Stars

Unchallenged
With glee agleam amid the flame
Unchallenged
All glows, glitters in vain

Pouring Rain Noir

Unimpeded
Winding, windswept, tumbling again
Unimpeded
Prancing, glancing–all in vain

Unhampered
Howling as the hissing sea
Unhampered
Wild in serenity

c65a8ae47e0aa6252ff677a1b8051a76

dpoojsCrimson bright
Scarlet white
Singing with the stars at night

Blackest ink
The stars do drink
Casting forth their ageless light

Then, bending back the blackness,
Like fiery bows of bronze
They claim the sky as their own
As those to light prone

And raining they reign
To scorch the earth
And living again
They find rebirth

NP9: Chosen|Termination

In the underwater fortress, the Maris, where the thirty youths chosen to restart the world reside, Aster has suppressed her grief over Micah’s death and is growing accustomed to her life as one of the Chosen.
(I changed Avery’s name to River because it was too similar to Aster and confused me continually).

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

I sit in the warmth of the Maris’ synthetic sunlight with sketchpad and pencils idle in my white, uniformed lap. ImageTilting my head back, I let the warmth spread over my face while my hair tumbles down my back and brushes my arms outstretched behind me. Laughter drifts across the auditorium and I see Ella splashing Michael near the pond and ducking with a playful scream as he tries to splash her back.

We have grown content in our underwater home—too content, too secure. I know this the moment I see River’s grave face as she approaches and kneels on the crisp grass with elfish grace.

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“You know my father put me here in the fortress?” River asked, head tilted to one side so that her hair fell in thin brown curls that spiraled nearly to her waist.

“Yes, I remember you mentioning something of the sort,” Aster responded cautiously, her interest thoroughly peaked. Since the failing of the life support systems, River had not once revisited the subject of her family or the events leading to her life as a Chosen.

“Well,” continued River dropping her eyes and brushing the grass gracefully with delicate fingers, “My father was a member of the Council when it first came together. In short, he supported the idea of ‘elite’ humans existing and giving humanity a fresh start through chosen youth though not the actual process since that involved extermination of the remaining ‘corrupt’ mankind.

“When the Council’s discussion of the matter escalated to action, it was too late for him to pull out. The least he could do was insure my security in one of the fortresses and prepare me as best he could for what lay ahead.”

Her eyes darted up to meet mine. I had never noticed the brilliancy of River’s eyes before. They shone large and green, emerald green, and thickly lashed. Just now, they bespoke a situation of extreme gravity. “We might not all make it to the surface. I know this because of my father,” she finished up evenly.

Aster furrowed her brows and leaned in to catch River’s every word, the blank sketchpad and pencil falling to the grass.

“The time of our residence in the Maris is nearly up. Before the computer releases us, it will examine us thoroughly searching for any faults or weaknesses. I’m telling you this, Aster, to caution you and because I think you’re probably the best here at interpreting people.”

Aster flushed slightly at the praise.

River placed a light hand on Aster’s knee and turned the fullness of her large green eyes into Aster’s face, “Just be careful and watch the others. If you see anything you think the computer might mistake for weakness or non-conformity, encourage them—like Micah would.”

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As the days slip together once more, River’s warning dims. I have no need of it though, I have grown content. The ins and outs of the Maris have grown familiar to me, it has developed from a prison into a watery home and my fellow companions from fellow inmates into family.

Ella, in all her perks and contrary character, speaks openly with me as only a sister can, and in her, I see a reflection of myself. River too I have come to know better—if anyone can truly and thoroughly claim to know her. Since his death, she has adopted me in Micah’s place as her companion and, though she doesn’t often talk unnecessarily, she seeks me out and together we enjoy either a silent walk ‘round the auditorium or a chat in some corner of the library. Her silence is deceptive. She says more than all of us with her few words.

And Bryce, though he still occasionally shatters the illusion that I know him through an unexpected action or serious word that reveals the hidden depth of his personality, I have come to enjoy his company in a wary but intrigued sort of way. That I didn’t correctly interpret him from the start combined with the occasional revelations concerning his personality intrigues me. I know and understand him better now than before, but our rare conversations still leave me wishing to know him more.

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It never rained in the Maris, but this day had a “rainy day” feel that sent Aster and Ella to the library in search of literary adventures and worlds to explore in companionable silence. The woes of a young heroine lay open before Aster as she sat cross-legged with her back nestled against a large bean bag. With a distracting creak, the library door swung open, stealing her attention.

Elena entered, a weary drag to the usually cheerful and charismatic medical genius. She raised a hand toward Aster in silent greeting. Pulling a large volume from the shelf, the dark-haired girl sat at the table and bent over the pages with a wide yawn.

Her interest in the heroine lagging, Aster studied Elena absently and let her thoughts wonder as to the cause of the usually joyous, Elena’s obvious weakness. Weakness? Fear reached out like a fist and gripped Aster. For whatever reason, Elena was worn-out, and the computer would certainly read this as a sign of weakness.

Abandoning the heroine altogether, Aster left Ella in the grip of a tale of her own and Elena bent over the outspread book before her, glossy brown hair falling over the table, cheek pressed against the inky pages, and eyes closed in silent repast.

Outside the library doors, Aster paused only a moment to quiet her mind and staunch the rising wave of panic. River, she would know what to do. Aster half-trotted half-walked toward the gym knowing the girl usually haunted the facility this time of day.

Arriving out of breath, Aster searched out River and, grasping River’s arm frantically, whispered, “Something’s wrong with Elena. Well, not wrong, she just seems tired and I was worried that maybe the computer might, you know, interpret her tiredness the wrong way…”

Aster’s words galvanised River in a way that surprised Aster. She had meant the words only as a pre-caution, an observation of potential danger.

“Stay here,” River commanded with a force and authority that piqued Aster’s curiosity and made her wonder if she had misjudged the urgency and danger of the situation.

Waiting only for Aster to affirm that she would wait, River sprinted not for the library but down the hall to Nathan’s door. Aster saw her knock and discuss urgently with the room’s occupant through the gym door as it swung shut. Something more than the possible termination of Elena in the far future was at stake.

With a sigh of resignation to not knowing, Aster sat on the mats and waited for River to return.

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Nathan was a fool to think we can deceive her. Aster is sharp and suspects something already which poses more of a danger than if she did know. I see the uncertain questions in her eyes as I rejoin her in the gym. Gritting my teeth, I tell her what I must and watch as her vision clouds in disbelief.

“But…she was only tired,” she whispers softly, still in shock over the news of Elena’s termination.

I cannot meet her eyes. She will know, she must know how much more is at stake here than the lives one or two of the Chosen. She passes a hand over her eyes and that small gesture of grief hurts me more than any physical pain.

I wish it did not have to be this way.

NP8: Chosen|Micah

In the underwater fortress, the Maris, where the council have stored away thirty chosen youths to restart the world, Aster and Bryce have just blacked out from the gas leak and are locked in the hall by the computer. 

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

Swirling fog, high pitched bleeping, bright lights. I shudder and gasp.

Voices shatter the fog and for a moment I feel as if I’m back in the hospital room where I first met the Red-lipped Woman and my destiny as a Chosen Youth.

“Shhh, easy Aster. Just breath.” Avery’s hazy form bends over me.

I jerk rapidly up into a sitting position. “Bryce?” I question, almost afraid of the answer.

“He’s doing well,” Avery responds comfortingly as she gently yet firmly pushes me back against the pillows.

“And Micah?” I persist.

“Just rest,” Avery admonishes without answering my question. “Please,” she turns her pleading eyes on me, filled with a meaning I can’t interpret, “don’t ask. Micah is…happy.”

Happy? What does that mean? Something is wrong. She’s concealing something from me. Or is she concealing it from the computer?

I don’t know.

I trust her though.

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Avery entered the infirmary room bearing breakfast and a bright smile, an unnaturally bright smile.

“Sleep well?” She asked cheerfully. Her eyes though, spoke in a different tone.

“Yes, I didn’t think I would sleep at all after being out for so long. Can you tell me now what exactly happened?” Responded Aster, her own eyes posing more of a question than her lips verbalised. The smell of eggs and toast wafted towards her from Avery’s tray, and Aster’s stomach loudly protested its lack of food.

Avery placed the breakfast tray across Aster’s lap, surreptitiously sliding forward the napkin with a few hasty words scrawled across it, and perched herself confidentially on the bed covers beside Aster.

She folded her hands, as Avery started on the eggs, and began her narration. “We watched you and Bryce miss the door. When it closed, we thought you guys were as good as gone.” She paused while Aster rapidly glanced over the note. Bad news. Danger with computer. Act unaffected. Avery lifted her eyebrows questioningly, and Aster nodded her understanding as she buttered the crumbly toast casually in spite of a deathly chill of fear creeping across her back.

“Then Nathan shows up and claims he can get the door open. He was all like ‘Opening a door? Psshhh! No problem.’”

Aster chuckled nervously at Avery’s imitation of Nathan and dripped egg yolk on the tray from her toast.

“I was disinclined to believe him,” Avery continued, “but we were pretty desperate, and he does have a way with locked technology. He fiddled with the door for a long time—almost too long. Then spoke some geek form of English with lots of long complicated terms that only Michael understood, and the two forced the door open. You must have just blacked out ‘cause otherwise you wouldn’t have made it. Your eyes were all red from lack of oxygen and you had a nasty lump on your head.” Aster lifted a hand tentatively to the tender bruise on her temple. “We brought you two straight to the infirmary and let the computer and Elena take care of you.”

Aster wiped her sticky, yolky fingers on the crinkled napkin. “And Micah?” She pursued even though she feared the answer.

Avery’s face clouded but her tone did not waver. “After we got you out, we looked for him in sections 03 and 04 without success. We already took a risk getting the first door open and were dealing with the gas we’d released in the auditorium. It was too dangerous to proceed.

“When the doors finally unlocked, we found him in the gym. Most of the gas was caught in sections 05 and 06, so when the gym sealed, it saved him in a way, cutting him off from the leak. He was too weak though. He would have been a drag on the community and he might not have survived anyway.” Avery’s expression was stony. “The computer took him,” she finished evenly, her eyes fixed intently on Aster as if she wanted to say more but didn’t dare.”

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I feel choked, like the gas is swirling back around me. Micah dead? Micah, who never judged, never lied, never put a front.

Micah? With his blue eyes crinkled up in a constant smile under his glasses and brown hair sticking every which way?

My stomach twists around my newly acquired breakfast and I feel the moisture welling up in my eyes. I shut them and squeeze the tears out. Avery puts her warm hand over my cold numb one as I grip the sheets, longing to rend them from end to end yet not daring for fear of the computer.

I hate The Council for what they’ve done to us, for what they are doing to us, for what they did to Micah.  

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That evening, Aster, still wearing a soft white infirmary uniform, leaned against the doorway from the infirmaryC-MicahDead staring out at the auditorium. She twisted her necklace around her fingers and let her thoughts wander, perusing the recent catastrophe and Micah’s death. In spite of Avery’s words, she couldn’t bring herself to believe Micah would not come whistling around the corner with a cheery smile and humorous story to share. However, the knowledge that he would not do so—and never would again—left her feeling slightly numb inside, as if she had been electrically shocked.

Voices echoed down the hall and caught her attention. She heard Avery’s hushed tones and Nathan’s blunt, matter-of-fact voice.

“At least tell her,” Avery implored. “If anyone can be trusted, she can.”

“Are you freaking kidding me? You don’t seem to understand what I’m saying,” Nathan responded, his voice louder than Avery’s, “No one can be trusted even if we know we can trust them. Besides, we’ve got Elena to worry about. Everyone who knows—even her—endangers it all that much more.”

The voices faded as Avery and Nathan entered the library, and Aster stood contemplating the strange conversation as she looped the necklace chain back and forth through her fingers. She’d been right. Avery did have a secret.

A sudden weight around her shoulders startled her as Bryce dropped a blanket around her.

“You still up?” He asked good naturedly. “Shouldn’t you be resting after resting all day and sleeping all night and being unconscious? I mean, just lying around waiting to be rescued is pretty hard work.”

She laughed without meaning to, but the joke sobered her as well. After Bryce’s openness during the gas leak, she suddenly understood him and recognised his joke as a way of covering his true feelings.

“I was just thinking about Micah,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“It’s odd. While he was still alive,” she choked a bit on this, the truth still catching up with her, “I kind of wondered how he made it in here. We’re all geniuses and super talented and athletic and he was just…Micah. Nothing wrong with him, it just never added up to me.”

“You mean, here we all are professional hackers, and extreme rock climbers,” Aster smiled at Bryce’s words in spite of herself, “while Micah trips over his own feet?”

“Mmhm. But it makes sense now—now that he’s…dead,” she bit her lip and stared up through the roof of the Maris into the black water rippling overhead. “Now that he’s dead,” she tried again, catching her breath, “I understand his purpose. I think, more than any of us, Micah was important and very special. He always, always sensed when I was down—which seems like all the time as I look back—and he didn’t pity my weakness, or judge me, or avoid me because I’ve been a sour, pessimistic hermit. He just sought me out and offered his company, made me laugh, cheered me up.

“He wasn’t trying to be anybody special. He was just a friend.” Aster’s voice cracked and the tears came spilling over now.

Bryce patted her awkwardly on the shoulder. “I think you’re right,” he whispered, his own voice hoarse.

NP7: Chosen|Entombment

In the underwater fortress, the Maris, where the council have stored away thirty chosen youths to restart the world, Bryce has just run back to the gym to help Aster escape the gas leak in the West Wing,and the two are running for the auditorium before the computer seals off the West Wing and traps them in the gas. 

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

            Something is wrong. I move as if in a dream with sluggish, foggy steps, like I’m wading through a miry pond of thick mud. One thing supports me. One steady hand lifts me up from the mud and carries me on.

I shake my head and the fog clears some. We are running, running from death.

“Sections 05 and 06 six sealed.” The calm woman’s voice permeates the fog and thrusts reality in my face, screaming at my weak billowy legs to lunge harder through the mire. The gas leak, the computer sealing off the West Wing, Bryce returning for me and lifting me out of the fog and out of the mud—these images spin through my head in brilliant still pictures, colliding and crashing amid the mist.

My knees give way, and I stumble, but the strong arm lifts me up.

Ahead looms the door out of the hall and the West Wing into the auditorium. Beyond it I see Avery and others beckoning us faster with fear in their eyes. As if in slow motion, the steel barriers slide together and cut off Avery from view. I hear my own voice crying for the doors to stop, to spare us from this slow death and airless tomb. With a thud they close, ignorant of my pleas. 

So close and unable to halt our momentum, we careen into them. My head slams against the cold metal and ringing drums through my ears with a mocking lilt.

“Sections 03 and 04 sealed,” chants the computer. “West Wing secure.”

Sealed and secure.

Our deaths are sealed and secure.

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“Aster, breath. You need to relax so you won’t use as much oxygen,” Bryce instructed as he fumbled with the control panel on the doors which obstinately bleeped LOCKED in large brilliant letters.

Aster un-tensed and slumped against the closed doors, her hand against the seam where they came together.C-locked

“The gas is thinner here than back by the lockers, so we’ll probably last longer. Maybe the doors’ll open before we…you know, suffocate,” said Bryce. Both knew the truth though. They would die before the doors opened.

Aster’s mind reeled from the strong smell of gas. She swept back the red curls clinging to her forehead and put a hand to her temple in an attempt to quell the ringing.

Bryce gently put a cool hand against the rapidly rising lump on Aster’s forehead. “That was a pretty nasty knock you took.”

Aster nodded, feeling cautious and weak.

He sat down next to her with his back against the door and gestured to the lock panel, his breath coming hard. “It’s pretty heavily protected. Of course it would be. I’m not entirely sure though, if—”

“Bryce?” Aster interrupted softly, her voice low and haunting in her own ears as it echoed off the door and down the hall.

“Yeah?” He deserted his half-finished sentence and turned his full attention to her as if his rambling had only been a distraction.

“Why…” Aster paused, feeling rather out of breath and unsure of exactly what she wanted to say. “Why did you come back for me? You could be out there safe and alive right now if it weren’t,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “for me.”

Bryce did not answer right away. Instead he studied the back of his hand and perused his thoughts as if he himself did not quite know or understand why. The air hung thick and heavy. That, and the knowledge they why would soon die, lent a confidential feel in spite of their past differences.

“Well, it’s like this, I have a sister, Jaclyn—had a sister,” he paused and cleared his throat. Aster held very still, afraid he would not go on.

“It’s not like you even remind me of her or anything—she didn’t look like you or act like you. She was very weak though. Born premature and all but she was the sweetest little girl. Totally oblivious to her own weakness and always endangering herself.”

Aster shifted uncomfortably. Was Bryce comparing her to his sister?

“We had another little brother or sister but my mom miscarried, and I guess that made me especially appreciative and protective of Jaclyn.” He rubbed his palms against his thighs and drew in a deep breath. “Plus, she was six years younger than me which automatically made me her big older-brother-guardian even though she was always dodging me and saw me as a typical brother who was nothing more than a threat to her dolls and stuff.

“I guess I got so used to feeling responsible for someone who rebuffed my protection that when I saw you arrive late—knowing you’d been sick from the injection and all—it awoke that big-brotherly desire to guard someone. And then the whole deal with agreeing to keep your secret about the necklace just enforced that and made me feel like I was looking out for you.”

Aster kept silent for a couple minutes. His openness shocked her and that she had somehow unwittingly taken the place of his sister shocked her even more. “You mean you miss your sister?” She finally asked haltingly.

He shook off the question with an uncomfortable laugh. “Well you know, who wouldn’t—”

“Really Bryce. You always act like it’s nothing when really it’s something,” she interrupted.

“Is that what I do?” He smiled wryly and leaned his head back against the door as if the position would allow more oxygen into his lungs.

Her eyelids fluttered. The silence was intoxicating. She felt tired and haggard but willed her mind to keep running. “Why is it you can talk about your sister but the moment I ask how you feel about her you laugh and brush me off?”

Bryce shifted, his breath coming in laborious ragged fragments. “It’s just not…not something I talk about.”

“Missing your sister?” Aster pursued in spite of a nagging desire stop fighting the urge to rest her lungs so she could slip into sleep, “Or how you feel? Honestly, nothing ever seems to affect you.”

Bryce was silent and for a moment and Aster began to fear. “It does though—does affect me, that is. I just don’t like to admit it to others,” he finally responded.

“To anyone at all?”

He contemplated this for a moment. “Barely even to myself.”

For a moment, Aster glimpsed a bit of Micah in Bryce’s expression. With the curtain of his nonchalance pulled back, she saw a young boy uncertain of the future and mourning for his sister. At the same time, however, Bryce’s face bore a strong contrast to Micah, and she found herself emphasizing him. While Micah had spoken freely of his hurt from the start and leaned on her and others, Bryce had been alone in his grief, alone and uncomforted, even by himself, so that the hurt and pain slowly grew and billowed, all compressed and unacknowledged inside of him.

Silence reigned and Aster’s thoughts began to run together. Slowly, her head dropped against Bryce’s shoulder and her eyelids fluttered shut.

“Aster!” he shouted, shaking her awake in spite of how weak he felt. “Stop this now! You can’t sleep. You won’t wake up.”

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It’s so sweet, the sleep—so peaceful and soft. Just as my mother used to wrap me in a feathery quilt, it wraps its arms around me now. So silky and subtle, I slip into its embrace, its bright, white welcoming embrace.

The shouting hurts my head, but I hear my name and so open my eyes. Bryce swims before my hazy vision, his forehead is damp and his eyes glassy. But how can this be? Bryce isn’t weak. He’s strong. He protects me. He said so. How can he protect me if he’s weak?

“Just keep your eyes open.” The words leave his lips in a pleading whisper but billow and echo strangely in my ears.

I try, but the sleep is strong. It’s just too easy to rest, to let my cramped muscles loosen and head fall back.

As I slide into the white light, I feel Bryce’s grip loosen. He is fighting the sleep too and finding it strong as I did. He can hold me up no longer. Sleep is sweet, I think as I fall. But pain follows as I meet the floor. I thought by giving into the rest I would free myself from pain, but there is worse than pain here.

I should have fought harder against the easy sleep.

It’s not white.

It is black.

Amidst the Mist

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Veiled from view, by clouds concealed
Brushing the heavens with jagged peaks ajar
Amidst the mist before my eyes they reeled
In hazy hues of fog and morning lore

Falling as a curtain, a warrior’s shield
It lifted watery walls and wailed
Their glorious heads in isolation wield
So cordoned off, en-coffined and en-veiled

But bow the clouds and fade the morning mist10268454_10203342748307803_2990886118812067806_n
In brilliant burning glory they disperse
Before the sun whom the peaks would kiss
And rise to light their heads with morning verse

All while the world beneath them sleeps
In dreamy dungeons of early morning’s grasp
Still, in splendour, above the peaks she keeps
Her fiery vigil till they should wake at last

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, tossing the 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.”