed like she was thinking about driving it through him as payback. He took a wary step back, and then she pointed toward the docks with a smile that seemed even more demonic than before.
Dean shivered, then took off toward the river, dodging his way through the camp. Near the riverbank he passed a towering, wooden tripod – a gin crane, he recalled, feeling impressed with himself – that suspended a long, taut rope over the river. It creaked under the strain of the boats it was guiding.
He took the dock steps by twos and peered across the river. The Delaware wasn’t very wide here, but in the darkness he could barely hear the splash of the boating poles as men pushed their barges forward. His heart sank when there was still no sign of Mara.
“Time remaining?” he asked the sub without tearing his attention from the river.
His last chance was slipping away faster than he’d expected. “Set time: noon. Speed: zero,” he barked as his impatience took control. He interrupted her cheerful confirmations with a curt, “Mute.”
At his commands, time forgot how to spin forward. Drops of water hung in the air, suspended between the boatmen’s poles and the river below. The sky grew brighter, revealing an ugly storm overhead. Now that he could see, he leapt off the dock and onto the water. His sandals didn’t break the surface as he ran toward the boats and called her name.
Thankfully, the lesson map wasn’t endless. Teachers encouraged individual exploration, but they didn’t like maps that let the class wander off too far. He remembered something that he’d built his arcanology professor for extra credit and wondered if it was still loaded in the District’s system.
A glance over his shoulder showed the sub was still silently keeping pace. “Teacher override: herd the kittens,” he called back, and saw her lips move with a silent confirmation. There was a ripple in the distance as the invisible wall around the lesson slowly began to constrict, corralling Mara toward him. He called her name again and deflated when all he got back was more silence.
There was little choice then except to wait. He scanned the boats until his gaze landed on a familiar face. Beneath his infamous hat and his powered red hair, the General’s eyes were glued to the timepiece in his hand. Dean waved away the cloud of breath that hovered in front of the older man’s face so that he could get a better look.
“Well hello there, General,” he greeted the frozen man. Dropping to one knee, he peered up into the gentleman’s eyes. He plunged his hand into the General’s chest and was grateful that time was stopped so that he could be spared any more fits of simulated pain. A moment later there was a wash of light that faded away, except for a lingering sparkle in his eyes.
He turned a thin-lipped frown on the young man. “Dean?”
“George. It’s been a while.”
Washington clapped a hand over Dean’s shoulder and nodded. “You seem … older. More trouble weighs upon your shoulders now.”
Dean smirked. “Five years’ worth, give or take. And still waiting for some of that wisdom to kick in.”
“I did tell you that wisdom is born from hardship.” Washington chuckled to himself as he pocketed his watch. “But it is not a journey that may be hurried along. It will endure … well, for as long as you can endure it, I expect.”
The younger man deflated, his head hanging a little lower. “I don’t have that kind of time.”
“Ah, young arcanologist. A wise man knows there is no end to the search for wisdom, for what single mind can shelter all the knowledge of the heavens, save for the Almighty Himself?”
Dean scowled as he abruptly pushed himself to his feet. “Mine,” he declared, his voice daring Washington to argue. When the statesman arched a doubtful eyebrow, Dean gestured at the sky. “Because I’ve seen it now, George! The fabric of the universe: the Aether. The havens of dreams scattered just below the surface of the real world.” His fingers closed into a white-knuckled fist. “And there is no God, or Devil. Only data, and I can reach it all.”
His conviction faltered as Washington erupted into a fit of roaring laughter. He hid his mouth behind one weathered hand. “Is that so?” he finally managed to say. “The universe whispers its secrets to you? The answers to life and all things?” He wiped a tear from his eye, then patted Dean’s shoe fondly. “Then why seek me out? An artist’s best guess at a man long dead, whose feeble mind contains not even a speck of the wisdom that might aid in an endeavor of such scale?”
Dean scanned the horizon for his sister again. “I didn’t come here for you,” he reminded himself.
Washington nodded sagely, a smile still tugging at his lips. “And yet here you are. I suspect there is a reason – a small, human thing which mayhaps escaped the notice of one whose eyes are fixed on more profound mysteries.”
The sound of Mara’s laughter echoed over the river. It was a light sound, full of childish delight. “Dean! Look at me!” she called, drawing the attention of both men.
Dean’s face lit up as she slid effortlessly over the frozen Delaware on her bare feet. She leapt into the air, jumping impossibly far, and spun like a ballerina until she landed on one pointed toe. Another burst of laughter erupted from her, and it tugged at his heart. “She’s eight now, you know. I haven’t seen her in the real world since… since I left home.”
“Ah. So you have yet to make peace with your parents.” When Dean nodded, the general offered him a sad smile. “Martha is fond of saying: wherever our travels take us, we carry the seeds of happiness. I believe you ought to enjoy this moment while you remain within it. I have the peculiar thought that it may, too soon, be over.”
Dean nodded solemnly as Mara skated to his side. When she was finally close enough, she launched into his arms. He spun her around until they were both dizzy, and he tried to memorize every detail.
“Oh, I don’t want to study,” she pouted when they stopped, and she glared daggers at the General. Tiny fists grabbed the front of Dean’s shirt and tugged. “I want to play! It’s been so long!”
“Dear lady, do not discount the value of a proper education,” Washington scolded her as he climbed to his feet, but there was a kind twinkle in his eyes. “I often wonder if I would have made the disastrous mistakes I did in my own youth, had I been afforded the chance to study after my brothers.”
Mara’s mouth gaped open as he spoke. She poked at her brother’s chest with an accusing finger. “You can’t do that!” she hissed. “You can’t just hack George Washington!”
Dean feigned innocence. “But we’ve been friends for longer than you’ve been alive. And I didn’t hack him. Not exactly. I just made it so he wouldn’t forget my little visits.”
“No matter how many times I might pray for so small a blessing.”
The general stifled another laugh at the sour look Dean threw at him. Mara took advantage of the distraction to slip back to the ground. Her little feet stomped on the river’s icy surface. “Sub, reset the map. We’re going to get in trouble!”
The substitute looked to Dean for approval, and he shook his head no.
“The Sub too?” This time, her voice was less indignant. More calculating. He could almost see the mischievous little gears turning in her mind. With a hopeful note, she finally asked him: “Will you teach me how?”
He ruffled her hair, and she batted his hands away. “Maybe next time,” he promised, knowing that there might not be a next time. He’d used his whole bag of tricks to reach her tonight. The next time he saw her, she would be grown… and she would hate him. Their parents would make sure of that. Dean’s expression turned dark, and Mara’s eyebrows drew together with worry.
The general bowed slightly, then offered his arm to the Sub. “Would you indulge in walking with an old man?” he asked, and Dean thought he saw her blush. The general’s voice lilted amicably as he told her a story his wife had relayed by letter, and they were out of earshot before Dean remembered that the Sub was still on mute. He shrugged, remembered her demonic smile and dodgy programming, and decided that George was better off for it.
“Sorry I messed up your hair. I won’t do it again,” he reassured Mara then, feeling awful that his teasing might be the last thing she remembered about him. “You’ve gotten so big! And I’ve missed you so much.” When she squirmed away she was wearing a wide grin, so he tried one on, too. It felt strange to smile so much after so many months of setbacks. He patted her arm like a reassurance, but he wasn’t sure which one of them it was for. “I’m always going to be proud of you.”
Mara’s expression clouded for a moment, quickly replaced by the cares of a child. “I’m getting really good at aether-lology too,” she exclaimed proudly. “Watch this!”
“Arcanology?” he asked, then winced. He didn’t have to correct her. Not tonight.
She didn’t seem to notice, though. Dean watched as she pointed at the icy water. Her whole face puckered up as she exercised an unusual amount of focus. Before long, the ice was gone and the water was steaming. Time had returned to a wide circle of the river along with the warmth.
“Wow,” he admired with only a hint of a grown-up’s condescension. “That’s amazing! Maybe you should be the teacher, and I’ll do the studying.”
Mara squealed with delight. “Father says I’m his Last Hope. He says I’m going to be the best in the whole world when I grow up!”
The words hit him like a punch in the gut, and he felt suddenly nauseous. Once upon a time, Father had told him the same thing. But that was before he’d started making his own decisions. Before he became an embarrassment to them.
Oblivious to his inner battles, Mara crouched and then launched herself high into the air. He watched her clothes shimmer for a moment, and when she plunged into the steamy water she was wearing a bright yellow swimsuit. As she bobbed there effortlessly, he wondered if she had learned how to swim in the real world yet.
“Come on!” she urged him with a big splash. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and heard the soles of his sandals go squish.
Nice detail, he admired silently. She has a lot of raw talent.
“Just a second,” he said, turning his attention to the scene around them. As he closed his eyes, he knew it was his pride that was driving. He wanted his little sister to think he was cool, but there was more to it than that.
I’m his last hope. Mara would wake up and tell their parents what she had seen tonight. Then they would both regret casting him out.
With the Sub preoccupied, this time he had to do all of the work himself. He searched the darkness behind his eyelids and found Mara’s tether quickly. It was young and strong; a silvery cord that stretched from her dreaming self all the way back to her physical body. He imagined cupping his hands around it and felt its warmth against his palms.
To the General and his men, it would look like magic. They might not notice the blue glow of technology in his wrist, or appreciate how much math had gone into the programs that enabled his occult talents.
Summer, he thought, and felt a shift in the warmth of the air around them. Clear.
When he opened his eyes again, Mara was beaming at him. The clouds had disappeared, and the unfiltered sunlight made her wet hair sparkle. The boats and the dock were gone too, replaced by lounging chairs filled by a very content general and substitute teacher. Washington sipped something red from the glass in his hand, then turned back to his conversation.
Dean slipped out of his sandals. To his bare feet, the water’s surface felt somewhat like a tile floor. He tossed his shoes into the air, and when they hit the water two rubber ducks bobbed to the surface. One was grey, the other orange: her favorite colors.
Mara cooed her approval as Dean sank into the water, feeling victorious but completely exhausted. An overhaul like that on a haven that wasn’t his? It shouldn’t have been possible, but he had pulled it off. He splashed his sister back, and she giggled with delight.
“Oh, no!” she cried suddenly. She snatched up one of the ducks and put it to her ear. “This one says he can’t swim. Will you hold him?”
“Of course!” he promised, his face a mask of complete sympathy.
She tucked it into his shirt so that its grey little beak was peering through the space between his buttons. “There. Now he’s … safe.” She was grinning up at him, but her eyes went suddenly distant. Her expression lost its playfulness as she pointed over his shoulder. “Who’s that?”
It only took a heartbeat for Dean’s blood to run cold despite the warm water. Had the two of them been discovered? He paddled around as quickly as he could, and saw that Mara was right. A girl was sailing through the air toward them. She was falling, out of control, her head pinned to her chest and her legs flailing behind her.
Dean and Mara rose their hands to call some creation into being that would break her fall, but there wasn’t enough time. Like a cannonball, the girl smashed into the pool. The rippled reflection shattered under the impact, and a deafening crack split the air. There was no splash, but Dean felt a faint current tug at his legs before he noticed the funnel that stood up in her wake. At its bottom, a gaping black hole was growing wider. When he stared into it, the unmistakable void of the Aether stared back.
Whoever she was, that woman had punched a hole in Mara’s haven.
His sister struggled against the current. “What’s going on?” she wailed through her panic. The sound broke his heart. All he’d wanted to do was give her one more memory of him. Something warm. Not this.
The truth was: he didn’t know. Nothing like that had happened before. He flung his arm out to grab her hand, swallowing water as he pulled her to his side. “It’s okay,” he choked out, but he wasn’t fooling either of them. He tried to see her tether, to use it to will them back on top of the water again, but it jerked away whenever he reached for it.
Slowly, everything began to twist, skewing like an old television that was losing its signal. The little girl buried her face into his chest. “I want to wake up now,” she cried helplessly. “Why can’t I wake up now?”
He knew why. Because she wasn’t only dreaming. He thought he was so clever, using the school headset to reach her. Downloading her brain scan so that he could find her in the infinite sea of the Aether’s data. He knew that Mother’s pride would never allow her to pull Mara out of school, where she might fall behind, so that one highway to his sister remained unblocked by the firewalls and slapdash security they’d erected to keep him away. He’d laughed as he stripped away all of the District’s safeguards, intending to restore everything seamlessly, perfectly, as soon as his visit was over.
His selfishness had put her in danger… again. Her life hadn’t been as important as his need to say goodbye.
“Time?” he shouted, his voice breaking as the world spun faster. The top edge of the funnel rose above his head. When there was no answer, he remembered that the Sub was still muted. She rose from her chair at his command and perched at the edge of the pool. Tiles peeled free beneath her feet. Behind her, Washington’s avatar glitched, and then disappeared.
“Time!” he cried again, trying to be heard over the roaring of the water
“Twtwtwtw,” she stuttered uselessly, and then that demonic smile returned. Her eyes were hungry as she stared down at him. She held out her hand, her fingers pointed down at them like a knife.
“Mara,” he barked, hoping she could still hear him through her sobs and the awful sucking noise of the world being flushed below them. “Mara, it’s about to get really wild in here. Okay?” She peered up at him with red eyes and bobbed her head a little.
She still trusts me, he thought, disgusted with himself. She won’t for much longer.
“You know this is all just a dream, right?”
She nodded again, and her eyes grew wide. “So, we’re going to be okay?”
He tried not to wince at the hope in her voice. A chill was spreading through the water, as though all of the heat were being leached away first. His legs shivered uncontrollably.
“Yeah, we’re going to be just fine. But I want you to hold my hand as tight as you can, okay? And then even tighter than that. It’s not real, so do your worst… okay?”
“Don’t let me go!”
He hugged her with his other arm as the force of the drain started to pull harder, then buried his fingers in the skin of his arms. He would let them freeze that way if it meant he could keep holding on to her. “Never,” he promised, but he could feel the cold piercing through his skin.
His legs had gone numb. He couldn’t feel his arms anymore. His tears froze when he blinked, sealing his eyes shut and locking him into his own thoughts.
“Mara, hold on!” Was she still there? He thought he heard her shout his name, but it sounded so far away. “Mara!”
As he passed through the eye of the funnel, everything went silent. He cried her name one more time, but his lips wouldn’t shape the word. His breath froze in his chest.
Please, anybody… save her, he thought helplessly, and then even his thoughts were still.