The White Forest
Exactly six months ago on the 25th of January, Yasin was found lying unconscious on her father’s doorstep with dirt-layered clothes and a nasty wound slit across her tummy. Her father’s shock wasn’t based on just this--it was the fact that he had reported her disappearance to the government three years prior.
Four years ago she left home to pursue the assignment her agency allocated her with, and after a year from that she disappeared with no warning, no premonition. And yet, that day in January when the front yard was covered with a thin layer of dismal white snow, she was there, back in her home in a state as though she had gone through hellish circumstances.
Since then Yasin was kept at home, the knowledge of her return strictly conserved within three people--her father Luther Astra, her psychotherapist Mr Lian Beewood, and her lover Damien Beaufort.
Today the morning was sunny and cheery. She had a full view of the front yard beyond the glassed wall.
The front yard was a stretch of medium-sized grass which sloped down smoothly to a thin brook with tranquil, clear water. Connecting the yard and the other side of the brook, which was a compact terrain of eucalyptus trees, was a curved, small white bridge with short lined barriers, and beside this little bridge was a plump willow tree with long arms and legs, making a sort of secret place within its green foliage.
Yasin had all of these scrupulous details memorized because when she was ten, when her now-father had first adopted her from the asylum in the town besides this one, the front yard, especially the willow, had been her best playmate.
When she left home 4 years ago for her first mission assigned by Icareus, she would often remember her little tea parties underneath the willow, where she would lie down on the warm ground in summer, close her eyes, and listen to the cadence of the creaking branches as the tender wind moved through them as smoothly as silk did on skin.
And today she was back at her home again, aged 27, with no memories of the three years before the past 6 months. She couldn’t even remember all of the things from her first year on the mission before she disappeared. It was just a vague blur, an early-night dream.
Yasin sat on her bed with her legs stretched, her hands on her lap, silent as a cat. Besides the bedside table sat Mr Lian with his warm blue eyes fixed on her. He had changed during this time. There were more wrinkles on his white face and less hair on his golden head. He still wore his black and blue suit though.
“Have you decided to inform Icareus yet?” He asked with a careful tone. “I am sure they would be delighted to know the captain of the team showed up after four years, especially since none of the other crew ever returned. It’s been on the news many times, your mission. My God, you should have seen the protests against quantum jumping. Because your team disappeared, humanitarian regulations banned the agency from ever trying a new route when they couldn’t find or communicate with you.”
Yasin didn’t respond immediately. Her dark brown eyes searched the yard for something. “Maybe they are right. It didn’t turn out to be as pleasant as we had thought. Jumping to the past wasn’t as fun as we wanted it to be.” Her voice was still raspy even though it had been six months since her arrival, but it was nothing especially surprising. She healed slowly. There were still band-aids in several places on her body, plus the long, nasty wound on her stomach the origins of which she had no idea about hadn’t shown much improvement under the bandages either.
Mr Lian seemed displeased with her response.
“That’s not true. Centuries of research led to your mission. Being a scientist, shouldn’t you be familiar with trial and error? It was an error, although I admit sending humans on the second try of quantum jumping was a little impulsive of the director. But still, soon as you remember what happened, we could collect the information and exploit it to use. If you remember what happened, why you went dark.”
“Yeah. If I remember.”
“You will.” The new voice belonged to Damien. Damien’s light golden hair was longer than before and was tied behind his head in a small and spiky ponytail. His bangs fell around his pallid face and a thin liner enhanced his blonde lashline that framed his pale green eyes. He was wearing a pastel orange shirt and white pants, meaning he still hadn’t gone to work, or he would be in military uniform.
“Who wants coffee?” He asked with a smile and placed the tray he was holding on the bedside table
Mr Lian beamed with a bright expression. “Thank you, sweets.”
Yasin’s lips curved upward slightly as well, and a sudden rush of warmth flitted around in her heart excitedly.
Even though, for her, it had only been yesterday’s memory when she last talked to Damien with the transmitter whilst still on the mission, when she disappeared, it had been three whole years of absence from Damien’s side. Yasin didn’t remember the three years, but he did, and to be honest when Yasin reappeared, she had thought Damien would become cold towards her, but he hadn’t. He hadn’t lost an ounce of his warmth.
“You didn’t go to work?” Asked Yasin, trying to not showcase her excitement because it would be embarrassing.
Damien pulled up a chair from the study table and sat himself down with his mug and took a sip, as did the others. “No, chérie, it’s my day off. I thought I’d spend it with you.”
Yasin felt her cheeks turn warm and she averted her eyes, staring at the similarity of the colour of the coffee and her skin. Creamy brown. “Oh.”
“I brought Asterisk, have you geared up Apostrophe yet?”
Upon Damien’s question, Yasin suddenly remembered her horse, Apostrophe. She hadn’t been to the stables at all.
Damien leant back on his chair.“Okay, I’ll ask Papa to get him running, what do you think?”
Yasin nodded her head sideways. “No, I’ll do it. Where’s Papa anyway?”
“I don’t know, I saw him in the backyard.” Mr Lian said, sipping his coffee and making a long ‘mmmm’ sound. Both Yasin and Damien chuckled at him, then said their goodbyes as they headed off backyard to the stables. The nanny insisted she took the car but Damien and she told her about taking the horses.
“Hey there buddy.” The 6 feet tall mechanical horse reacted to her touch by nudging its metal snout against her hands. His long black mane was still as shiny as ever. Somebody must have been taking care of him quite keenly during her absence. That somebody being Papa.
Papa was rubbing a wet cloth on Apostrophe’s metal body, and when he saw Damien and Yasin arrive, he put it down to greet them.
“Damien, child!” He shook his hands and then turned to Yasin. “And Yasin. Are you planning to go somewhere?”
Yasin nodded. “I want to go to the agency, Damien also came, so we’ll roam the town a bit. It’s been long.”
Papa’s dark brown eyes peered over at Damien again, who smiled warmly. “I see. A date, then.” Papa smiled his big smile and rubbed his hands on the corners of his flannel. He had gained weight, so his stomach bulged out a little bit too. Unlike a long time ago, when he was young and sturdy, Papa looked tired. But for the past few months Yasin had noticed him get better. She felt guilty because she knew Papa’s deterioration of health was because of her disappearance.
After all, when Mama died, and she hadn’t met Mama because she died before Yasin was adopted, Mr Lian said Papa had been in a very dark place, so of course he didn’t do particularly well with the loss of his daughter.
But that’s okay. Yasin could see his apparent improvement, and she felt luckier than ever to have a father like him. He had been the first to teach her to read and learn in the proper way, and he had also been the first to ignite her passion for science, too. If he hadn’t been there, who would she be as a person anyway?
“It’s not a date. It’s just roaming around.” Said Yasin, embarrassed.
Papa reacted by laughing and Damien joined in too, making her turn redder and redder. “It has been a long time, Si, how can you still be so shy?”
Yasin didn’t look at Papa and walked over to Apostrophe.
“Will you give me a ride, big boy?” Apostrophe made a lousy neighing sound, which she noted as a bug in the sound driver and made a mental note to buy a few spares to insert into him on their way back home. Apostrophe stooped low, allowing her to get on his back. The metal saddle wrapped around Yasin’s legs and waist, and then Apostrophe took off at a moderate velocity.
“Careful! He hasn’t run in years! And make sure to stay away from the forest! You've heard the news!” Yelled out Papa from behind.
“Wait for me, chérie!” Added Damien. From the corner of her eyes Yasin could see Asterisk, Damien’s horse, run towards her master. She was a beauty with a tungsten body and gemstone-white eyes and Yasin turned her head to look at her for a little longer.
Apostrophe dashed past the bridge and into the stretch of long and lanky eucalyptuses. Soon afterwards Asterisk and Damien joined them too and they rode together. Here they dawdled around about for a while, drinking in the medicinal and the somewhat strong scent of the leaves wafting about them. Light and dark shadows played around, the sunbeams pouring in from between the foliage created long shadows of Apostrophe, Yasin, Asterisk and Damien on the leaf-strewn ground.
At about 4 p.m they took off again toward the town centre. On their way, several of the houses opened their windows and from them peered men and women, usually the elderly and the middle-aged, curious at the anomaly that Yasin had become. Of course they didn’t expect her, and she knew she would become the talk of the town, but it was time.
Apostrophe didn’t stop for them, and Yasin was glad none of her school or college mates still lived here in Old Brook City.
The streets were familiar, and so was the crowded marketplace. Here they stopped to pick up some chips and cases from a trusted hardware and software shop, then went the opposite way of the marketplace, following a certain trail by the wide and turbulent river which eventually lead to a mango garden, beyond which was the huge, 50 floors high skyscraper shining with a bluish tint in the sunlight.
Its closed windows and sharp glass edges along the top made it look more like a serrated kitchen knife than an agency, and as Yasin and Damien led and left Apostrophe and Asterisk to the stables with the other mechanical horses, she felt a certain, sharp warmth and nostalgia clawing about her heart.
At the entrance, men and women in tight grey uniforms stopped her with their automated rifles in their hands but when she displayed her ID (good thing she didn’t forget it) they immediately scuttled over like scared piglets in a barn.
Yasin laughed and waved their hands, assuring them they wouldn’t be fired for something this measly.
When Yasin approached the glassed door, it parted, something scanned her body and announced her arrival in an excited robotic voice.
Welcome, Yasin Astra, Captain of Team Zeta 1339, main leader, OGTE! Creator, creator! You have arrived!
Yasin laughed and put her hand on the waist-length AI flinging its little metal arms excitedly up at her. Its red eyes would be shining if it was a human boy instead of a metallic body with tungsten for the face.
“Thank you, Eclipse. I’m glad you remember me.”
Soon as she said this Eclipse twirled with contempt. Creator! You are my creator! How may I ever forget you?! It has only been 4 years, 6 months, 23 days and 16 hours!
“All right, all right. Why is nobody else here? This place looks deserted. Where are the crew members? Staff? Your friends? And the boss, is the boss here?”
“Aie, Eclipse, you don’t remember me at all? Comme c’est méchant!” Asked Damien, offended. Eclipse flitted around nervously.
I do! I do! I’m sorry, sir, sir!
Damien laughed and petted its head. “It’s okay, Eclipse. I’m glad you’re okay. I should have visited you.”
“Is the boss here?” Asked Yasin again.
Yasin didn’t wait for Eclipse, she was already on her way through the straight and spotless hallways. Three floors above were the staff quarters, which was deserted, and 40 floors up again was the boss’s office, which too, was empty as a bottle.
Potted succulents were still strapped on the walls, just as Yasin remembered, and the long, white table too was adorned with tiny little cacti and other plants she didn’t know the name of.
Strange. The chairs were all tucked in, the windows open and looking out at the clouds, and yet, nobody was there. It wasn’t an off day, was it? She checked her wristwatch. Nope. Monday, first day of work.
Creator! You left me!
Yasin ignored the little robots’ babbles and frowned at the collection of freshly printed papers on one of the shelves. “What is happening here, Eclipse? Where is everybody?”
Her question was answered by not Eclipse but Damien. Damien walked to one of the windows and picked up a succulent, examining it. “You don’t know, of course.”
He took a seat in one of the chairs and ushered Yasin to do the same whilst Eclipse hurried around, flinging his little robot arms.
Yasin sat opposite of him, remembering the feeling of when she used to be a part of this table.
“What do I not know?”
“A year and a half after you went dark, the humanitarian regulations missionaries tried to shut down the agency. Staff started to quit, or appeal transfer to other kingdoms, naturally. Soon the population of the staff reduced from 200 to 20. I know, scandaleux. You would have thought they loved their work.”
Yasin sighed and put her hand on the table. “What then?”
Damien looked at her straight with sad eyes. “The boss, he, uh...I don’t know how to tell you. His heart failed, no, he isn’t dead. But it’s the same thing. He lost his ability to move and was shifted to Yelin by the directors, since it’s the only kingdom with services to treat severe diseases.”
Yasin swallowed a gulp and tried to restrain her tears and beating heart. “That’s...far.”
Damien’s voice became smaller. “Yeah...A new director was assigned, but she’s more of a caretaker, really. She looks after the office. The staff rarely come since there isn’t much to do. Icareus more or less abandoned this place. The agency is mostly used by us military looking after space voyage updates these days. I never come though. It reminded me too much of you, chérie .”
They met the said caretaker downstairs when they were on their way to leave. It was a small woman with thin blue eyes and brown hair tucked up in a tight bun. At first, she seemed like she had seen a ghost and held her heart in such a way that she was to faint. Yasin was amused because it reminded her of the mice she used to have as pets when she was a teenager.
The woman’s name was Matilda and she held out her hand for an enthusiastic shake. “Miss Yasin! Yasin Astra! Did you return? You could return? This is revolutionary! You never informed us, or the media?! Is it really you?! How?!”
Damien removed Matilda’s hand from Yasin’s since she was shaking it violently and Yasin wasn’t supposed to move too much because of the wound in her stomach. Matilda thought this was rude and turned a stern eye toward him, but when explained, she calmed down.
“But surely this can’t be real. How? Come, take a seat. You must immediately report the whole mission. I will call the ministers. No, I will call the President.”
This was exactly what Yasin feared, but she knew it would come to this at one point or the other. It wasn’t as if she could play it by the ear and keep herself incognito for the rest of her life.
“Don’t call the President yet. I will report the mission, of course, it’s my responsibility. I will tell you everything. But please, not today. I want to take today for myself, will you let me?”
Matilda didn’t seem too pleased about it. “Nonsense! You are a miracle, how can I let you off immediately? Surely you understand the protocols, Captain.”
“I know. I also know a Captain has the right to postpone her report should she be in the need. I am in the need. I also have to contact the staff from before and do the done thing. Would they not be more deserving of knowing about my return than anybody else? They spent their life for Zeta 1339.”
Damien put his foot in too. “As sergeant major, I think I also have the authority to request a day off from you, Miss Matilda.”
Surrounded, Matilda eventually let them go, although not before letting them know this will be reported to the President first thing tomorrow.
After reaching the stables, Damien rolled his eyes. “When I climb up my position, she’s gonna learn not to look at me that way.”
Yasin laughed and climbed aboard Apostrophe. “You did climb up. Last I knew you were master sergeant, now look at you, sergeant major. Aren’t you a bit too young for that?”
Damien shrugged and petted Asterisk’s white mane. “I would be, but the former major lost his life in action in the west two years ago, and by circumstances and luck, I got the position. Come on now, let’s go to my house. I collected some new movies. Do you still like movies, chérie?”
Matilda had kept her promise it seemed. Not a call on her phone, and they spent the night at Damien’s apartment watching movies and playing card games. Doing regular things like these, Yasin felt giddy and light, and it had been long past 2 in the morning when she fell asleep in his warms arms.
She was also the one to wake up first, though. Damien was fast asleep at 6 in the morning, so she put the duvet on him, kissed his forehead, then got dressed up to take a stroll.
The hood had kept her face hidden but it wasn’t necessary. Hardly a passerby went past her minus the morning larks jogging toward parks and sanctuaries.
Bit by bit however, the number of people on the streets lessened. It seemed odd until Yasin realized where she was.
Beyond the bend in the road was the White Forest.
Yasin stood on the other side of the street, staring at the long, black bars of the entrance. It was called the White Forest because of the bizarre trees with white leaves that were the norm there. Once there used to be a nuclear reactor in the place of the forest, but it was shut down, and because of leaking radiation, it somehow altered the vegetation around it. Mutated trees turned white and multiplied quickly.
It was announced safe though, the forest, concluding the radiation was minimal, but visitors were still advised to not wander about for more than a few hours.
Yasin had been here a few times when she was living in her house, but today it seemed particularly whiter. Such a brilliant and vivid colour that it almost enchanted her. She remembered Luther's words and hesitated to take a step toward its curly gates.
The news said several young girls had disappeared around this area. Although it wasn't confirmed that the forest had something to do with it, people generally stayed out of this place. Security cameras, guard posts--nothing of the sorts could last around the area because of the radiation. This was the odd thing about the forest: the radiation was barely harmful to organic life forms, however it seemed to accelerate corrosion on artificial constituents, including concrete. To be fair, it wasn't even registered as 'radiation', per se, but some form of anomaly that dominated the forest and its surroundings.
Still unexplained, the forest remained as it is because it had created a natural sanctuary that the President did not want to interfere with.
Yasin was about to take a step forward when a truck passed by. She couldn’t understand why, maybe it had to do with her trauma of quantum jumping, but it scared her so much she panicked and ran, eager to get away from the truck even though it had passed a few seconds ago already.
With rapid steps Yasin ran to the entrance of the forest, pushed it open, and dashed in, then closed it behind her, feeling safer. She closed her eyes for a moment, glad that the truck couldn’t reach her inside.
But when Yasin opened her eyes next, her heart stopped. She wasn’t in front of the entrance, no. Far from it. She was standing somewhere inside the White Forest. Yasin tried to understand what happened just now. Did the forest rotate, changing her position, somehow? That’s impossible. How could she reach this deep inside? Then did she...she couldn’t possibly accidentally jump...
But she hadn’t the time to think about that. A strange sound made her hide behind a tree and peek at what went on behind a nearby bush.
The odd, animal-like sound came from the most horrid thing she had ever seen.
It was a human, but it wasn’t. It was...it was a collection of humans. Whatever nightmare it had crawled out of, it couldn’t be of this world. It was one human, but every part of its body was a part of a different person. One portion of its face belonged to one person, the other portion belonged to somebody else. One of its eyes belonged to a child and the other to an old man. One of its hands was small whilst the other large and buff.
Yasin couldn’t possibly count the number of human body portions that made up this entity. It was like Frankenstein’s monster, but it didn’t look nearly as humane. It was as if some alien species had tried to take shape of three hundred humans at once, and failed at each one of them.
Its revolting long mouth was eating something. Human flesh. In front of it lay the remnants of a young girl with black hair, and the beast snapped open her head and took out her brain, moving between his hands, letting out a high-pitched growl, then throwing it away.
The next thing Yasin knew was that she had to get away. Slow and steady, quiet as a mouse.