We don't understand the world we're living in.
This is not a philosophical quote, nor a sophisticated attempt at looking interesting or inteligent, not even an attempt at telling you I'm living a life that doesn't let me get bored. When I say we don't understand this world... is because we really don't understand it.
We see that eternally clouded sky and we wonder if there's anything at the other side. Ancient writings tell there are thousands of stars but, just like the gods those same writings describe, we can't say we believe it without actually seeing it.
We are born in Olvej, we learn math, linguistics, the little story we have, we are taught fighting, working too, and then we are released free to the open world. We do not see our parents again for many years unless we pay a big amount of money. I'm not against that, resources here are scarce and traveling to the other continent is very expensive.
When we turn sixteen we are brought to Nelvo to work, crossing that unending, almost dead ocean where everything, everything besides the blue cruise that carries us, is tainted in different shades of gray.
Do not get it wrong, we are not slaves. All of this is... mostly voluntary. We are taught since we are kids that there's really not another alternative. When the sea behind us breaks into waves we ask ourselves if things are going to take a better turn during our generation, but we never do so with hope.
Now... ¿Why do I say we do not understand this world? ¿Why do I say so so pessimistically? That's because of the giants of metal.
"Aria, stay focused."
Those gigantic pillars of metal of a kilometer in circumference buried in the earth, of an unknown lenght. We only know they are taller than the highest gray cloud, and they are so deep our old sensors can't determine how much.
When I touch one of them with the palm of my hand and I look above, I can almost feel all the story of the old world in my fingertips. Science people say they must be thousands of years old, or maybe hundreds. I would love to know how many exactly. When were they constructed, by who and why. We explore and explore all the time, and we have been doing it for years, and we still know nothing about these pillars.
I press a button in the communicator in my chest as I look up at the clouds.
"It is starting to rain."
"Are you going back now?"
"No. There are some caves here. I think I'll explore some in order to avoid the rain."
"Transport will return to Derim pillar in six hours. Be sure to come back in time."
"Yes, don't worry."
When the rain hit the ground, I was already inside a cave. I leave my backpack by a side, along with an emergency beacon and the anti-visions just so I can take off the neuro-spiritual protector helmet. It's of no use indoors, since we are not affected by Vera rays.
I let out a sigh as I see the raindrops and I move aside those same braids that always ends up covering one of my eyes when I take my helmet off. Braids, it is all braids. All of my red hair is combed into small, thin red braids. Truth is, almost no one wears long or untied hair. The products you need to mantain it in a good shape are expensive and only the rich can afford them. Simple workers like me have shampoo stockpiles we use in special events or parties. It is sad, yes.
As I turn around to see the insides of the cave, I follow the protocol and the first thing I do is turning on my light. Dirt walls, nothing new, except... there's concrete up ahead. Hm, seems like I found some ruins. I wonder if they have been explored before...
Anyway, I pick up the beacon and the anti-visions and advance thorugh the darkness and the sound of the rain. I put the beacon in my pocket, I set the light in the neck of my jacket, check the acceleration speed of the anti-visions rod... and then it begins.
It's not usual for it to begin so soon, but... but...
Ugh... I swear... I haven't made ten meters into the cave yet and... my head, my head hurts...
I have never explored a cave where the SSS affected one so darn quickly, it was almost instantly. My fingertips tremble, my spine feels cold, an irrational feeling of anguish and grief clouds my spirits... I don't want to keep going. I don't want to go deeper into this cave. Nothing good is going to come from this, I will keep trapped. I shouldn't play with this, so many people must have died here... I'm frightened, my chest feels so, so heavy. I think I'm hearing voices, or maybe it's just me. ¿What's wrong with the air? ¿Is it turning thicker? My light isn't working, or maybe it is. There's a beep in my ears, I know they are talking about me. They are telling me to go away. They grab me by my shoulders and push me away, and they tell me they are going to take me with them if I keep going. They don't fear me, they just hate me. They blame me, I should be in their place. I'm not welcome, I'm not welcome, I'm not welcome, I'm not welcome, I'm not welcome, I'm not welcome, I'm not-
I snap for around half a second, just when tears are beginning to fill my eyes and I take the ether inhaler from the top-right pocket of my jacket. Breath, breath, breath... just three times. Each dose contains 7 milligrams, and that three times is 21, so... better, better...
I rest my back against the rock, and I wipe the tears with my handkerchief, resting until I feel calm enough to keep going. It's all good, no one here is going to hurt me, and I'm not here to hurt anyone. This is their place, and this is my place. As long as I remember that, I'll have no problems. I don't know when I dropped the light, but I pick it up and I check on the cave's depth. The dirt, the stone and the concrete at the end. I advance and advance. I don't feel the SSS symptoms anymore, but the air is almost unbreathable.
Soul Stealing Syndrome. It happens to any person that gets near to an area with high Soul Consumption Factor readings. Anguish, pain, grief, infinite negative thoughts and feelings and, if that person is left alone, death, almost always due to induced suicide.
So many mysteries, so much we don't know but so much we want to know it all...
¿Who can judge us? We live on the corpse of an advanced humanity that met its end. We are what's left and we barely know what we are against.
I'm now in the limit that separates the concrete from the dirt. I don't think I'll be able to communicate later, so...
"Aria to Otzar. Aria to Otzar."
"Did something happen?"
"I'm heading into a cave. The SCF lectures are extremely high and there's no beacon at the entrance"
"Derim is the less explored area in the west zone, Aria. I get it you want to leave your mark, but be careful. We don't know what you might walk into. Did you suffer SSS?"
"Yes, right when I stepped in..."
"That's too soon"
"I'm walking into an area made of construction material. I might lose the signal"
"It seems like you found some ruins. You're going to get there, check the inside, place the beacon and go back to the pillar, alright?"
"Yes, yes, I know."
"Good luck, Aria."
Just some steps ahead and... the light in my communicator goes from blue to red. Well, I'm alone from here onwards. Just like them.
I walk, walk, going on... and I get close enough to the wall at the end to recognize it is in fact a corner, and the corridor turns right just ahead of me.
Such a bad feeling. I'm pretty sure the cave didn't look that big from behind to have a complicated system of corridors and those things, so...
Yes, as I peak over the corner I find some metalic stairs that make a lot of noise everytime I step on them. Clank, clank, clank, clank, clank. My steps resonate loudly and, even if there's no echo, I feel like they are being perpetuated in time. I can see what my light illuminates ahead, and it only confuses me more.
It's a double metalic door. It's big, not gigantic, but it's of no normal size either. I stand in front of it and then I look behind. There's no thing. Not a sign, not a word, not a hint. Just the stairs, the dirt, the concrete... and in front of me, the door and its rust.
"Light, charged. Inhaler, charged. Anti-visions in good state. My status... SSS symptoms supressed by the ether. Please, let there be nothing by the other side, please, please..."
It is funny, but all those urges to be the first person to discover some ruins or find some lost artifact fade away when the danger that it carries is present. Right now, I just want to find a dead end to go back home and end with this leaving a beacon behind. I'll get paid just enough and I'll come back without having done anything relevant. But that's not gonna happen.
There's no doorknob, so I just push the door and, surprisingly, it opens without much strenght. At the other side...
There's a body. A skeleton that must have been lying there who knows for how many centuries without returning to dust yet. It still has some pieces of cloth over it, so it's easy to tell it was some kind of security guard. It's sitting, with its back against the wall and an artifact by its side. I have no time to stop and give it a better look, there's something more important.
I look around. It's not a big room. There are reamins of desks and similar furnitures, there's also ancient technology and some lights on the walls and the ceiling. It's like... a reception room. There are more doors ahead, and they have some kind of scaner by their side, as if some kind of registy was needed to step through them. So weird...
"This guard... was all alone..."
I try to free my heart from any kind of feeling, they attract them. Not sadness for the guard, nor pain for its lonely death, not fear for his eternal pressence, nor anguish for that rest he never got.
I raise the anti-visions in front of me. It's a rod made of some extremely resistent polymer coated with a layer of transparent steel. I don't know how it works, but I know how to use it. Yes, I know how to use it.
I press on the blue button with my thumb and the machine starts working. Something begins spinning inside of the rod at an amazing amount of cycles per microsecond. I have to held it strongly for a couple of seconds because it needs to stabilize, but soon it stops and... I can barely sense a small vibration at the tip of the rod. When it is on, some small lights placed all along the rod's "edge" are excited from the vibration. They seem to be activated at some specific frequency. The thing is, when the lights are on, they are displayed in a 360° radius. And then... visions can be seen.
I knew it. This situation, this place, the way the skeleton was guarding the doors... there's no way there wasn't a vision right here. The guard, or its vision, is standing by his body, looking down at itself as the blinking red lights coming from the anti-visions let me make out its silouette. I don't want to attack it. I don't want to fight, I don't like fighting visions. I will just... avoid it. It doesn't seem like it realized I'm here, and that's both thanks to my concentration and the ether. I'll pick one of the doors and I'll go just a bit further. At least I have just confirmed this place was still active until the Separation.
I walk by its side. I could almost say we even grazed each other. But it is not like I could feel it. One cannot feel the visions unless they assault one. The only thing you can perceive from the visions is the SSS.
A vision is a soul. The inner being, the very essence of a person who died in the Separation and remained attached to this world. As for today, it is believed that 8.000.000.000 visions have been seen in the whole world in the last 200 years. Of course, there are many more visions than living humans nowdays, and it is impossible for us to know the exact number of visions wandering the Earth. When the anti-visions detect them... they look hollow. They are humanoids with barely distinguishable gestures between themselves, and they... how to say it... the white sheet that seems to form their skin looks like it has nothing underneath. While not under the effects of the ether, just looking at a vision in person up this close is enough to put someone in the worst of the SSS states.
I took the door at the left. It wasn't closed, but as I crossed it...
"Ah, the light..."
My lantern died. I didn't get to see what there was inside.
"So weird. I know it's charged. Besides, all of my equipment is checked before I leave the base..."
I smack it a couple of times, but it's of no use. This has never happened to me before. Without dwelling too much on it and just to get a bit more information about my surroundings, I raise the anti-visions so the small red dots illuminate the whole room, but-
Visions. A lot of them. Way too many. There are so, so many, that I have never seen this amount of them in my entire life. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred. I can't count them. They come and go in-between the walls of a room I can barely appreciate. No, I just cannot see anything about the room besides the high ceiling. The visions are monopolizing all the red dots. I want to leave. I want to run away. I need. I need to go. There are too many. I'm scared. No, I'm not scared. I'm frightened. Totally frightened. My chest is burning. I... I want to cry. Am I sad? I want to scream. Why? Why did this have to happen? What did we do wrong? Who did we anger? I'm... I'm crying, but I can't stop looking at the visions. They are crying too. They are crying even more than myself. They hurt, I know they are suffering. They can't stand this anymore, and they can't even distract themselves from the pain. I want to let myself fall on the ground and hug myself. Someone please come pick me up. Someone please come and save me. Help. Help! I'm alone!! I'm all alone!! TAKE ME OUT OF HERE!!! I NEVER ASKED FOR THIS!!!
A-A vision turned around to me. Its coming closer. Its ghostly steps are not to be heard. I don't know when it happened, but I'm sitting on the ground, holding my legs to my chest. My whole face is wet... ah... I must have fell because of the SSS. The SCF must be so elevated not even the ether is able to prevent the symptoms. I feel terrible. I shouldn't, I really shouldn't , but... I take the inhaler and I use it another three times.
The vision stops right in front of me. It's tall, of around two meters tall. It looks down at me... but it doesn't attack me. I think the ether worked, but I'm now overdosed. This means that if I stay here for a long time the ether is going to cause an opposite effect and I'll find myself in a very big problem.
The vision doesn't see me anymore. I stand up, check on the anti-visions as I wipe the tears with the other hand... and then I stab the specter in front of me with the rod. The vision disappears, it's not targetable by the red dots anymore. This, we considerate is the death of a vision, although we can't be really sure about it. I walk through the dark, inexplorable room, killing any vision that blocks my path. The others don't even react to this. No, visions only react to feelings, and right now I'm behaving like a machine. I hate ether overdose, I feel so... inhuman...
And I finally find a wall, but at the sides I see nothing but more and more visions. I walked... hm... maybe around a hundred meters. It is still called a room if it is this big? I sigh out of some artificial frustration and, as I turn left, two events occur at the same time. Something touches my foot, and the light goes back on.
"It can't be..."
Corpses. Hundreds of them. All of them locked in some gigantic, insipid chamber without exits and just a couple of vents. There's nothing inside here, nothing except all the skeletons. There are big ones, small ones and medium ones. There are as many clothes as skeletons and also a lot of bags and stuff like that. I don't feel any surprise, the ether doesn't let me. I look down... and the thing I kicked was one of said skeletons. It's wearing the same clothes as the guard from before, so I think it was its partner. I crouch by its side...
"This thing... yes, this is the same artifact the other guard had. Judging by the shape... I think it is a weapon. Oh, right. It is a pistol. We were taught in history classes that when the Separation happened weapons still functioned using gunpowder. This must be one of those... Right, it's a valuable artifact, I'm taking it with me. Ah, I didn't bring my backpack. Well, then I'll use the inner side of the jacket..."
No doubt, this discovering is going to leave a deep mark in the books, so I might go rich right after this exploration ends. I should try to understand this place a little bit better before I leave. Security guards, all kind of persons locked in the same place in one big chamber made of concrete... a bunker? Sounds logical...
I walk... and there are many, many valuable artifacts I could take with me. Most of them in the clothes of the dead. There's also a lot of archaic technology, but that is of no use to us. We don't have the means to access that old equipment. All that information was lost in the Separation. There are couple of guards more. And... this one... has something different... Oh. Oh!! Now this is a good finding! It's a data storage device. It's not the analogic type like the ones we always find, those we cannot access, this is an engraved acrylic plate. We use laser graven over acrylic to record our important data. But this also means that technology is actually way older than we thought! Amazing, truly amazing!
Of course, I keep the plate.
"Alright, I don't think I'll find anything better than this. I should set the beacon and leave."
Ah... such an amazing discovery. No doubt. Not a single doubt, this is going to be talked about everywhere. When was it the last time someone found a bunker used during the Separation? I dunno! But I am sure it was very long ago! Besides, there's still a lot to explore in this cave, and if they sent more exploration groups and they find interesting stuff that will only enlighten my name even more. And besides! I have this plate that was owned by no less than a guard! Who knows what kind of mysteries regarding the Separation could it solve?!
Separation. That is how we call the event that almost wiped out humanity as a whole. We don't know the details, but we do know what happened to those humans: they souls were ripped out their bodies as if taking the pit out of a peach without damaging the fruit. They all died instantly, but none of their souls left this world. They still wander around the place they died in the form of visions, without a purpose or a destiny, just existing for the sake of existing. What a horrible fate. Now, about those who survived the Separation and why the did so, there are many theories, but nothing certain. The only thing we know for sure is that all the survivors were still children, so it's highly possible that had something to do.
"But it's still weird, because an awful lot of kids died in the Separation too. I wonder what factor decided... no, I don't care about that right now."
As I walk back towards the door with a big smile on my face, I can only think in the renown and the money I'll get once I place the beacon by the entrance and give this cave some cool name. I might even get enough money to go visit my parents in Olvej. Yes, that would be fine. But, I wonder, how should I name this cave? Hm... I was never good for this...what about...
My left hand rushes to my face and my fingertips trace the line that my lips form. Yes, I'm smiling. But I shouldn't be able to smile. I'm overdosed on ether. This means-
And right then, an overwhelming sense of fear strikes my chest like a big, heavy hammer.
I wasted too much time, and now the ether is working backwards. I won't suffer from SSS, but I'll get highly emotional and because of that...
". . ."
Visions turned to me. All of them!
I run. That's all I can do. Even if the anti-visions can kill a ghost with a single swing, there's no way I could fight all of these visions all by myself.
Desperately, I run like crazy, erasing a vision a time with each step I make. They are not fast. In fact, they are really slow, but there are just too many of them. Anyway, this discouraging terror I feel is a byproduct of the ether overdose and nothing else, because I wasn't that far from the door to begin with.
And so, I apparently end with the pain of another six visions before I reach the door . I kick it open and then close it behind me, getting out of that horrible room, stinking of death and sorrow. Back in the reception room.
Vision never really chase anybody, they can't get too far from the place they died. No, we don't even know the reason behind this. There's just so much we don't know...
There was... there was another vision here before. Yeah, the one belonging to this guard right here. But I can't see it anymore. Maybe... yes, that must have happened. My emotions must have attracted it, and I killed it along with the others.
"Well, that only makes things easier..."
I'm not in danger anymore, so I take a minute or two to rest. Yes, I can now properly feel the overdose. My hands tremble, and I can alternate my whole mood in a matter of seconds just by thinking about this or that. Such an awkward instability, it is like going dark on a roller coaster: free falls can be terrible and they are only worse when you can't see them coming.
I lean in to inspect the corpse, but it has nothing useful besides the weapon, and I don't plan on taking two of them. Nope, it's always a good idea to leave good stuff behind. That way, the following scavengers will come here, find valuable things and say 'wow, I went and explored that cave discovered by Aria and I found this artifact that costs a lot of money, that girl made an amazing discovery'. Yes, yes, it's always a good idea to feed the dogs.
"Good. Nothing else to do here."
I leave. And when I walk past that double door the last vision is waiting for me.
It is literally waiting for me, sitting on the third step, looking at me.
Fear. A stunning sense of trepidation blocks all of my joints. And I'm still overdosed. It should attack me, but... it doesn't. It just stares at me. It focuses on my anti-visions as if saying 'are you going to kill me with that thing?'. Not only it is highly unusual not to be attacked by a soul, but I have never seen a sitting vision. I stay still and quiet. I don't know its intentions. No, I don't even know if visions can have such a thing as an intention.
When it doesn't find my weapon interesting anymore, it focuses on my face.
Now that I think about it... this vision was also staring at its own corpse before. I don't know if this is an anomalous behavior or not, but I have never seen it before.
I can't stay here all day... I haven't seen my watch, and despite knowing it hasn't been six hours, I want to reach the pillar as soon as I can so the transport... ah... what I really want is to leave this damn cave right now.
So I walk up the stairs.
With my first step the vision straightens up its stance, as if meditating if it should stop me or not, but with my second step it just stands up and goes back to the reception room.
What was all that? I... I don't care anymore. It's not my problem. I'll leave it to the investigation team that come right after I send my report. Now I just... go up the stairs, turn on the corner, follow the corridor...
Ah, I can see the exit up ahead. Just a bit more and... here, right where the dirt meets the concrete. I place the beacon and I turn it on. And this light fed by some special batery is said to last at least a thousand years, but I don't know if that's true.
And the light in the communicator goes back to blue.
"Aria to Otzar, Aria to Otzar"
"How did it go, Aria? Did you find something?"
"Eh... you could say so..."
"You sound happy."
"Hehe, I'll write the details in the report."
"Should I asume you did find something worth of being registered?"
"Tell them to get ready an investigation team, and a liberation team too."
"Liberation team... where there many visions?"
"Yes, way too many."
"Congratulations, Aria. You succeeded. Are you going to name the cave or should I leave that to the following team?"
"Of course I'll be the one naming it."
"Call it... 'Aria #1'."
". . ."
"Roger. Go back to the pillar and wait patiently. Don't fall asleep and don't forget your helmet again."
"Don't say 'again' as if it was an everyday thing it just happened once and-"
Ah, she hung up.
- - - - -
That... was more than a month ago. As it was to be expected, it was a big discovery. Later investigations confirmed the place was being used as a bunker solely for the Separation, which also confirms something had alerted humans that a biblic catastrophe was to come. A danger they couldn't stop with their guns. Something... they could only pray against.
I got a lot of money, the cave was named after me and right now I'm on the deck of an enormous cruise, traveling to Olvej to visit my parents. Surely, they have already heard the news and they are waiting for me.
They didn't want to tell me what was in that acrylic plate, I guess... no, it's not important. I don't care. It's not my problem and I won't find out no matter what I do.
The sky at noon is so gray, and so the water below me is so greyish. The eternal fog in the horizon is just as gray, and only the reflection of my hair gives some color to what my leaden eyes can see when I look down. I always wonder... if things are going to change in my generation or in the next one.
Change... I don't know if I want them to change, but I want to know more. Understand the visions a tad better, learn if I can help them somehow. I can't take out of my head that one that was waiting for me at the stairs. Was it trying to talk to me? Was it a pointless attempt at communicating? Was that vision different from the others?
"So, so many things we don't know..."
Ah... once again, I comb those braids away from my face...
"Yeah... I think it is a special event. I can't go see my parents with these braids. Besides, I'm rich now, I can spend as much as I want in hair-care products."
Yes, I'm rich now. But, does this mean I'll drop my job as an explorer?
No, not at all.
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