NP6: Chosen|Bryce Leto

 Aster has recovered some from her shock after offending The Council and has rejoined the chosen youths. In spite of her resolve to live harmoniously with the community–among whom is her long lost sister, Ella–Aster still finds herself at odds with Bryce.

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Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|5b|6|7|8|9|10

I smack the punching bag ruthlessly, using the force of the punch to release the tension billowing within me. Micah told me of his and Avery’s conversation with Aster. She no longer secludes herself but still sheC-Bryce avoids me. She’s peculiar in a way I can’t understand. Her peculiarity intrigues me.

            I put my fists against the abused punching bag to stop its swinging and lean my forehead into it, breathing hard. The peaceful atmosphere of the empty gym settles comfortingly around me as I attempt to thresh out the mystery of Aster. Aster, with fiery hair and softly slanted green eyes always alert. She never says much, just watches people intently with an eyebrow occasionally darting up as if she sees more than the physical people surrounding her. I let a small smile twist the corners of my mouth as an image of her chuckling over some detail with Micah graces my memory. The usual mystery surrounding Aster mists the image though, as I remember how her eyes met mine and immediately dropped from their merry crescents of laughter and narrowed in suspicious curiosity.

I slam my fist into the bag again, my forehead still against it. My knuckles are chafed and beginning to bleed. I should have wrapped them. Unconsciously, I allow my thoughts to run at random, perusing my confusion and distaste for myself. These rare moments of calm self-reflection I yearn for, yet these are the moments I loathe.

            Before my thoughts can run deeper into dangerous territory to flesh out the root of my loathing, I leap back and catch the bag squarely with a jumping crescent kick and follow it up with a familiar form known as Ko-Dang, going through the motions with mechanical stiffness. As my muscles run through the routine reflexes, I can easily imagine the familiar surroundings of the Dojang at home, my instructor demanding more precision, more rhythm, and for the sake of all good, to try and maintain a sense of control. The beat of my punches slows as my mind wanders toward home. Again, I catch my thoughts and drive the dangerous reflections out with a series of merciless punches to the bag followed up this time with a tornado kick, tossingthe bag violently through the air.

I pause, the blood pounding fast through my veins with the anger, anger at nothing in particular, just anger at The Council, myself, this punching bag—anger at life. I draw myself up and let fly with a 360 roundhouse kick sending all the passion whirling forward with my momentum. I grimace as my foot meets the bag sending shock waves jarring through my whole body.

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“Dude, that was sick!”

Micah’s exclamation caught Bryce off-guard sending him scrambling to cover his anger with an easy grin.

“If you think that’s cool, watch this,” Bryce boasted, balancing himself and demonstrating anotherflawless tornado kick.

“Hey, isn’t that first one you did what Avery used on Nathan when the life support systems failed?” Queried Micah, his tone riddled with respect for Bryce’s talent.

“Sure is. I’ve seen her in here practicing. She’s not half bad.”

“She’s better at archery,” interjected Micah ruefully as if remembering some tournament that had favoured her skill over his own.

“Archery?”

“Yep, and fencing.” Again Micah’s countenance clouded as his mind rummaged over his contests with Avery. “But that’s okay,” he resolved good-naturedly, “Archery and fencing aren’t really my specialties.”

“What are your specialties?”

Micah thought for a moment, his eyebrows drawing down in concentration. “I’m not sure,” he concluded. Completely unperturbed by his lack of skill, he leapt onto the mats beside Bryce. “Will you teach me something cool? Like a kick or something?”

“Sure,” Bryce made sure to keep his voice enthusiastic. “Let me grab some water quick. I’ll just be a moment.”

Bryce leaned over the sink in the locker room and tossed the cold water against his hot face, pausing to clear his mind as the water splashed away and left drips trickling down his jaw. Tucking down his aggressive emotions and adopting his usual cheery cover, he wiped the moisture from his eyes and was turning to leave the room when a pair of neon running shoes he recognised as Aster’s caught the corner of his eye. Cautiously, he surveyed the locker room in search of the owner. Rustling from the one of the changing rooms caught his attention followed by a low tune half hummed and half sung in Aster’s voice.

He vacated the room rapidly and rejoined Micah in the gym.

“Did you see Aster by chance?” Asked Micah as Bryce demonstrated the proper stance for a snap kick “She said earlier she was gonna go for a run on the treadmill.”

“Uh…no. I didn’t see her. She was in the changing room though, I think,” answered Bryce distractedly as he corrected the positioning of Micah’s feet. “Okay, now try and snap your toes up even with your head like so.” Bryce demonstrated. “It’s okay if your other leg bends a little.”

“Aster’s a really cool person, you know,” continued Micah conversationally as he concentrated on snapping his knee straight. “Yep, she’s really cool.” He threw his leg up, the momentum pulling his other leg from under him so that he landed sprawled on his back.

“Wow,” he ejaculated.

“That wasn’t so bad,” alleged Bryce.

“You think so?” Micah beamed at the praise from where he lay splayed on the mats and coughed. Bryce gave him a hand up.

“How come you two don’t ever hang out?” Micah asked, back on the topic of Aster.

“Try snapping your leg up a little slower so you don’t fall,” Bryce suggested in an attempt to brush the question aside.

Micah coughed again and seemed about to repeat his question when a piercing siren split the air.

Bryce shoved Micah from the mats and following suit. The sirens were a warning, of what, he knew not but he did not fancy sticking around to find out.

They thrust the gym door open and immediately choked on the thick air.

“Danger. Please make your way to the auditorium,” instructed the computer calmly. “Gas leak in section 06, West Wing. Sealing West Wing in 33 seconds.”

Micah and Bryce dashed madly down the hall. Bryce halted suddenly, his eyes widening with fear. Spinning around, he sprinted back towards the gym.

“What the heck are you doing?” Shouted Micah between gasps.

“Aster,” Bryce called backed without pausing.

“Sealing West Wing in 10 seconds. All youths, please exit West Wing,” chirped the computer.

Without hesitation Micah launched down the hall after Bryce’s retreating form, a hand pressed against his stomach as if to ease a cramp.

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I surge into the locker room and collide with Aster. She is scared. I can tell by the whiteness of her face and the way her eyes dart towards mine. Choking and coughing, we stumble into the hall. She has been here in the gas longer than I and is weak from lack of oxygen. In the background of confusion whirling through my thickening thoughts, I hear the computer counting down: 6, 5, 4…

            Aster missteps, and I catch her. With every step we leave the gas farther behind and fill our lungs more with life-giving oxygen. Never have I appreciated air so much.

            “…2, 1. Sealing West Wing,” states the computer nonchalantly. Behind us, thick steel doors slide shut with an ominous thud, effectively sealing off the gym. “Gym sealed.”

            A third of the way up the hall, another set of doors slams shut. “Sections 05 and 06 sealed.”

            We’re so close. I can see where the doors ahead will slide shut and cut us off from the auditorium—cut us off from life and seal us in this cold tomb to succumb peacefully to death through suffocation. 

NP5b: Chosen|Revelations

Life support systems in the Maris have failed. According to Avery, who possesses a mysteriously large amount of inside information concerning the fortress, they must access a control panel disguised as part of the cliff in the Maris to resolve the problem. As climbers, Aster and Ella must put aside past differences and work together to save themselves and the chosen youths. 

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Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|5b|6|7|8|9|10

They call me Avery, but that is not my true name. It is no accident I am here. They did not know I knew, but I did. Only my father knew I knew and he begged my forgiveness. My destiny, as a Chosen Youth, not the one I had prepared for my entire life, was determined and inescapable by then. We took advantage of our knowledge, my father and I. And we swayed the power of our family to make preparations. The Council were deluded with their own selves—with mankind.

Whether they believe truly—whether mankind can indeed attain perfection and utopia—we will soon discover.

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Aster and Ella donned headlamps and scaled the wall rapidly. Occasionally they missed a handhold or misjudgedC-Ella a distance because of the weak light, but those beneath them kept the rope tight and hoisted them upward. Their main concern now was getting to the desired point, not climbing well.

On the far side of the rocky out-hang from the panel, Aster turned to Ella. She expected to see the girl frightened or feigning indifference. Ella though fastened her eyes on Aster in complete trust and said only, “I underestimated you earlier. I know you think I’m all masks, but don’t underestimate me now.”

Aster nodded, understanding Ella’s exact meaning. This was no time for games. The girl may play people, but she had more than just games beneath her disguise of coquettish innocence.

They inched partially around the rock obstruction and studied the predicament before them. For someone to reach the panel, he needed to clip to an anchor higher up. Doing so, however, meant that should that person lost his grip, the angle of the rope holding him would swing him around from the panel so that he picked up speed rapidly and slammed into the rock. Such a crash could seriously injure the climber and furthermore, the rope would have caught on an especially jagged point during the swing so that the climber was held away from the cliff face and, if still conscious after the crash, unable to climb around to safety. With the climber swinging at such an angle, the only way to release him was to cut the rope.

“If you go the panel, I’ll steady you from here and push your rope out if you slip so that it won’t catch,” offered Ella.

Aster recognised the danger Ella was putting herself in by offering to steady her and keep the rope from catching. Should Aster slip, her outward swing would be broken by Ella whom the rope would then sweep from her perch and slam into the cliff instead of Aster.

“You’re lighter than I am and the better climber. It wouldn’t make sense for you to steady me while I climb to the panel,” said Ella, seeing Aster open her mouth to protest Ella’s decision.

Ella was right. Now was no time for unnecessary heroics as well as games. Only solid logic and reasoning followed by precise action would accomplish their purpose and save them and their companions.

Aster accepted Ella’s offer and clipped to the high anchor. Cautiously, she inched completely around the craggy overhang to the panel, the rope snaking behind her. Ella followed half way and positioned herself securely where the rope would catch should Aster fall.

The handholds were small here and nearly useless. Whoever designed this cliff had not planned for any climber foolhardy enough to venture this direction. She grasped a small crack in the rock and wrapped her thumb over her fingers to lock them in place. The fine muscles in her forearm strained and the ligaments holding her fingers firm tightened.

She breathed deep, gasping to keep a steady airflow through her lungs and into her strained muscles. Without life support, oxygen was running out rapidly. The youths below her would still breath for a good many hours as the backup system would force the oxygen downwards. Up here though, with the air thinning swiftly, she started to feel dizzy.

Throwing her head back to disentangle her hair and let her cool breeze hit her warm neck and face, she forced her lungs into a deep steady rhythm of in and out, in and out and pushed on. Ella breathed hard behind her, keeping the rope stable and Aster balanced. Neither of them could last with the thin air and heavy strain for long. With this knowledge as fuel, Aster took a gamble and swung deftly to the next handhold, trusting her whole weight to the small crack supporting her arm for a split second. The fingers of her left hand brushed rock and grasped the hold securely which was better and directly above the panel. Letting go of the crack, Aster shifted her weight so she could hang with one hand from the new hold. With her other hand, she reached for her chalk bag and engaged the next few precious moments in pinching magnesium dust between her sweating palm and the rough rock. Better safe than sorry. She needed her grip here to last.

Wedging her right heel into the lately rejected crack for extra balance so that her foot came even with her head, she twisted the rock-like knob with her free hand and swung the panel open. The corner caught her neatly against her cheek, leaving an L shaped gash.

Inside the panel, amid other wires and plugs, lay the blue taped conjunction clip. Just as Avery had predicted. One side still hooked securely into a socket while the other lay burned out with loose wires spilling from its severed head. Careful not to touch the live wires, Aster detached the other end from the socket and, the wires detached and dead now, less cautiously wedged the spent conjunction clip into her harness. Re-steadying her balance, she excerpted the new clip into the socket and clipped it to the blue marked socket opposite.

She issued a sigh of relief as the gentle hum of the Maris started up again and lights flickered on. Far beneath her, a soft cheer wafted up to appraise her. It was not over yet though. She and Ella still had to pass around perilous rock obstruction to safety.

In spite of the magnesium, she felt her hand slipping. Quickly, before she lost her grip entirely, she swung the panel shut, careful not to let it catch her cheek again, and dislodged her heel from the crack. Tightening her fast weakening grip as best she could, she lunged for the small crack with her right hand. She grasped it none too soon as her left hand slipped farther out of the hold above the panel. For a few perilous moments, she swayed gently, her left hand inching farther out of the hold with each swing. A moment more, and all her weight would be on the small crack. She scrambled to brace her feet against the wall, but no effective angles offered themselves.

Her mind raced wildly searching for a solution. The crack cut sharply into her palm and her fingers ached. Blood from the gash in her cheek, trickled down her jaw and began to drip and soak into the white uniform. Her arm trembled, quivering with the strain, blood pulsating through her veins like the great gulping breaths she drew into her lungs and forced out with rapid regularity. She closed her eyes and let her head fall back, concentrating all her strength on that one small hold that should never have encountered her weight with so little other balance.

“Aster, grab the rope with your left hand. I’ll hold it out steady so you can get your foot against the overhang and push off against it and the cliff,” shouted Ella tensely.

“It’ll never work,” gasped Aster, eyes still closed and head thrown back. “You can’t hold me at that angle for long.”

“But I can hold it long enough for you to get your feet up against the rock if you’re quick.”

Aster did not respond, just nodded. Ella pushed the rope out steadily so that she leaned all her weight against it and stood nearly at a right angle to the cliff with Aster’s taught rope for balance.

“Go, Aster,” she whispered in a tight voice that betrayed the effort she put forth.

Aster did not wait but grabbed the rope and pulled herself up. Her center of balance shifted rapidly and for a split second the inertia held her from gravity’s clutches. In that split second, she saw it: falling from the open neck of Ella’s uniform, swung a silver chain weighted by a single strangely twisted pendant, shaped nothing like Aster’s own, but twisted and delicate with the same mysterious craftsmanship.

She thrust one foot at the rough rock impediment, a barrage of realisations pounding through her head as the image of that pendant registered. Her toe caught and the black sole of her climbing shoe that decried friction served its purpose well. What was Ella’s full name again? She braced her foot and twisted to push her back against the cliff as Ella had instructed. It wasn’t Ella. That was short for something else. She strained with both feet against the overhang and back against the cliff. The name across Ella’s door flashed through her mind. Estrella, that was it. Spanish for Star. The tension between jutting point and smooth cliff face held her. Who names their child Estrella? No wonder she shortens it to Ella. Aster couldn’t hold herself in this position for long. My mother would name a child Estrella. She named me star in Latin. Ella eased the rope and scrambled down to help Aster to a secure handhold.

Hundreds of odd instances and hushed conversations from Aster’s childhood ran through her mind, suddenly making sense. The crash. Aster remembered now. Like a bolt of lightning illuminating the forest, the image burst upon her mind’s eye. The car overturned and crawling with great leaping flames. Darkness and night covering them in comforting arms from the blazing wreckage. Her mother in tears. Ambulances and searches through the tall grass. Nothing. A playmate lost, a sister, dark-haired with deep black violet eyes. She grasped Ella’s offered hand and pulled herself up. Looking into the black violet eyes of her fellow climber, she felt her own moisten.

They hoisted themselves up and around the rock obstruction to safety where they could relax into their harnesses and trust the ropes and those beneath them to bring them safely to the grass.

As they descended languidly, each exhausted from stress, tension, and ability only just discovered and exploited, Aster turned to Ella. “Estrella,” she whispered softly.

“Oh, please no,” laughed Ella lightheartedly. “I thought I left that name above the water.”

“Sister,” was Aster’s only response as she fished her own necklace from her blood spattered uniform.

Ella’s eyes darted to the pendant and widened as if, like Aster, the token awakened the tragedy for the first time and sent its cruel images playing through her memory. She grasped at her own betraying token of the old life. “Sister?”

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I sit back in my room alone, not as I did earlier though. I simply need time and space to think. Today The Council’s perfect standard crumbled. They too made a mistake. A mistake in the fortress, but still a mistake. One mistake, rends their authority and scatters it across the waters. If they made a mistake in the fortress, who’s to say they have not made other mistakes? Who is to say they weren’t entirely mistaken?

Today, I did what I loved—I climbed and I faced a challenge—I did only what I, Aster, was made to do and in doing so, I defied The Council and benefited the community more than any other. By simply doing what I was made to do, I fulfilled my purpose.

Perhaps I will eat supper with the other youths tonight. 

NP5a: Chosen|Confinement

Here, we find Aster after the disappearance of Seth. She has just dangerously offended the standards of The Council and violated her promises to herself to never give into The Council’s ideals or dangerously cross them. 
I accidentally outlined two chapter 3s. To compensate for the excess information, chapter five is twice as long and I’m posting it in two excerpts as part A and B (B comes later this week. It needs a tad more proofreading). 

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Chapters 1|2|3|4|5|5b|6|7|8|9|10

I sit curled in a corner of my room, my knees drawn up to my chest. The night has been long. I have not slept. Too many thoughts whirl through my mind for sleep to carry rest. I have lied to myself and acted out of fear—fear prompted by fear; fear of my own actions.AsterConfined

I have prejudiced myself against people and treated them based on my first impression.

Bryce may act big-headed and tough like he can handle anything, but he has still treated me kindly. Behind his casual front and easy going swagger, perhaps he does hurt and miss his old life. Perhaps not. If so though, I have judged him because he chooses to hide his weakness, and that is wrong of me.

Ella may manipulate and sway others for her own protection but she is still a girl coping with insecurity and a new life without promise of stability. She is clever to protect herself with other’s trust. I have judged her for exercising cleverness.

The light has risen now. My watch clicks to 08:12, but still I sit, waiting; waiting for the dining hall to clear, for the others to go about their day and forget me. Then I will slip to the kitchen for a cup of tea and find a corner in this underwater world where I needn’t turn others against me, where I needn’t put on false fronts or lie to myself, where I needn’t hurt others for protecting themselves.

I cannot bring the community down if I disengage myself from it.

I can’t improve it either.

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Aster jumped as a knock at her door shattered the thin blanket of silence she had enveloped herself in. For a week, she had lived in self-imposed solitary confinement, slipping out of her room only for food and water or a visit to the library or gym during meal times when she knew the rest would be eating.

Cautiously, she rested a hand on her door knob and squinted through the peephole, wary of a surprise meeting from Bryce. She saw only Micah, his face deformed by the peephole lens so that his nose stood out while his forehead and chin sloped narrowly above and beneath it.

Taking a deep breath and donning a cheerful mask for which she hated herself, she cracked the door open. Micah greeted her with his usual wide smile while Avery, who stood just behind him, searched Aster’s face skeptically with her large green eyes as if reading all Aster’s thoughts.

“Hey Aster,” Micah hailed her, his voice a loud tone of forced optimism though her recent lack of presence obviously concerned him, “We were just wondering how you’ve been. Haven’t really seen you lately.”

Aster relaxed. She was not the only one putting a mask on. At least she could wear her own decently while Micah’s whole demeanor screamed ‘Uncomfortable façade of cheeriness’ at every gesture.

“I’ve just been getting some good rest and work is all. I think better alone,” she explained, assuming an air of quiet content that clashed immediately with her true feelings. She stifled the scuffle speedily, promising it could fight itself out later.

“You’ve been avoiding people because you’re scared,” stated Avery. Her face an honest display of all she thought.

Micah coughed distractedly and looked down the hall as if glad to be out of the spotlight. Masks were definitely not his thing.

“We’re all scared, Aster,” Avery continued before Aster could assemble the right response. “You shouldn’t cut yourself off because of fear. Mistakes come with living. You could stay in your room the rest of your life and never make another mistake, never have your watch go off on you again, but you would be dead. You wouldn’t live because of your fear.”

She was not accusing Aster. She was stating the truth, and Aster needed truth just now. No more facades of cheerful contentment. Just reality. The hard cold reality.

“So you’ll come to supper tonight?” Asked Avery. It was not a question though. It was an exhortation, a call to leave her self-inflicted death behind and live again with the community.

Aster thought for a moment, studying Avery’s honest face and Micah’s earnest one. Yes, now was real, no masks, just pure concern and open honesty. Tonight at supper though, the masks would come thick and fast. No one could help that in this environment. What mattered though, was that the masks remain masks and not become them.

She nodded—not a promise to attend supper but an acknowledgment of the truth. Relief flooded Micah’s transparent mask.

“Thank you,” she whispered, a true smile twisting the corners of her mouth as she recognised her true friends.

“Don’t thank us,” responded Avery, as honest as ever. “Thank Bryce. He would have come himself but for some reason he felt that wouldn’t have helped.”

She flashed Aster an inquisitive look, and Aster felt her face grow warm. Before she could respond though, the lights dimmed, flickered, and went dark. For a moment they stood in shocked silence. Quiet prevailed, complete and utter quiet minus the constant steady hum of the Maris.

“Ummm, I can’t see,” Micah said.

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Youths gathered in the dark of the auditorium. So far from the sun, the loss of synthetic light left them in dark so thick and heavy they could feel its weight bearing down on them, heavy as the weight of death. A single eerie light shone in the darkness, glowing off Nathan’s face as he tapped on his laptop.

Avery, Micah, and Aster groped their way into the auditorium to join the others. Bryce pulled Micah aside and whispered a question, concern and curiosity edging his low tone. Aster could feel his questioning eyes on her through the darkness.

He doesn’t know that I know he sent Avery and Micah. Feeling awkward, she turned to Avery only to find her gone. Voices rose from the center of the cluster of youths and the wan light from Nathan’s computer glanced off Avery’s defined cheekbones.

“Why should I let you see?” Nathan asked accusingly. “You don’t know the first thing about what’s going on.”

“I know that you have a self-made program installed on your laptop that broke through the fortresses’ security and attached itself to the main computer system so that you can feed off of the information running through there and track the problem,” countered Avery coolly.

“How did you manage that?” Asked a youth named Michael, obviously impressed.

“I told you I was smart,” responded Nathan pompously before returning to Avery. “That still doesn’t give me a reason to let you access what I’ve built. What makes you think you’ll know better than the rest of us when the problem is found?”

Avery did not respond verbally, but instead spun rapidly and caught Nathan squarely in the jaw with a flying roundhouse kick. The laptop flew from his hands, but she twisted around gracefully and caught it gently midair.

Everyone stood in shocked silence, still processing the usually quiet Avery’s sudden display of strength and skill.

Ignoring the stares of surprise, she rifled through a 3D layout of the Maris and addressed Nathan’s prostrate form in a tone of cold benevolence, “I already know the problem. I just need your laptop to find the solution.”

“What’s the problem then?” Asked Michael leaning over her shoulder to analyze the layout and tuck its detailed outline away in his mind palace.

“Life support systems are down,” answered Nathan in a submissive tone from where he lay at Avery’s feet, nursing his jaw. “Something burned out. Nothing complicated but important enough that now that it’s gone we’re all going to die.” He drew in his breath sharply as if in great pain.

“Can we fix it?” Pursued Michael ignoring Nathan and addressing his question to Avery.

“Aren’t you just a steady stream of questions?” Jabbed Nathan Sarcastically. “The Council didn’t want the fortress tampered with at all. They knew they were putting a parcel of geniuses in here so their systems are rigid and out of reach. I only managed to hack into the computer—and that only partially—after a few dozen tries and lots of expended genius.”

“Yes,” said Avery softly.

“Huh?” Dispensed Nathan, casting her a bored condescending look as if to say, ‘What is she babbling about now?

“Yes, we can fix it,” she stated and turned to address a dark-haired girl with wide dark eyes, “Elena, you studied nursing. Tend to Nathan, please.” She laid Nathan’s computer beside him. “Thank you, Nathan. I just needed to see what exactly gave way out. Now,” she turned to the gathered youths, “Who here can climb in the dark?”

The youths parted immediately for Aster, and to Aster’s consternation, Ella as well.

“You’re not the only one who can climb,” Ella responded to Aster’s questioning look.

“At the top of the cliff on the far side of that point jutting out, there is a small panel. It looks like just a part of the cliff so watch for it closely,” explained Avery as they stepped into harnesses.

“Reaching that point would be dangerous and difficult even if we were top-roping,” re-joined Aster, craning her head back to study the craggy point illuminated by a weak beam from Avery’s flashlight.

“Open the panel and pull out the blue taped conjunction clip.” Continued Avery as if Aster had said nothing. “One end of it should be burnt out so be careful of live wires. Plug this in its place and into the blue marked socket across from it.” Avery handed Aster an undamaged plug marked with blue tape that Aster guessed was a conjunction clip.

“Where did you get the extra clip? And how do you know so much about the inner workings of the Maris?” Asked Bryce warily as he joined them with headlamps.

Avery stared at the cliff and answered, her voice suddenly soft and far away, “My father put me here.”

NP4: Chosen|Before the Storm

In the Maris, an underwater fortress created by The Council for the surviving youths, Aster and her companions are beginning to adapt to life and each other’s quirks. While accepting her new surroundings, Aster finds herself running against others and into conflict with her own self. 

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Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|5b|6|7|8|9|10

The day has been long. I raise a thermos of peppermint tea to my lips and feel my muscles relax as the warm liquid trickles down my throat. I have seen so much and met so many. My head spins with new faces—some straightforward and honest, others mysterious and veiled, still others seemingly good on the surface but haunted with selfish intentions.

Two face remain that resist my attempts to decipher them.

One belongs to a girl—Avery, according to Micah—who spoke not a word but lingered on the rim of our assembly as we toured the facility. She is of medium height with slender form and large green eyes that dart here and there with perturbing brightness and air of mystery. Behind her glancing green eyes and silence, I sense a mind brimming with brilliance and enigmas. She is concealing something.

The other face frightens me. He introduced himself as Nathan, computer expert and member of the Jedi order. He carries himself loftily with aloofness, as if none can brush his high pedestal of brilliance. He is smart—but then we all are.  

For he who wishes to improve his mind and body, the Maris is a veritable paradise. The East and West Wing are twice as long as the North and South, giving the star-shaped fortress a diamond outline. In the West Wing is a kitchen and dining hall. Our meals were pre-made today but the computer has organised us into kitchen shifts for future. Opposite the Dining hall is an extensive library. It brims with books and the fragrance of vanilla and old manuscripts spilling with mysteries and lives, knowledge and passion.

Both the East and West Wing have a hall lined with sixteen rooms—the extra room in the West Wing is a sauna, and the extra room in the East is outfitted with large floor pillows, brilliant murals, and inspirational quotes. Its serves as a quiet room for study, thought, and reflection. The far end of the West Wing hall opens into a gym with weights, treadmills, and martial arts training facility. The far end of the East Wing hall opens into a vibrant room equipped for every expression of the arts.

Were it not for the circumstances underlying my forced residence in the Maris, I believe I could be very happy here. Perhaps I still will.

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After a deep night of sleep, Aster awoke early, refreshed and revitalised. Remembering the cliff overlooking the auditorium, she slung her feet energetically over the bedside and scampered to her closet in hopes of an early morning climb.

With hair fiery hair coaxed into a braid, she swung the door open to find Bryce poised to knock. They stared at each other a moment, each startled.

Bryce laughed as if seeing himself from her perspective. “I wasn’t sure if you were up yet,” he explained, “But I’m heading to the gym and was wondering if you’d maybe like to join? I think a few others were also planning an early expedition there.”

“No thank you,” she responded briskly with a curt smile, “I was already planning to climb.” She thumped the door shut before he could reply and waited a few minutes to make sure he had gone before cracking it open again. The hall was empty and she set off merrily for the auditorium.

At the cliff, she found rope, harness, and other gear in a closet built into its base and was soon harnessed and roped in, happily clinging to the cliff face above the trees. She had no one to belay so the going was slow as she had to descend and collect her clip, ascend and clip, descend and collect her clip, ascend and clip.

Up here with the chalk dust between her nails, the sharp crevices digging into her palms, her fingers aching as AsterClimbingshe clung to delicate handholds, the strong smell of magnesium, and the cool air brushing back loose strands of her hair so that they leapt like live flames in the breeze’s grasp she could lay out everything honestly in the open. I can manage, she thought optimistically. Sure, I don’t quite jive with some people. She thought of Bryce with his cool saunter and easy smile and Ella with her large eyes and coy words. But I’ll fulfill The Council’s requirements, be an asset to the community, and still not give in to their attempts at converting me into their perfect little youth who does everything right according to their flawed standard of truth.  

She let herself down from the top of the cliff slowly, savouring the view and clear-headed feeling it and the brisk breeze swirling around the auditorium ceiling gave her. Youths, tiny as ladybugs, slowly trickled to the dining hall for breakfast from rooms and gym. She let out a sigh of contentment and let her gaze wander over the paradise sprawled beneath her. A figure sulking alone by the water’s edge caught her eye and curiosity. Descending further, she recongised the solitary wanderer and her high optimistic resolutions crumbled a castle of sand before the ocean’s pounding waves. Stowing the climbing gear hastily, she accosted the youth at the lake’s bank.

“Seth, are you coming to breakfast?” She asked, trying for a cheery tone in spite of the apprehension building within her.

Seth’s countenance was dark and the look he cast her frightening. He had pushed back his Clark Kent-like glasses giving him an alert look that clashed with his foreboding expression.

“If you’re not, would you like me to bring you out something?” She tried again, her voice wavering a bit as her eyes ran over his apparel where the Silver Star had been torn off leaving loose threads hanging languidly.

He turned suddenly and seized her wrist, “Certainly you see the truth, Aster!” His voice came out low and dangerous. “What use is there in eating breakfast…or anything? What is joy? Or pain, or remembering, or living? Why don’t we all just commit suicide?” His watch went off like an alarm bell.

“I’m sorry, Seth.” Aster twisted herself from his grip and backed away, genuinely scared, her wrist white where he had clutched her. “I just can’t afford to think like that. Even if we never come to anything, I have to keep living and believing that there is a purpose for me somewhere.” Or I’ll end up like you, she realised mentally. “I am sorry, Seth, so very sorry.” She backed toward the dining hall her eyes on his brooding figure.

That was the last she saw of him.

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The next afternoon, in the arts room, Aster sat before an empty sketchpad. She had intended to sketch her mother from memory, but with the gentle humming of Avery, who kneeled on the floor nearby—her chaotic brown curls covering her face as she cut material—and Nathan—sitting cross-legged in the corner with a computer, the clicking of his keys adding to Avery’s wild tune—Aster found her thoughts wandering.

In spite of her resolutions the previous morning to be an asset to the community, Aster had fallen into difficulty. Seth had vanished. His name no longer showed on his door or in the list of companions. His disappearance had weighed Aster down and Bryce’s usual unaffected cheeriness had grated on her more than usual. Then she had accepted a duel of sarcasm with Ella that ended with Ella trumping Aster.

Micah skipped jauntily into the room, interrupting Aster’s gloomy meditations. He nodded a greeting to Aster, smiling wide so that his eyes creased into crescents, then plopped down beside Nathan.

“Hey dude, are you really a Jedi? I mean, is that really possible or is it just a nom…nominimal…name thing?” He asked conversationally.

“Well,” drawled Nathan airily, tilting his screen away from Micah and touching his fingertips to form a tepee, “The universe is indeed governed by an all-powerful energy or force which is balanced by both a light and dark—or good and evil—side. Jediism, as first presented by George Lucas’s Star Wars films, is a way of life in harmony with The Force and all things living. We’re not role-players and it’s not just some hokey religion. Jediisim is an actual way of life pursued by many as a guide for how to live—which makes it an actual religion since the definition of a religion is a belief that governs how you choose to live and see truth, purpose, write and wrong, etc.”

“Cool,” responded Micah, the majority of Nathan’s words passing over his head. He leaned over as if to see Nathan’s screen. “Wathcha working on?” He asked innocently.

Immediately Nathan assumed a protective position and slammed the screen shut. “Why are you in here?” He asked tartly, his tone suddenly accusing. “This is an arts facility and you definitely aren’t the artsy type.”

“Well, actually, I once painted a huge picture of my face, a self-portrait-y thing that is, and then I splattered it with like, fifty colours,” responded Micah congenially, oblivious to Nathan’s sudden hostility. “It was pretty cool, although, it sort of ended up looking more like my sister’s fiancé instead of me…”

“Micah,” Nathan interrupted, his voice deathly calm and patronising, “No one cares about your self-portrait.”

Listening in from her side of the room, Aster gasped at Nathan’s blatant rudeness.

Micah stared at Nathan, head to one side in confusion as his attempt at friendliness met Nathan’s harsh rebuke.

“Please, just leave the room now before you cause more trouble,” finished Nathan arrogantly, waving Micah away and putting a hand to his forehead as if Micah’s presence brought pain.

Aster could stand it no more. All the hurt she had forced down, every difficult encounter since her abduction, Ella’s games, Bryce’s big-headed surety, Seth’s disappearance—it all broke forth now.

“Nathan,” she shouted, seething, “How dare you speak to Micah like that? Thanks to The High and Mighty Council, Micah doesn’t have a sister or her fiancé anymore to compare his painting to. They took everything away from him just as they did to you and to all of us. The least you can do is try and be civil. What is so important—”

She stopped suddenly, short of breath, as a high-pitched warning issued forebodingly from her watch.

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I am Nathan. I am a survivor. I know how to play the system. They can’t terminate all of us and spoil their utopia with the death of thirty survivors of an apocalypse they brought on the earth. Why should I keep my own performance up when I need only keep others down to? I am Nathan. I am a survivor.

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Nathan tosses me a triumphant smile and, looking straight through Micah, turns back to his laptop. Avery kneels before her material, looking up at Nathan through her hair with a curious expression. Micah sits still beside Nathan, staring into space with eyes wide and eyebrows up.

I stand in shock. The reality of my delicate situation weighing on me like a thick blanket heavy with water.

I have lied to myself.

I promised I would never let them control me. I see now they have all along—from the moment I first laid my foot, booted in Council apparel, upon their perfectly trimmed grass in the auditorium. I denied myself grief. I adapted to this this environment like a calf to a bottle when his mother is led to the slaughter. I played at happiness and put on an act for them. I even encouraged Seth to humbly accept this life and forget the wrongs done him as I myself have so foolishly done.

I promised too that I would live within the requirements of The Council as protection to myself. Yet here I stand with my watch screaming at me. Am I next then? Will I disappear without so much as my name left to remind the world that I, Aster—Aster Tihana Treasach—ever existed? 

In Shadows Deep

I’ve shared this one before but thought I would re-post since it was with another poem. 

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In the deep of blackest ink
In the solitude of night
None dare venture
Detained by fear
But what is this I see I think?

A shadow sprints with heaving breath
Wild eyes and ears laid back
With pounding hooves
The Courser moves
A lone weight riding on its chest

He steers his mount in shadows deep
For the misty light of moon
Like the light of day
Would his haste betray
Decry his disdain of sleep

A message carries in his voice
A message of warning grave
Yea, one of fears
And unleashed tears
“The British advance! Make haste!”

NP3 Chosen|Façades

After a hectic night and day, Aster has finally been rested a bit in her new home in the underwater fortress and is about to meet some of her new companions.

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Chapters: 1|2|3|4|5|5b|6|7|8|9|10

My eyelids flutter open to meet the grey light pouring into my room. Even here, in the depths of the ocean, The Council have provided us with a synthesised dawn. After the torrent of tears they released the night before, my eyes feel thick and swollen. I lift my head to find that I have slept in a heap on the floor before my door which has made my light pullover and uniform trousers feel cumbersome and creased. Pulling myself stiffly to my feet I stretch and, refusing to let my mind dwell on why I’m here, stride over to the closet. I need to lift my mood before the others awaken and set my mind on what lies ahead. I need to relax myself and air my thoughts.

For a moment, I study the contents of my closet. Every article is emblazoned with a silver star. Sighing, I push aside my revulsion of the symbol and accept my new life.

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The fragrance of grass, earth, and growing life greeted her as she stepped uncertainly into the main chamber of the Maris and breathed in the cool morning air swirling through the tall auditorium-like room.  A digital clock on the wall clicked to ’06:13.’ Aster stretched and started around the track at a slow jog. She breathed deep, the cool air burning her lungs, and shook her wild hair back. As her muscles, stiff from a night on the floor, loosened, she gradually picked up speed, her spirits lifting with the yellow light slowly creeping up around her.

A rustling in the bushes startled her and she jerked to a stop.

“Hello?” She called uncertainly, her breath coming fast and the blood pounding in her ears.

The rustling stopped and Aster tried to quell her loud breathing and rapidly thumping heart. Suddenly, a face appeared in the bushes followed by a neck and the full body of a boy.

“Hi,” he said amiably, reaching a hand up to straighten his glasses.

They stared at each other for a moment in silence, each unsure.

“I couldn’t find my room so I just slept here last night,” explained the boy, the state of his chaotic brown Micahhair and rumpled uniform providing all the evidence necessary to prove his statement. “I’m Micah. Mind if I run with you?”

“Not at all,” responded Aster.

They started around the track at a respectable pace.

“Mmmm! Nothing like a good run in the morning to get your lungs working,” stated Micah, his breath coming hard and fast as if eager to prove the statement. “Mind if we slow down a bit?” He gasped after a couple seconds.

Aster slowed to a gentle jog at which Micah promptly dropped to a walk. With a sigh, Aster gave up her morning run and joined him.

For a few minutes, Micah heaved and puffed then wheezed brusquely, “Now I remember why I never run! It doesn’t make sense, forcing yourself to pound along at various speeds for no purpose.” He took a few more deep breathes, then continued, “Yep, I prefer other sports with purpose.”

Aster could not help but smile. His untamed hair, glasses, and all-round oblivious, amiable air pleased her.

“What did you say your name was?” He asked abruptly.

“Aster Treasach.”

“Hello, Aster. I’m Micah Benjamin Sanjana,” he smiled agreeably and rambled on. “I’m a middle child. I have two brothers named Nick and Phil. Or, rather, I had two brothers. Are you hungry? I sure am.” He resettled his glasses. “When do you suppose breakfast is? I sure hope it’s soon. If it isn’t I might pass out from hunger or something.” He paused in contemplation, his eyebrows moving up and down in a series of thoughtful expressions. “No, I don’t think I’ll do that. I might fall and hit my head on something and that would hurt.” His face went white suddenly and his eyes shot wide open. “What if we can’t find the dining hall? This place is so big and I was so tired last night I didn’t bother exploring so now I don’t know where anything is.”

Aster just cleared her throat in an effort to maintain a straight countenance and pointed toward the north wing over which hung a large sign burdened with the words ‘Dining Hall.’

Micah peered at the plaque through his glasses and exhaled a sigh of relief, his expression clearing and his eyebrows shooting up. “I’m just so hungry right now,” he explained. “I hope you don’t mind me interrupting your run.”

“It’s fine,” assured Aster. “In fact,” she paused, searching for what she wanted to say, “Thank you for interrupting it. I mean, I think what I needed most just now was some companionship.”

Micah nodded energetically, eyes wide in understanding. “You mean, after what…uh…what just,” his sudden lack of words touched Aster. Beneath his affable façade, she glimpsed a boy scared to death who had lost his family as she had her’s, “After the, the thing that just happened…to all of us?” He finished, his eyes on the ground. They had ceased walking now and stood in the center of the track before the dining hall.

“Yes,” Aster whispered, her voice annoyingly weak. They stood in silence for a moment. “Do you miss your brothers, Nick and Phil?” She asked cautiously.

Micah only nodded, head down. Jerking upright abruptly, he whisked off his foggy glasses and rubbed them on his shirt. “Thanks, Aster.” He smiled, his eyes bright. “I guess it’s good to just stop and acknowledge things sometimes,” He glanced at the few other youths trickling into the auditorium, “But not to dwell on them.”

“Acknowledge and move on?” Clarified Aster.

“Yeah,” he agreed and sniffed. “Eyes ahead.”

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Aster stood on the threshold of the dining hall feeling fresh and ready for the day ahead after her stunted run and conversation with Micah. A dozen faces turned to her as she entered and mixed fruit into a bowl of yoghurt at the buffet table. Eyes ahead, she reminded herself. We’re all just as nervous and confused as the next. Bryce caught her eye, and flashing a welcoming smiled, motioned her to his table. Well, she reconsidered, all of us except Mr. Take-it-as-it-comes. Pretending not to see him, Aster instead set her tray at the table of a young guy sitting alone.

“Hi, I’m Aster,” she introduced herself cheerfully in spite of her insecurity amid so many strangers.

With haunted eyes, he stared her uncertainly from under his black-rimmed glasses.

“Do you have a name?” She tried again, this time less sure. His whole demeanor spoke of intelligence riddled with despair.

“Seth,” he finally responded after an awkward silence. His eyes were on his food now which he barely seemed to notice.

“Are you okay, Seth?” Asked Aster in low tone so none of the other tables could hear.

“Of course I’m not okay,” he retorted, the sudden fire and passion in his words catching Aster off-guard. “My family is dead. Everyone is dead. There’s no point in this life,” his words, though low like Aster’s, burned with feeling. “I wish to God I had no more talent than a newborn so I could have died with them.” His watch suddenly let forth a high pitched warning sound and a red light shone on its surface.

“Those are dangerous words, Seth,” warned Aster warily. In her mind, the Red-lipped Woman’s warning to stifle rebellion or face termination echoed ominously.

“But it’s true,” he countered. “There is no meaning—no purpose—in anything.”

“What about the future? Certainly you can find some good to live for,” charged Aster in an effort to help him see through the cloud of hopelessness he had enveloped himself in.

“What purpose is there in living to see the future? Even the past—what purpose is there in remembering, or existence, or anything? We have no meaning. We never did, even before all this happened.” His watch beeped warningly again. “I realise that now, and it doesn’t really matter because nothing does.”

His words scared Aster. She wanted to break through to him somehow but how could you reach someone who saw everything as meaningless?

“Why believe like that though, Seth? Even if there is no meaning in life or anything, certainly you can create something to live for?”

He appeared to mull over this thought for a moment and Aster allowed herself a small light of hope. Any prospective answer from him was interrupted though, as a girl sat down beside Seth.

“I saw you guys chatting and thought I might join,” she explained for her intrusion, her large dark eyes wide and innocent, too innocent.

Mumbling an excuse, Seth left the table and strode away, head down, eyes on the ground. Aster watched him warily.

Catching Aster’s eye, the girl addressed her in a smooth tone, “I hope I didn’t interrupt. Bryce told me you’re his neighbor which means we’re neighbors too. I’m Ella. I’m one room down from you.”

Every aspect of Ella—her smooth voice, dark eyes, half smile lingering uncertainly as if timid—cried insincerity to Aster. Whatever Ella was after, Aster determined not to play her game. “Actually, we’re all neighbors here. That has a way of happening when you all live in the same building.” Aster piled the sarcasm on thick. “And you did sort of interrupt, but it’s too late now to stop that now.”

Ella smiled coyly. “Tut, tut, Aster. Lift up the community,” she reprimanded.

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Aster narrows her eyes and studies me uncertainly. She’s sharp, sharper than most. None of the others saw through my mask so easily. She can’t know I’m only after her friendship as a safeguard for myself or that Bryce didn’t tell me of her but that I saw them in the hall together. She suspects me though, and that is dangerous for me.

My whole life, I needed only widen my eyes or twirl my dark hair around one finger to win their trust and friendship. They never knew that behind my soft voice and unaffected demeanor I am a thinker. I have learned the twists of human nature and used them for my own purposes.

Here it is different though. Here I am with people who think like I do. I must work harder to gain their trust. Why do I need people’s goodwill so much? To protect myself? To feel secure? I hardly know. I long for it though. Occasionally, the essence of something that happened in my past brushes at the edges of my memory and I think maybe I’m beginning to understand, but it never lasts. I asked Nan once about it. She laughed and told me I was making things up. 

I’m a Child of Four Cultures

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“And so she realised the truth of her birth.” I lay aside my pen and consider the words scrawled in ink before me. Normally I can keep my spelling to one nationality, but today I’ve speckled the page with contradictory ‘colors’ and ‘colours,’ ‘recognises’ and “recognizes.” Now I must fix all the ‘misspellings;’ Now I must correct all the ‘wrong’ punctuation; Now I must decide whether to make this story right according to British or American standards. But can I do that? Can I just choose my identity from day to day?

“I’m feeling very Italian today. Maybe I’ll eat some pasta and speak with an accent-ah Italiano.”

I shove the paper paper aside frustrated with my lack of assurance.

floralswirlelement

No other Iowa girl structures her runs so she can face the Alps. No other Slovene girl structures her runs 1662329_10200766860013761_92891090_nto avoid the Iowa heat and break up the cornfields. What does this make me? A strategic runner?

In Slovenia, I have to pay for English books (and shipping), but in Iowa, I can live in the library (well, almost. They close at 17:30 on weekdays).

526195_3492651113352_1936245729_n (1)In Iowa, I drink (strong) coffee with my grandparents in the air conditioned four-seasons room overlooking their lake. In Slovenia, I drink Tetely black tea and watch Doctor Who with my British friends.

My grandpa played baseball. My dad played baseball. My mom played softball. My aunt coaches softball. My mom’s team won state. My Aunt’s team got second place. I rock climb.

There are no cliffs in Iowa. What does that make me?994175_10201262369539634_1536308990_n

I’ve been told I’m a Green: my first culture is Blue, my second is Yellow. This makes me Green. Knowing that though, doesn’t help when a form asks for my permanent address. They call me a Third Culture Kid because I’m from a Blue culture, I’ve grown up in Yellow culture, and mixing the two, I’ve created my own culture that doesn’t fully match Blue or Yellow.

They shouldn’t call me that though.

HPIM2691I might act green, but I’m not a Third Culture Kid.

I’m a 4CK, a child of four cultures. Yes, I’m from Iowa, I’ve grown up in Slovenia (it’s a wonderful place), and I like to drink root beer with my čevapčiči. But I am also a child of God who has blessed me with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ and who chose me in Him before the foundation of the world–that I might be holy and blameless before Him–and who, in love, predestined me for adoption as His daughter.

My permanent address is heaven (though that still doesn’t help when filling out forms).

If you, like me, are a Third Culture Kid and Missionary Kid, the same is true of you. You shouldn’t 526195_3492651113352_1936245729_nbelong in your home country. You shouldn’t belong in your host country. Even with other TCK’s, you shouldn’t feel quite at home. And that’s okay.

We were created for so much more.

We were created to have fellowship with Him.

I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of God’s calling and what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance for Christians in Christ Jesus.