In this sci-fi visual novel, test your resolve by controlling the power to read people’s minds. Within a galaxy of terraformed planets, a secret war rages between two intergalactic agencies. One of them—ARCHON—is developing the technology to invade people’s minds. Its agents have already tyrannized a planet called Teballai, and hope to use their mind-reading technology to spread their power across the galaxy. A second organization—FOE (Freedom Organization of Elites)—wants to destroy ARCHON’s technology in the name of freedom. When a young FOE soldier (you choose the gender) named Blaire obtains the ability to read minds from an ARCHON experiment, she finds her loyalty torn between both sides. Whether Blaire helps the enemy or defeats them depends upon your use of her power.
Here’s a little vignette written for Quantum Conscience, my sci-fi visual novel releasing this summer. This scene happens years before the visual novel begins.
Korah yearned for sleep, but the silence of her lonely metal home seemed to ring in her ears, forcing her to listen to her turbulent thoughts.
For as long as she could remember, she had anticipated the day she would obtain her own Household. Any helot who served faithfully until the age of sixteen, proving her ability to fulfill the tasks of her Cypher, would acquire her own Household. She would stay alone in this small metal house until the age of twenty-one, at which point she would marry the man Terra chose for her. Until then she had five Terra-blessed years of solitude—years she had dreamed about every night at the factory dormitories, where she would listen to other kids squabble in the beds around her, or hear bugs and rats skittering restlessly in the walls. Once she had her own Household, she had promised herself, she would kill all the bugs and rats. She would keep everything clean—perhaps she would even decorate—and at night she would sleep deeply enough to remember her dreams.
Now that she had her own Household, she did in fact keep everything clean. She set out traps for small rodents and squashed every bug she came across. The peaceful quiet within her little dwelling surpassed all she had imagined, until it became something terrible. She had not expected loneliness to become a new monster.
She could always hear the wind shoving against the thin metal walls of her structure, hissing through the cracks as if attempting to speak. Sometimes Korah thought she discerned words in the wind’s voice, but not enough to make sense, like a sputtering old woman missing most of her teeth. Other times she heard the sounds of gorgans walking down the road outside: their large metal paws scraping against stone, their eye-scanners humming as they searched for helots breaking curfew.
Tonight, she shifted from side to side in her tiny wooden cot and wondered how long she’d been trying to sleep. Minutes? Hours? When she closed her eyes, the monotonous events of her day replayed in her mind: arriving to work at the factory, measuring fabric, then cutting, folding, and marking it for sewing… over and over again, just like yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, ever since she was seven. All of it melted together into an intangible mass, an ugly span of eternity that stretched all directions. It felt like enough to drive her mad. She would have given anything to be surrounded by the noisy children and nasty rodents of the factory dormitories, if only to distract her from the agony of inner reflection.
When a loud knock shook her front door–once, twice, then a third time–she shot up in bed and briefly stopped breathing. She felt a moment’s relief from her own dark thoughts. But she feared that whatever person might bother to knock on her door in the middle of the night would be far more dangerous than mere cogitation. If it was a helot breaking curfew, then she should not offer refuge, or she would be punished as severely as the perpetrator. If the visitor was Militar, such as a Cypher-G or O, then he must be here to punish or restrain her somehow. He might even want to take her to a synch-station and pilfer her memories, a process that often involved random selection. Every possibility seemed horribly grim.
“Open up! I SAID OPEN UP! I am a Cypher-P, and if you do not obey me I’ll have you flogged in the street!”
Without wasting another breath, Korah scrambled out of bed and pulled on her robes. A Cypher-P: a Politician! That was even worse than a Militar. Cypher-Ps had authority second to none but the Q himself, the dictator of all Teballai. Why would a Cypher-P bother himself with her Household? Had she passed him on the street and met his gaze on accident, or done something else to offend him? She would have remembered. She couldn’t imagine what the reason must be, but the possibilities made her heart pound with terror.
“So help me Sol, I’ll break down the door and I’ll—”
She swung open the door before he could finish his sentence.
She was not supposed to look into a Cypher-P’s eyes. But tonight, given the circumstances, she couldn’t help herself. The tone of his voice suggested he would unleash his anger upon her, one way or another. So she gawked helplessly at the young man in her doorway, as if upon her fate, and what she there saw surprised her.
He was close to her age, maybe sixteen or seventeen, his body tall and slender. If not for his station and apparent distress, he would have not have seemed intimidating at all. He wore fine clothes: an embroidered shirt with puffy sleeves, a short cloak festooned with gold loops, slim trousers and embroidered boots. As a tailor, Korah could not help but admire such beautiful clothing. Nearly every single day she worked on drab tunics and robes. Only on very rare occasions would she assist with the creation of a truly fine garment, usually for someone important enough to work in the Q’s Tower, like a Cypher-P or honored D.
A gorgan stood on the street behind him, a silent guardian, its jagged metal body reflecting the city watch-lights like tiny daggers of light. But its red eyes stared into the shadows of the street; the fearsome robot did not seem concerned with Korah in the slightest. If Korah didn’t already know that gorgans felt no emotion, she might have thought it bored.
“I’m looking for a Cypher-P named Blaire,” snapped the young man. Korah turned back to him, trying to avoid his gaze this time, but not quite succeeding. His brown hair was disheveled, his face red and puffy. His voice sounded dry and tight. His whole body trembled, even as his fists clenched into bulging knots. “Did you hear me, drudge? I’m looking for Blaire P. Shorter than me, blonde hair, blue eyes, smirks like a bastard.”
“I… I am sorry, Master P, I have not seen this person. Even if I had, I would not remember, because I’m not to look at a Cypher-P’s face.”
“Don’t you dare lie to me, you miserable drudge! I’ve knocked on every helot’s door for miles. How could none of you have seen Blaire at all? How could someone so memorable vanish without a trace?”
The last word was almost a scream, his voice cracking in the middle. The gorgan turned its large metal head towards him slightly, but could not find a threat, and thus looked ahead again. But Korah saw the threat–one a gorgan could not. This Cypher-P was about to burst into tears. His lips quivered, his eyes crinkled up, and he held his breath as if to repress the explosion. She feared the outburst would only be more violent as a result.
She must have been mad, for she suddenly opened her door wider and said, “Would you like to come in?” She didn’t know what she was thinking. She must not have been thinking at all. How else could she explain the fact she felt sympathy for a Cypher-P?
“I… I…” He tried to protest. But he failed. He was falling apart at the seams, Korah thought. He was a Cypher-P. He had wielded incredible authority his entire life. He spent time every day with the dictator of the entire planet. He could make helots bend to his every whim and desire. He could search their memories, demand their labor, or even kill them without consequence. But tonight, none of that seemed to matter. He was just a young man searching for his friend.
So he stepped into her house, then he burst into tears.
That was the night Korah first met Veramus.
This is another little scene I wrote as backstory for the characters of “Quantum Conscience,” my current project. Blaire is the main character. For the next few weeks or more, my vignettes will probably focus on the different planets and characters of “Quantum Conscience” (unless someone requests I write a vignette for a different story, and please feel free to do so!). I find it both fun and useful to write little scenes like this on the sidelines of the main story. A great deal might be left unexplained in each vignette, but such is their nature. I hope you find them interesting all the same!
We stood on a balcony of the Q’s tower, watching night smother the city far below. We were only fifteen years old, but felt that the world was ours for the taking. We were not far from wrong.
A fog hovered over the world, softening the edges of the stony landscape beneath us. Where the smoky plumes brushed light, colors blossomed in the mist: red, yellow, green. At the time I did not consider it unusual. Strange fumes drifted endlessly from the rocky depths of Teballai’s surface, harmful to breathe, but beautiful to watch. If we forgot to take our medicine—or, in the case of the less fortunate, could not obtain any—we developed raucous coughs and bloody noses from the toxic gases. But Veramus and I always took our medicine, because we were class Cypher-P. We had everything we desired, because we were too stupid to realize we should have desired more.
The winds bombarded our bodies, harder than usual. Our cloaks flapped against our torsos like furious wings. I took a swig of korkal. The bitter spirit burned down my throat and punched me in the chest. I let out a squeal of unrestrained delight.
Veramus only glared at me, his mouth a flat slash across his face. I watched his long dark hair whip around his head as if trying to yank free of him, and this made me laugh harder.
“Blaire, we should get inside,” he grumbled.
I barely heard him over the rising gale. Just for the crux of it I pretended I couldn’t hear him at all. “What was that?”
“I said we should go inside!” He spoke louder now, the muscles of his face tightening and making his forehead bulge. “Looks like we might get a wind storm.”
“Please Terra no,” I groaned. When wind storms struck, everyone had to go into their homes, shut all the doors and windows, and not come out until two days after the storm had passed. We depended on mechanical creatures called gorgans to run errands and clean up the city until it was safe for re-entry. The Q’s tower was a sturdy stone construction, so I never feared for my life. Rather, I dreaded the impending boredom of house arrest. “If that’s the case let’s stay outside for as long as we possibly can!”
“Hacking fool,” hissed Veramus. He might have thought I couldn’t hear him. But I did. And although Veramus often fell into grumpy moods, I rarely heard him sound so venomous. “You’ve had too much korkal. If these winds get any stronger they’ll throw you off the balcony.”
“Oh! I’ve always wanted to fly.” Laughing, I took another gulp of korkal. Then another.
“Idiot!” He made no attempts to hide his fury as he grabbed my bottle, ripped it from my fingers, and flung it off the balcony.
I watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the glass flew far over the city, driven by wind. “That’ll hit someone.”
“As if you ever pause to think of the consequences!” He was yelling at me now. I stared at him in a state of helpless perplexity. His long, angular face was nothing but a series of sharp lines, slicing me from afar. “You can do whatever you want, and somehow you always get away with it. Why?”
“Veramus, what the crux are you talking about?” The wind blew furiously now. I had to grip the balcony railing to keep my footing. Somehow, Veramus held nothing and stood as sturdily as the tower itself. “You’re a Cypher-P just like me,” I reminded him. “We can do whatever we want.”
“That’s not what I mean. The last test. How did you pass it?”
“The last test!” He reached over and grabbed the front of my tunic, pulling me closer. In one sense I was grateful, because he provided an anchor in the wind. But his fingers tightened the collar of my tunic around my throat, and his dark eyes drilled into me without mercy. His hair lashed me like dozens of tiny whips. “I studied for months. Trained my mind to harmonize with the machine and enter the program. You forgot about it until the day before, and even then, you ran off to play pranks on the O’s instead of training. Then you got the best score!”
“Who cares?” I wriggled a little, wishing to escape his grip, but realized that the wind would snag me if Veramus let go. I reached out and grabbed his tunic in return, a hand on his shoulder, like a brotherly gesture. But my fingers dug in as sharply as his, making him wince. “The Q wants us to harmonize with a hacking computer program. Who gives a shit? Maybe your problem is that you take everything too seriously. You make it so hard to have fun sometimes. Maybe you’re just a tight-ass and that’s never going to change.”
A strange look came into his eyes then. The wind stole my breath away. I’d never seen an expression like that on his face before. He looked at me as he might look at a dumb peasant on the street. No… worse. Truly, I thought he might throw me throw me off the balcony and be done with it.
Then his gaze shifted, and I realized he wasn’t looking at me anymore. He stared up into the sky. His eyes continued to widen, then his mouth dropped open slowly. “Blaire… look!”
I followed his gaze to the sky.
Something had changed. It took me a moment to realize what. The sky looked so different I almost didn’t recognize it. The fog had cleared. Beyond lay a vast expanse of endless darkness. But not just darkness. There were specks of light, hundreds—maybe thousands—of them, twinkling across the abyss. Here and there I saw larger orbs, with a hint of color, hovering as if on the edge of existence.
I felt dizzy. Veramus must have, too, for we clung to each other desperately, staring at the beauty above us in a state of terrified awe.
“What is it?” gasped Veramus.
“The night sky?” I said dumbly.
“Yes, but… those lights… that darkness… I feel as if it goes on forever. And it’s not empty.” I felt his heart pounding against his ribs.
“It’s amazing,” I agreed.
Then the wind surged, howling so loudly now we could no longer hear anything else, and we both began to fall.
Everything spun. My limbs flailed. My legs scrambled. Veramus and I clutched at each other. Fingernails raked across the stone floor. One moment I thought I was falling off the balcony—either to impale myself on the stones below, or somehow fly up into that endless expanse hanging above us. The next I saw walls around me, felt a door in my grasp, and noticed Veramus bracing his body against mine. We both grit our teeth and pulled with all our might, until I saw sparkling lights against my eyelids like the strange dots of the night sky.
Finally the door shut, sealing us in the tower, and we collapsed upon the floor.
For a long time we just lay there, catching our breath. The wind howled through the door, as if with angry curses, banging against the rock as if to break through and exact its revenge.
Then Veramus and I looked at each other. And for some reason I could not explain, grins burst across our faces.
“See?” I laughed breathlessly. “If we hadn’t stayed out that long, we never would have seen that.”
“Yes.” His eyes spun as he looked at me. “That was truly amazing. But what does it mean? I never thought there was anything above us other than the evil eye of Sol. Are there other forces of power out there?”
“You’re doing it again!” I cried, but shook my head fondly. “Don’t think about it so hard. Whatever’s in the sky, it’s pretty awesome, but has nothing to do with us.” I punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Now let’s find some more korkal!”