This story is by Sharron Minchella and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The day began with nothing to mark its significance. Faolan munched on a tanniberry biscuit, absently dribbling crumbs on shirt and floor, as he perched on a stool with toes barely touching the cross-bar. The morning commuter shuttle rattled the obsidian glass windows on its journey to the nearby mine where excavators removed rare xkillium ore. He ran to the kitchen window, watching the craft thunder past the valley’s tanniberry groves and over Tor Crater. He sighed. What did the pilots see as they glanced at the crystal blue lake nestled in the crater?
The urge to climb to the top of the dormant volcano was overwhelming. Maybe today he would succeed, performing the pilgrimage of Liferite that was a son’s duty to honor his father.
His mother crossed the room, giving him a hug and tousling his hair. “Faolan, lessons first, then you may climb the Tor.”
Licking his fingers clean as she tsk’d mild disapproval, Faolan pulled on sensor gloves and his VidVisor. Activating basic cyber mode with a twist of his left hand in the air, he entered the station’s virtual school portal and registered his unique signifier in a blur of finger twitches. An image of his assignment appeared through the VidVisor, with virtual settings placed to the left of the main screen.
Today’s lesson, Xkillia Mining Corps: Research File Storage and Retrieval Procedures, appeared to be even duller than usual. What he wouldn’t give to be doing something more exciting right now. Of course, there was the tantalizing secret of Màthair’s classified work as head researcher on the XM2 program. He’d overheard her on a private VidLink discussing a breakthrough application for xkillium.
Faolan spent so much of his free time exploring the research station’s cyber data through the VidVisor’s interactive mode that the virtual reality felt like a second home. After weeks of searching, he’d uncovered where the XM2 file was stored. Discovering the details of its contents held a magnetic pull. He chewed his bottom lip as a plan began to take shape in his mind. Decision time. A light touch to his shoulder interrupted him. Startled, he removed the VidVisor to look up at Màthair.
“I’m leaving for the lab now.”
Faolan reached up to pat her cheek and grinned. “See ya later, excavator.”
“In a span, Faolan.”
Her silly rejoinder brought another grin. He repositioned the VidVisor and entered the sequence to activate interactive mode. She leaned in to whisper, “I love you, Faolan. The One has a grand purpose for you, never doubt that.” She tapped the engraved crystalline medallion around his neck, a final gift from his papa. “Your father wasn’t strong by this world’s standards; his strength came from…”
Faolan never heard the end of the sentence or the closing of the front door; the cyber world had already claimed his attention. While others observed a solid wall of enigmatic symbols in this world, he perceived a land alive with unmatched beauty and complexity. He slid along turbulent swirling lines of code, traveling city streets lined with impossibly tall structures, marveling at the intricate patterns, hopping from one to another as he steered the familiar course toward the green-lit door of the security vault. Closer now, he grasped a blue line over his head with practiced ease and wrapped it around an oblong metallic disc spinning to his left. He launched the coiled device at a small indentation barely visible on the door with all his strength and watched sparks fly as it connected. With a satisfying click, it rotated and the door opened wide enough for him to slip through.
A forest of pulsing green lights branching high into the dark sky stood towering before him. Paths spread out in multiple directions; most led to a dead-end. He turned down the first one on the right, squeezing between two closely-twined trees. At each intersection he counted, turning right only at the next number in the memorized sequence, gradually winding his way upward. Finally, he reached the crest and studied the shimmering lake below. The air crackled around him and he wondered how much time had passed. It was always a little hard to tell in this world.
Faolan noted the trace of gridlines below the crystal blue surface. Flashes of silver pulsated in waves between the intersections that marked the station’s most secure files. He located the XM2 file by its specific pattern of flashes. He’d never gone past this point. All research stations had taken to storing the most sensitive documents in lakes like this, supposedly inaccessible to the DefianSeers, notorious cyber pirates from the Defiance Zone. He took two quivering breaths, and then dove over the side. The lake vibrated at his impact, surrounding him with a physical sensation of warmth over his skin. Initially disoriented, he paused to regain his bearings. Using motions that resembled an odd sort of swimming, he propelled himself to the XM2 file. He positioned his medallion over it, watching as the information streamed into the crystalline disc, hoping he hadn’t triggered an alert.
A shrill alarm screeched and Faolan’s heart raced. A grainy image of Màthair appeared on his VidLink, her face a mask of terror as an explosion sounded behind her.
“Faolan, you must…” Static crackled. Silence.
All around him, lines of code blackened, falling like tears on a world turned to ashes. He watched, stunned.
Suddenly in a panic, Faolan raced for the green-lit door, the only safe exit from the cyber world. He squeezed through just before it collapsed, and ripped off the VidVisor, tears cascading down his cheeks. He had to find Màthair. The roar of a shuttle craft landing in front of the house startled him into action. He flung open the front door and ran outside. Straight into the largest man he’d ever seen. Faolan stared, wide-eyed, at the leather-clad soldier with a sapphire halberd.
“Where’s…?” Faolan hiccupped and tried again, “Where’s…?”
“It is going to be okay, little one. My name is Chebarra. I am a commander in the Xkillian Guard. I was en route to the mine when the lab was raided, but my orders changed and I was assigned to protect you.” He clasped Faolan’s forearm in the traditional greeting and led him inside while his men stood guard.
There really wasn’t a best way to tell him he was an orphan now, with no one to claim him, so Chebarra sat Faolan down on a bench in the entryway and just told him the truth. DefianSeers had attacked the lab, searching for classified files, but an explosion had killed his mother and destroyed all the research. The cyber pirates had escaped for now, but anyone connected to XM2 was still a potential target. Eventually, Faolan’s sobs turned to soft whimpers until, finally exhausted, he fell asleep against Chebarra.
He woke up alone on the bench after a short rest, having dreamed Màthair was calling to him from the bottom of a shimmering blue lake. He followed the smell of roasted meat to the kitchen, stomach growling, and stopped. He expected to see Màthair preparing the mid-day meal. Instead, Chebarra stood gazing out the window up at Tor Crater, legs apart with his hands behind his back, a soldier’s stance. He turned at Faolan’s approach.
“Eat quickly. It is dangerous to linger here. I will take you to the capital where there is safety.”
“No! Not yet.” Faolan shook his head in stubborn refusal and mimicked Chebarra’s posture.
A look of surprise flickered across the hardened soldier’s face, and then he nodded slowly.
“You wish to perform the Liferite pilgrimage to Tor Crater.”
When Faolan bobbed his head, Chebarra swiftly packed up the food. “We will eat on the way.”
Chebarra grabbed Faolan’s VidVisor and sensor gloves as they walked out toward Tor Crater, leaving food and instructions at the shuttle for a small squad of his men to follow at a discreet distance. Faolan turned for a last look at his home. It seemed different now, like a placeholder for a life deleted with a single stroke.
Chebarra turned, placing his arm across Faolan’s shoulder as they began the walk to the crater.
“Your path may be difficult now, but you will conquer it one step at a time. Today you will climb Tor Crater and I will stand watch as you pay tribute to both your father and mother.”
Faolan offered Chebarra a tentative smile. He could do this. He had to do this.
“And, after you pay tribute to them, it will be time to honor the One. If you are willing, I will train you for that journey.”
Faolan chewed his lip, and stopped. He looked intently into Chebarra’s eyes, considering, and then clasped the soldier’s forearm.
The day began with nothing to mark its significance. But, sometimes, ordinary days become extraordinary ones.