You have found a secret story that is not featured in the Feedback episodes. This one is special, because it’s best read between seasons! Read this if you have read Chorus (Episode 4) but have not yet read Gain (Episode 5).
(Note: this story is so awesome that I actually decided to make it the prologue to Episode 5. It will be the first text in Episode 5: Gain, before chapter 41. Unlike most prologues, this is one that readers should not skip! Check it out!)
By all accounts, the household looked acceptable for an orphan child’s home. A gray but up-kept interior contained two attractive parents who were happy, but not too happy, to accept a dependent. It all looked just right to the orphanage workers.
That was what Leonardo heard them say, and standing in front of the door to his new home, he was seeing the fruits of their indifference. They didn’t even stay to see him inside.
He heard the wet roll of the tires as the car went away down the street, and just as he turned a gloved hand yanked him inside. The door had been opened at the loudest point of the tires’ rolling.
Over a year of brutal training flooded to his limbs. Planting his feet, Leonardo dropped his suitcase and jabbed with a straightened palm, his middle and index fingers hitting the man’s elbow on the inside.
The man reflexively pulled his arm back. He blocked the way out, now at the other side of the beige door. Sharp and high cheekbones would have made him look half-dead, if he hadn’t been carrying extra weight.
“There is no need to wait at the door,” the man said with a clenched jaw. “Simply enter from now on.”
Leonardo picked up his little tan briefcase again. It seemed like the right sign for peace. There were no guarantees. Leonardo only knew that he would live here now. After being sent out of the Hub, and living in an orphanage for two years, these Birds were to be his foster parents.
“I suppose I should have predicted you being confused and jumpy,” the man said, standing up straight and intentionally keeping his head level. He was twice the boy’s height, and built well enough behind the fat, but Leonardo was shocked to think one of his order could have such an obvious physical flaw. “My code-name is Orion. But you will call me Stan in private, and ‘dad’ in public.”
Just like the orphanage workers, something about the eight-year-old’s poise and ease of listening disturbed Stan, Leonardo could tell. The boy kept up appearances as best he could, but he would never behave like a wide-eyed animal to which most children his age amounted.
“Your room is upstairs. Follow me.”
The stairwell went up along the right side of the house, which seemed narrower than it should be from the inside. Windows on the left shined like spotlights in two places along the wall, like the eyes of a giant head turned askew. It still rained despite the sunlight, as a heavy wind carried the drops from distant clouds. They fell down the shining windows, making their impressions quiver on the wall.
Despite Stan’s weight, he ascended the stairs with no noise at all. Leonardo tried to match his steps.
“You have almost no silence in your step. We’re going to have to fix that.”
“I wasn’t trained to be a Bird.”
“Doesn’t matter. My house, my rules.”
Oh, goodie. Please tell me you haven’t urinated in my room already, as an act of dominance.
The upper level contained a room with the same gray diamond print wallpaper, a bed, a nightstand that would supposedly double as a very small dresser, and a window.
“My ‘wife’ will get some other things for this room,” Stan said. “The social workers were lax this time, but we need them to leave with good marks when they show up again. They will.”
Leonardo set his suitcase on the bed and looked out at the circular window. Beyond he saw the rainy street, steaming from the heat of the sun. Beyond that, the climbing skyscrapers of the inner sector three.
“Dinner is at seven,” Stan said. “Do you have dietary needs?”
Leonardo turned back to his suitcase, unclipped it, and lifted the top. A single sheet of folded paper, dark with the mass of writing all over it, lay atop his extra shirts and pants. He handed the paper to Stan, and he carefully unfolded it like a priceless artifact. The pudgy man’s amazement at feeling such aged paper faded from his visage once he started reading.
“Seriously?” he asked, looking up from the list and directions.
“You said you wanted to look good for the social workers. Well, this will certainly do that. More importantly, this type of nutrition is necessary.”
“Fair enough,” he said, handing it back. “I’ll get a copy on my TCS. Fortunately, we’re having vegetarian pasta. Now, how educated are you?”
“I am four grades ahead in math, four ahead in science, six ahead in history, and six in language arts. As for athletics–”
“I get the point. Try not to overdo it. The more bizarrely developed you come across, the more eyes on this house.”
“Bedtime is nine. You’ll get up at four to train, and we’ll leave for school at six-thirty. You go to school at Sector Three Elementary. I teach there, and I got it set up so that I’ll be your teacher for most subjects. Remember, expose anything about the Nexus, and you will be executed. Blackbird’s not willing to accept second chances.”
“Oh good,” Leonardo said, “I was under the impression that obvious fact had suddenly changed. Thanks.”
“Sarcasm is the idiot’s form of wit.”
“It’s all I need for you.”
The man stepped back for a moment. “You’ve never even seen your ‘father’, Blackbird, have you? If you did, you’d understand the absurdity of all of this.”
“I’m sure another Bird could be doing this job,” Leonardo said. “And yet it falls to you. Don’t blame me if you’re too incompetent to go back into the field.”
A swift hand stung Leonardo under the eye. It was a light blow, one that wouldn’t bruise, but would alarm and silence. He knew blows like this from his mother. His short body and limited reach couldn’t stop them yet, but he had his hands up anyway, in a pointless fighting pose, hyperventilating.
“Blackbird is a fool for making you,” Stan said, nursing his hand. His mother had never done that. “The things he’s done, all to bring some privileged successor in place that he doesn’t need. It really makes me question where our organization is going.”
“I can’t comment,” Leonardo said, forcing himself to stand still and keep his hands relaxed. “But I do know this: do not push me with words, or I will use them to gut you.”
Stan’s face lit up with something delightfully fearful. He was about to really attack, to pull out something even Leonardo wasn’t prepared for, and the boy had no time or chance to counter.
A hand landed on Stan’s shoulder. Though it was feminine, it gave a thud and tightening grip. Stan turned and made way for a glowing, pale redhead. She couldn’t be much older than twenty, that special kind of youthful adult that intrigued Leonardo the most, although they also came across as the most intimidating.
“So,” she said, with bizarrely level upper eyelids and a trance-like smile. “This is our little boy, huh?”
“And you are?” Leonardo asked. Though he had never seen his father, Blackbird, he knew for a fact who his mother was. This half-asleep ex-teenager definitely wasn’t her.
“Alessandra,” she said, walking closer and sitting on the edge of the bed. Stan had apparently left. “My code-name is Crane. I’m more comfortable with that, just so you know.”
She watched him, and then yawned. Awkward silence filled the room up to its triangular roof.
“So, you’re his wife?” Leonardo asked.
“Only for show. I overheard your education, so I’ll speak plainly: I would never let the man touch me. I gladly accepted this role, and Stan was forced into it for his failures.”
“So what is your role?”
“For one thing, I’m the housewife. We’ve been operating from this home and have been technically married almost since you were born, in order to make this believable. I go on missions as well from time to time.”
“Are you a trained bird, like the others?”
“I’m a different kind, what you call a songbird. Would you like to know what that is?”
“Follow me, it’s best to show you.”
Back down the stairs and through the hallway, Crane and Leonardo passed the living room and kitchen, where they got a glimpse of Stan chopping ingredients. The air was thick with a savory, yet herbal aroma. A door at the far end led down some concrete steps, and Crane pulled the string to a light-bulb shining the way to the basement.
“Close the door behind you,” Crane said, and he did so, following her down to about sea level, only fifteen steps. At the bottom was an ordinary basement. The old tables, armoires, and chairs pushed to the sides had enough cobwebs to shine in the limited light from the stairs.
He couldn’t see the end of this basement, more long than wide. Then a neon green glow flowed out from Crane’s hand. She held a small sphere, the luminosity of which also exposing the bones and tendons down to about her elbow as she held it out.
“You know what these are?” Crane asked, walking ahead without looking back at the boy.
“Yeah, it’s a glow-ball.”
“Then do you know why I’m using it?”
Leonardo didn’t answer. She stopped at a bare patch of wall between two tables.
“See it?” she asked, and Leonardo looked closer, beyond the cinder-block thanks to the penetrating light. It exposed a portion that was much thinner. “Go ahead, push.” Leonardo pushed the lighter block and pulled his hand back. It swiveled around and revealed a switch on the opposite side, which when flipped, lifted a section of wall at the end of the room with a gritty rumble.
“That’s how you open the way,” she said, moving on.
“The way to what?”
Once at the end, Leonardo had his answer: another stairwell awaited beyond an open passageway, but the walls and roof were rougher, made from a cheap, molded cement. The wall had slid all the way down into a recess below it, and beyond were the hints of chaotic sound. Wind musical instruments of some kind, a saw scraping through wood or metal, and yells in a dozen emotional flavors.
“No way,” Leonardo’s stomach tensed along with his toes. Though he had never experienced the fear of heights, he would have compared it to that if he had, looking down those steps at some sort of blocking object.
“It goes down to the kitchen of an abandoned restaurant,” she said, “in the Tunnels.”
“Why does this home have a direct connection to the Tunnels? I though that wasn’t allowed.”
“Nothing’s ‘not allowed’ if it assists our goals. So, do you get it? Do you understand what a songbird is?”
“You’re a bird who can handle going down into the tunnels? One that can handle noise?”
“Perfect. That’s right.” Crane walked down the steps and motioned for him to follow. “Come on, no one will find us.”
She pushed the object at the end of these much-longer stairs to the side, but that didn’t shine in any more light. Only the grayish-green, infinitely revealing aura of the glow-ball lit the way.
They were in a lost and looted restaurant. Display cases had their glass shattered, and there was a pile of broken plates and bowls in one corner: the remnants of material that had to be replaced with plastic in above-ground society. The signage up above was all burnt beyond reading. They were at a dead end, one of several businesses around the sunken streets, which rose up in a snake-like curve toward countless other tubes in the earth, maintained through minimal supports and a complex pumping system that kept the below-sea-level soil dry and hard.
“The Tunnels are so new,” Leonardo said. “What happened?”
“What happens in any government project for the poor and disenfranchised,” she said, tilting her head down. “It’s like a roll of the dice, living here.”
Most adults were as easy to read as a child’s joke book to Leonardo. But he couldn’t tell what Crane meant, only that she felt sorrow toward whoever had once worked and likely lived here.
“Little wars,” Crane said. “Gang disputes. Territory destruction to make a point. Oh well. This loss is our gain. No one comes here since it’s far from the rest of the Sector Three Tunnels.”
“So it’s the perfect place to slip in and out of the Tunnels undetected,” Leonardo said, slamming his teeth together when he heard the echo of a distant scream. How could anyone handle this? he wondered. Every little sound someone makes from afar…you think it’s meant for you.
“That’s right. A songbird has the skills of any other Bird,” she said. “Stealth, subterfuge, combat. But I am one of the few that can handle going down here. Someone has to be able to handle sound, for a variety of reasons. Do you know what my main role was, before I got this task?”
“Come on, think.” She picked up a long brown object from a secret clip under a customer table. It had a black, opaque handle, but there was little else to see in the glow-ball light. It took a moment for Leonardo’s eyes to adjust. It was a four-foot sword in a sheathe.
“You taught other Birds to swordfight?”
“Very good!” Crane set the sword back on the table, and carefully set the glow-ball into an ash-tray. “I taught skills in using and defending against all non-firearm weapons. Lots of clanking, metal on metal, you understand. But it’s a skill that must be learned. So it’s tasked to me, because I’m known for getting quick results out of my students, and I work in an enclosed space, one student at a time.”
“You know what I think?” Leonardo asked. “I think you’re the real teacher in this house.”
“Aww, I just want to pinch your cheek.”
“Come at me and try.”
She grinned and zoomed toward him with the speed and grace of some ethereal being. Leonardo had no chance. He didn’t even notice her pick up the sword again, scabbard and all. The blunt pole whacked his shoulder and sent him to the ground. His eyes were closed while briefly stunned, and then he felt the pinch and sassy wiggle of two fingers at his face.
The boy found it hard to breathe, but that made no sense. She hadn’t hit his lungs or diaphragm.
“You alright, little man?”
“Uh, yeah.” He started to get up, but found her hand open and willing to help. Who is this woman? Why does she act this way? My mother never helped me up when she knocked me down. If she’s supposed to train me, and harden me further, what’s the point of…whatever this is?
“You look distracted,” Crane said. “Hungry?”
“Oh…” When she merely asked, his stomach gurgled and she snickered.
“I was just showing you where we’ll be training,” she said. “Come on, back we go. I’m sure dinner’s almost ready.”
Dinner was a silent and simple affair. Crane was much more serious when eating at a table with Stan, and Leonardo was thankful for that. Whatever she had shown him, he didn’t want it spoiled by that man.
Later that night, in the master bedroom, the middle-aged man and young woman sat on two queen beds, several feet apart. Stan was sitting up in the dark, and looked at the redhead in her light-pink slip. She was sitting up as well with one long leg out and holding open a stout book. The moon lit her side well enough from the window.
“What are you doing?” Stan asked.
“Reading a book.” Though direct, she didn’t seem chiding.
“No, an actual produced book. I found one down in the Tunnels.”
“Really? The real thing?”
“Binding, cover, the whole thing.” She hadn’t moved an inch during the conversation, still absorbed in the fanned paper in front of her.
“…what’s it about?”
“It’s a survival guide,” she said. “Publishing date is 1992, so it’s over a thousand years before the war and our Peaceyear system. It talks about how to live in the wilderness, in the southeast, though the southeast of what I’m not certain. It describes it like it’s a challenge, and yet in every paragraph I see a lush fantasy world. They discuss the challenge of setting traps for animals, and the many wild plants you can find for food, or medicine, and the stuff you can build to purify water. If only I were born back then.”
“Do you think living back then would have been easier?”
“Definitely. But we wouldn’t have our modern frame of reference. It would feel difficult, just like how this books describes it.”
There was a long silence, broken gently by her flipping a page.
“Why don’t we…push these beds together?”
“And what would that accomplish?”
“We’re supposed to act the part. Husband and wife. Surely we could give it a try, for the sake of our act.”
“I could call in to headquarters and ask if it’s alright. Would that suit you?”
He sneered from her sarcasm. “If we’ve never been intimate at all, it will show in public. I’m sure of it.”
“Are you now? I suppose that’s why every film where actors have sex is pornography? Because it has to be real?”
“Forget it. I just thought–”
“You just thought you could escape from your role in the Nexus by under-performing and getting a job as mundane and similar to domestic life as possible,” she said, shutting her book with a slam that made him wince in the dark. She lay down and turned from him. “I know you will be missed at the school, and I can’t do anything that will make the social workers suspicious. But I’m warning you now. If that precious little boy so much as claims you hit him again, I won’t ask you if it’s true. I won’t ask for proof. I’ll castrate you with a hot knife. Do it again after that, and I will kill you, consequences be damned.”
Stan slithered under his covers and turned to face the other way. “Okay.”
“The same goes for telling him the truth about his father. I knew you were going to say it.”
“Okay, fine. I’ll be nice to the boy.”
“No, you’ll leave him alone whenever possible. Your only role in this is to make money to keep this household looking normal. I am going to raise Blackbird’s successor for these next years, in my opinion the most important ones. Your role is to stay out of my way.”
This time, Stan stayed quiet.
Over the months, Stan was out of Leonardo’s sight for most of the time. Only at necessary public gatherings did they have to act like a real family, and no one found them unusual. Leonardo came across as a mother’s boy prodigy. All attention gained was positive, but it was never too much.
Leonardo loved the training. Getting up at four in the morning was easy, and he’d more often get up a little early and wait at the end of the hallway, to begin the journey with Crane down, to a place where they could swing and clang their weapons, using the tables of the restaurant and other environmental pieces to build his agility and improvisation. Slowly but surely, the millions of lightning-fast calculations of the battle-hardened linked together in the boy’s head.
“You’re getting faster,” Crane said, dodging a swing from a blunt sword. Their training had been covering all sorts of practical melee weapons, formal and improvised, but mainly longer ones at the moment. Once he grew up more, he’d have more reach and a better chance to learn knife skills.
More swings, jabs, and attempted feints came up empty as the woman watched with a light, gracious smile. Leonardo gasped and swung low for the side of her shin, but even in pants she hopped it with one leg and the other, like a sloppy jump-rope.
“Yes, you can,” Crane said, her face sharpening. “Keep trying, keep growing, and you eventually will.” She turned to the side. “Ah, but we should take a break.”
She sat down at one of the booths at the far end of the restaurant, while Leonardo stood, blade dangling in his hand.
“Well, come on,” she said. “I have something to say, anyway.”
He dropped the weapon and sat down with her after a brief fuss.
“I don’t want to hear you say that you can’t do something,” Crane said. “You are the successor to the man who operates the entire world, behind the curtain. You know the meaning of successor. You are not to just replace him, like Stan says. You are to surpass him.”
“And is he…a good fighter?”
“I don’t know,” she said, leaning back and twitching her nose. Even Leonardo got the point that there was little he could know about Blackbird for now. “But you’ll be a greater one for sure.”
“If I can be half as good as you, I’ll be happy.”
“Again, that’s not enough!”
“Listen,” Crane said. “It’s true that I’m a very skilled swordsman. Maybe the best in the Nexus. I can’t improve my skill much farther than I already have. So do you think I only like to teach? No. I am learning new things, expanding my skill set. I want to be just as good at other things as I am at swordfighting.”
“Survival, for one thing,” she said, looking up in a blissful daze. “I want to be a master of exploring harsh places. For now, I don’t have much room to learn that skill. But someday I will.”
“Because there’s a whole world out there, waiting for us to reclaim it. If we can handle the radiation and hostilities of the world beyond our tiny cities, we may find something unimaginable. Something well beyond even what the Nexus holds and understands.”
“Oh. I see.” Leonardo leaned back. A moth fluttered between them.
“I admire greatness, Leonardo. Greatness only. We are a species of fallen gods, and it is our duty to rise again.”
“Is that why you’re with the Nexus?” Leonardo asked. As he had went to school, seen a little of the underground, and gotten more experience in life, the nature of a silent society was already crumbling for him. Strangely, Crane had never reacted to his questioning nature with hostility.
“I recognize the Nexus more for its presence than for its ideals.”
“So you’re actually anti-silence?”
“No. I have no opinion there. I just know that if change occurs, it will occur only through the Nexus’ approval. That is how power, and the world, truly works. There will not be some dramatic uprising from underdogs. That is the stuff of silly populist novels. Fantasies for people who will never achieve anything impressive.”
“What if someone overthrew the Nexus as we know it? What if a more powerful person, entity, whatever, instilled a new standard for noise acceptance?”
“Then I’d start following their example,” Crane said with a wink.
“That seems pretty weak.” The boy couldn’t help but grin as he said it.
“Oh, on the contrary. I am interested in what it means to ascend. To be unquestionably the greatest. As a fighter, as a person, as a society. Whoever beats or operates the Nexus, assuming they’re not destructive fools, I’d fully support their methods of advancing humanity.”
“To what end?”
“That’s the best part. There is no end. What can humanity become? We can go as far as we are willing to look to answer that question, but in the end the answer won’t truly come until we’re completely finished as a species, in one way or another.”
“So let’s chase the best answer possible?”
“Exactly! Now then, ready to start training some more?”
“You bet!” Leonardo stood up from the worn and ripped leather, but something held his feet in place. Then he understood. He had wrestled with it since first coming down here. “Crane.”
“I have to tell you something.”
“What is it?”
“I wish you were my real mother.” He looked up at her, and she stood back at the center of the open restaurant, frozen in place after bending down to reach the sword he had dropped. “I wish you were my mother forever. That you replaced Opal.”
Crane was turned ever so slightly, so that Leonardo could only see her cheeks, lips, and sharp chin, but not her eyes. He got closer after getting no answer, but she turned her face as he rotated around her.
“Oh, you!” Crane pinched his cheek. It was faster than any strike she had ever made in training, there and gone. “Alright, let’s get back to it.”
She tossed him his sword, and he caught it, fighting the pain in his face. Despite all his knowledge of history, the dictionary in his brain, and his many developed talents, he only barely understood this soul-shredding feeling.
This is all you can give me, isn’t it?
“Ascend,” she said, and he looked up at her. Tears fell rather than streaming, as her head was bowed to look down at him. “If you are victorious, then you are right. Achieve everything you could ever want, and never fail.” She shook her head. “In the end, it will all be worth it as long as you succeed.”
“And if I take over the Nexus…and become a great leader…will you be my mother?”
“I think by that point you’ll long have forgotten this conversation. But sure. I’ll be the mom to an independent twenty-something.” She shrugged and wiped her eyes. “Why not?”
“I’ll get rid of Opal in the process,” he said. “I promise.”
“Oh, I like that kind of talk. Very determined!”
“I swear,” he said, flipping the sword in his hand and readying himself for combat.
I W I L L B E T H E V I C T O R
The five words he said to Crane as a child repeated over and over, compounding upon each other into a deafening feedback loop. There was only sound, no other senses, not even the feeling of ears. Sound and terror, as Leonardo collapsed and splattered like a spilled cup of water against an unshakable truth.
Then he felt that he had feet. They were sinking into…sand. His body reformed, nude but not cold. The wind here, wherever he was, was scalding.
He opened his eyes. Smudged, watery blackness with bits of hickory brown concentrated slowly. Sound still dominated his senses. Eric’s words shook his skull.
You are a ridiculous egg head. Somewhere, somehow, you will see that you are wrong.
I W I L L B E T H E V I C T O R
The words he spoke, that were now untrue, weren’t him remembering the sound or moment. Those words tore through him like he was the black caging of a speaker. His own body released them in hideous distortion that made him shriek and fall to his knees, caking his legs in fine sand.
“No…no no no no! I didn’t lose! I’m not dead!”
But his last memory was amazingly vivid. Falling with exhaustion and agony, his body low on blood and his best friend decapitated by his own hand. He had been certain, without a doubt, that whatever he did to succeed, however he acted in the moment, it would all work out. He would be the victor, and that path was the easiest to take.
Where did I go wrong? What is happening to me now?
Ȉ̴̫ ̶͚̈́ ̶͇̂ ̴͕̈́W̴͕͊ ̷̺̔ ̶̦̊I̵̪͒ ̸̞͝ ̸̱͝L̸͕̒ ̴̖̂ ̴͔̓L̴̘̕ ̸̫̚ ̷͚͂ ̵̻̿Ḅ̸͗ ̴̣̿ ̸̯́E̸̓ͅ ̴̲̍ ̷̝̐ ̴̞̋T̴̞͗ ̵̥̈ ̷̬̒H̵̗̏ ̸̠͆ ̸͓͐E̶̺͋ ̴̤͌ ̸̧͠ ̷̖͒Ṿ̵͌ ̶̰̒ ̶͇̆ ̶̣̇I̵̜̔ ̴̠͒ ̴͎̕ ̵͍̾C̸̱̃ ̵̥̃ ̵̳̚ ̶̢̓ ̶̿͜T̸̖̓ ̵̭̀ ̶̛̫ ̵͓͝ ̴̨̋O̵͈͐ ̸͎̉ ̸̩͛ ̴͇̋ ̵̬͋ ̷̗̉R̷̠̉
He groaned as the force tunneled through his blood vessels.
Okay, calm down. Think. I don’t have an eidolon. I know what happens when someone is dead and has no eidolon. It’s all over. Blackness. Nothing. That’s why I lied to Opal. Not-existing isn’t scary. Hell is.
Was I actually wrong?
He felt like he was in Infinite Flight, and yet it was different somehow. His vision came into focus, which made no sense. He had no need for realistic, troublesome vision like what real eyes gave in a virtual world. He summoned clothes for himself, a major effort.
He was at the base of a massive crater, about one-hundred feet deep. The sky was the color of raspberry jam, with white stars standing out like seeds. Everything had a bloody, reddish tinge, even his own body.
Leonardo stepped his way up the bowl of sand he started in, coming close enough to see a man in a sack-cloth robe, also dyed slightly red. The crater was sloped enough for Leonardo to climb all the way, but he was halfway up when he saw the ‘man’.
He had the head of a dragon. A scaled, long, horse face with nightmarish teeth that the minimal lips could never hold. The angled, completely black eyes looked either disgusted or pleased, it was hard to tell.
“Welcome to a fate worse than death,” the dragon-man said, teeth lifting a little to slowly deliver the words in a hissing tongue. The rest of him, while holding the impression of scales at the skin, was much more human. “That’s what you called it, right?”