The preparation room, bleak and barren, is eerily quiet save for the faint echoes of the ceremony that crawl over the winding halls. The bulbs of light pulse and line the walls like a heartbeat, alien shadows dancing slowly across the vanity I am seated at. Preset unsubtly at a split screen between a live mirror and an image of my Source, I am forced to regard the face that I don’t deserve to wear.
The woman stares back at me with her eternal beauty, rescued from age and preserved in pixels. Her eyes, distant, yet focused, seem to stare right at me, through the rifts of time. As though she knows, or knew, that they are where we differ.
I wear her cheekbones, her lips, and the shape of her olive face. My eyes, however, glowing icily blue, are like an improper rendition of her own; a side-effect of the cognition matrix that doesn’t even work. They are the most obvious flaw in the counterfeit that I am.
One of the Four Catalysts, my Source, and three others, sacrificed themselves two hundred years ago, facilitating the Great Divide. Or so it’s probably being told to the masses outside: A romantic endeavour of valiance and courage, allowing our ancestors to split from Old Humanity. To forge the true path as the Lu’um; one of the many terms bastardised, ironically, from Earth’s Latin.
Ship logs and transcripts, freed from the opaque mask of the poetic revision, paint the story differently: A generation ship comprising seventeen thousand people, under charges of illegal artificial-intelligence production and unethical experimentation into the human genome, fled the Solar System and its wars, never to return.
Over two thousand people died in the resulting revolt. People who objected to being permanently torn from Mars, from Earth and from Luna, and of them we emblazoned and immortalised four. The Four Catalysts, who not only contributed to the death, but enabled the generation ship to flee.
The only part of the two renditions that matches up, is the impossibility, the profound confusion, as to where we are now.
I take one last look at the face that burdens my life with its magnified glory and resultant expectations, and switch off the vanity. The approaching footsteps announce the time.
‘Elia, are you ready?’ Mornas pokes his large head into the room. A warm smile softens his dark features and contrasts his frame, which is only more defined by his metal fatigues. ‘I feel like we shouldn’t arrive late to this one.’
My lack of response jars him, and I feel bad for the lost look that draws across his eyes and mouth. ‘Is our brother here?’ he asks timidly of the barren room, poorly changing the topic.
‘I’ve not seen him,’ I shrug. ‘You’re right, though; we should be off. I can’t imagine Sheiid maintaining any semblance of sanity if his little heroes don’t show.’ I force a smile for the big guy, and his hearty chuckle almost makes it genuine. ‘Okay, Morn; white or black?’ I ask, holding up the two cloaks that I’d brought over earlier—the only two that Sheiid had endorsed.
‘I like the gold edges on the black one,’ he starts without confidence, probably assuming that this is a test. ‘But you’re already wearing black boots and pants and a black top, so…the white one? Is this a test?’
‘Not a test,’ I say, acknowledging the apparent bleakness of my entire outfit. ‘White it is. Thanks,’ I add with a smile to try and ease his dismay as I pull the white cloak, with its excessive embroidery and silver trim, over my shoulders.
‘The black one is good too!’ he winces with visible discomfort. ‘Wear the black one instead, if you’d rather. The trim matches your hair—’
‘I don’t care anymore,’ I interrupt, throwing my hands up before starting toward the door, collecting my hair into an ad hoc ponytail. ‘It’s only a Remembrance. Besides, they’ll all be too busy staring at our Sources to even remember we’re there.’ Mornas laughs awkwardly at my cynicism and then grips my shoulder all too slowly, hinting at the coming question.
‘How are you, El?’ he asks, as he always does. ‘We haven’t seen you much recently. Everything okay?’
‘Same old,’ I sigh, lacking the energy to pretend. ‘Life.’
‘Life? What about life?’ he presses, so far from the warrior that his Tasking demands him to be.
‘Just gravity,’ I say quietly, assuming he already knows the answer. ‘I’m just having some trouble with the comprehension side of things. I failed my last two modules.’ I wince with the admission, even though I’m not at all surprised.
‘I’m sure you can’t be struggling any more than the others. All we hear about is how impossibly hard it can be—I know I couldn’t do it, even with the enhancers!’ he says with conviction, unaware that, for the past two years, my body has been rejecting the drugs. ‘I saw you choreographing the other day, flowing and twirling ten metres off the ground! Rosa said you looked like a petal dancing in the wind!’
‘She did not,’ I say, shoving him. I know she doesn’t like me.
‘Well I was thinking it,’ he adds triumphantly, thumbing his chest. ‘Must mean something from a dumb Heedless, right?’ I shake my head at his cheesy grin and lean into him, resting my head on his neck. I smile for a moment, thankful that I’ve had someone so honest and kind to grow up with, until I inhale a hazardous amount of fragrance and choke on my throat.
‘By the stars,’ I splutter theatrically, ‘are you trying to attract wild animals? How many bottles of fragrance did you use?’ I laugh, recoiling from him as my eyes water from the pungent assault.
‘Really?’ Morn gasps, eyes wide. ‘Rosa—she said it was nice!’
‘Oh, I’ll bet she did,’ I say with a wink, still laughing. ‘Making sure nobody else hits on her man tonight.’
Mornas, head slumped, lets out an exaggerated groan. ‘Wait here, will you? I’m going to go wash quickly.’
‘No, you’re not,’ I correct, grabbing his arm. ‘I was only teasing. It smells good, honestly, and it’s not that strong; it will air out.’ He regards me through squinted eyes, and I try to hold my smile from bursting into a cackle as his large nostrils flare comically, sniffing the air with more aggression than I thought could be enacted by a nose.
‘Promise?’ he asks hopefully, his deep brown eyes belonging to the boy of my childhood, and in the moment we’re both six years old again.
‘I swear,’ I begin, a poor impersonation of Sheiid’s pomposity lining my voice, ‘on the luminosity of the stars and the raw strength of the planets and the infinity of everything in between, that you, Mornas Alias Freeman, do not absolutely reek of cheap perfume.’ His eyes narrow further, almost completely shut, as he dissects the origin of the sarcasm in my words. I lose the reigns on my smile and we both burst into laughter like we would as children.
‘Come on,’ I say, cheeks sore with smiles, ‘we really should get going.’
‘We really should, shouldn’t we?’ Jathe sings, grinning as he rounds the corner in his rehearsed walk-run that his tailored suit barely permits. ‘I’ve been waiting for you two for eight—almost nine—minutes,’ he rebukes. ‘However I’ll let it slide just this once, because I have missed you both far, far too much,’ he adds with arms wide as he reaches us.
‘Jathe!’ I squeal, squeezing both him and Mornas tightly, my face buried between their shoulders. As I realise how much I’d missed the three of us being together. Jathe, even taller since the last time I saw him, sags into us with a tiredness that he never had before.
Being Tasked as a Conclusor, he has spent every day for the past year learning how to coordinate fleets that our civilisation doesn’t have, and how to solve problems we’ve not yet encountered. To lead. It shows now in the lines under his eyes and the thinness of his frame. My mind wanders to memories of when we were younger, before being drafted into our respective Taskings.
Three false children, borne of reclaimed Source DNA and borrowed wombs, we were raised as siblings and we grew as friends. Sharing the burden of expectation that comes of being a Catalyst’s reincarnation. An Alias.
Being here with them, together once again, is exactly what I’d needed. The insurmountable guilt that is the shadow cast by my failure, even though my brothers both seem to excel in their own Taskings, is made small for now.
I feel a smile draw across my mouth and reach my eyes, and in that moment I know I will find a way to succeed. Not for my Source, or even the rest of the Lu’um, but for Jathe and Mornas. To make my brothers proud.
‘So, Mornas,’ Jathe begins quizzically, the genuine concern in his voice lifting our eyes to meet his own. ‘What on Bastion is that smell?’