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An Excerpt from Arcana Aeternum

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This excerpt represents the first ten chapters of Arcana Aeternum, a deep exploration of concepts of identity in a setting that questions the very basis of the mortal conceit.

Scifi / Drama
Sebastian Quinn
Age Rating:

The Part where Wadjet Wakes Up

This log involves events occurring on an Eco Shell, a massive space station with a population in the billions. These pages of ancillary data, prefacing each chapter and formatted in a more pragmatic typeface, are meant to give context to any reader who may not understand the conventions of life in such a place.

The general structure of the habitable portion of the Eco Shell is a ring with many spokes. The spokes themselves house communities, and are represented in the governing body as sovereign states.

Transportation within these spokes is primarily foot traffic. It is possible to get anywhere on the Shell on foot, but traveling up and down stairs, across the long floors that connect partial spokes to their neighbors, and back out to the intended floor, can be time consuming. To this end, there are elevators that run the length of the spokes, and a rail system that transports individuals from spoke to spoke along the outside of the ring.

At any given time, a ring is subdivided into day evening and night. For most, this means traveling to work from their spoke in the morning, to a spoke that is having their evening time, coming home for recreational time in their own evening, and sleeping during the night. As is often the case, the minorities outweigh the majority. Some individuals stay behind in the morning to clean, and some travel constantly, staying in the evening time zone where the action is.

To facilitate this constant and predictable flux, the rail system was built in three stages. One set of small pods that move from spoke to spoke, larger cars with seating and overhead compartments to travel in thirty degree intervals, and the long express lines with space in the lower deck for rare freight necessities.

The Part where Wadjet Wakes Up

Wadjet woke knowing very little, and seeing even less. After a little groping in the dark, she took a short tumble which deposited her on a cold metal floor. She could see the small green luggage container from which she had tumbled, but she didn’t have the cogency to recognize how such an event would not normally make sense. The time it took her to arrange her numb limbs in a sitting position told her that she wasn’t just waking up from a deep sleep, and she wondered briefly if she had been drugged before she realized there was a voice spouting words at her which she should probably pay attention to.

“—and if yuh think I’m gonna overlook this on account of yer size, yer sorely mistaken. The transit system pays a high price for the location and apprehend… ation of stowaways.”

Shaking her head in a final attempt to gather her senses all in one place, Wadjet looked out from the small pile of vacuum-packed…she wasn’t sure what they were, but they were brown and had strange labels on them like “plantain” and “cavendish.” She tasted the air instinctively and found the faint musty scent of dirt hanging in the air.

A massive shadow crossed over Wadjet, causing her to flinch, and reminding her that there were more pressing issues than the lumps of dirt around her. “Alright, varmint, that’s enough stalling. Be ye man or be ye machine?” The looming figure was a thick-set woman in a blue fitted vest and denim pants with violet stripes in them. The strange light and dark pattern of her skin made her face look like a grinning, distinctly feline skull. Wadjet could not tell from looking if it was makeup or her actual skin tone. The effect was also not helped by the vibrant ultraviolet glow of her eyes, which made Wadjet’s mouth water. They seemed to have a pattern traced in each iris like a duo of exotic rainforest flowers. Her hair was short and held loose, silver-blue curls. The way that the woman stood gave the impression that she wanted Wadjet to take her very seriously, and to acknowledge the very stern words she said in the foggy stowaway’s direction, but her melodramatic demeanor just made Wadjet giggle.

The young woman looked up into the corner of her eyes and began reading something from an invisible list. “Any individual... addressed by a samaritan... whose information is not readily available... is encouraged to present that samaritan with rights to, or with a valid copy of, their current citizenship status. Complying with this request grants a compensation of... six credits, and any further assistance will be similarly compensated.”

“I’m sorry—” Wadjet winced as she heard her own voice for what was evidently the first time. It was soft and sweet and carried a slight tremolo of appeasement she didn’t necessarily like. She cleared her throat and tried to deepen her tone. “I’m sorry, but are you asking for ID?” Wadjet mimed patting her pockets, and when she felt skin, her stomach dropped out from under her. Looking down, she found that she was a naked lizard.

“Yes, varmint.” the woman who claimed to be a samaritan replied brusquely. “If yer a people you gotta pay fare tuh be on this transport, but if yer a robot you gotta stay turned off for the duration of the trip.”

Ignoring the cop, Wadjet ducked behind the nearest vacuum packet, attempting to hide whatever was indecent on a lizard. Her panicked thoughts covered a number of topics including sheer bewilderment at her ignorance of her own anatomy, and concern about the volume of personal information she seemed to lack. She did not, however, stop to consider the demands the woman was making. The studded metal floor panels were cold against her splayed reptilian digits and she did her best to stay upright, but her hips didn’t seem to agree with the posture as much as she’d like. She chose to crouch and cross her arms over her bare chest.

The woman squinted and leaned forward to keep Wadjet in view. “So, which is it?”

“Which is what?”

“Which are you?”

“Which am I of what?”

The woman sighed in frustration, “—a people, or a robot?”

“That’s a bit rude, isn’t it?” Wadjet tried in vain to squirm closer to the packet and away from prying eyes.

“What is? I’m offering yuh money if’n yuh make my job easier. Just pass me permission to look atchur details, darlin’.”

Wadjet blinked vacantly at the woman. “My name is Wadjet, I appear to be a tiny reptile that has tumbled out of someone’s bag of luggage, my favorite color is lavender, I’m pretty good on a viola, I think your accent is adorable, but anything more than that, I just don’t know. I don’t know a thing about passing permissions or citizenship status, or anything that might have happened before about a minute ago. I feel like I’m a person, if that’s a feeling one might have, but I don’t think I have any money, so I suppose I hope I’m a robot, because I don’t want to be thrown off this… whatever this is, but if I’m a robot, you can count turning myself off among the many very simple things I do not know how to do. I’m really very sorry, but I’m scared and confused and way too naked to deal with this right now.”

The woman had drawn a short padded stick, about the length of her forearm (and the approximate height of one Wadjet) from a loop at her belt and was touching it to her chin thoughtfully. “Well, if you’re a Citizen, you’re too small to have a brain in you”—

Wadjet rolled her eyes.

—“so this you that’s here would be called a peripheral interface.” She pronounced the words as if she were unfamiliar with them. “I s’pose that’d mean that yer think-ball has either paid fare and is somewhere in the cabin, or isn’t even on the transit. Nothin’s comin’ up when you think about the stuff I’m sayin’?”

Wadjet shrugged awkwardly from her shame-hiding position on the floor. “I’d say nothing you’re saying makes sense, but it makes just as much sense as anything else so far, so the bar’s not really that high. I’m just not aware of the right way to answer you.”

The woman sighed and threw herself back onto a heavy cushion that lay near what looked to be the only door out of the small freight cabin. “This job sounded a damn sight easier when I got aboard.”

Wadjet took the opportunity to turn toward the luggage bag and inspect the numerous other packets that had been stuffed in along with her. A few of the labels sounded familiar, but her attention was held by one in particular which claimed to be a “Shirt, Flannel, Red”, and while she had to wonder what major defect of mental processes would lead an individual to pack their belongings like mortared bricks, she was glad to find, when she tore at the plastic, that what was inside was in fact a red flannel shirt. However, even with the sleeves wrapped under her arms, across her back, and tied at her neck, the shirt was a few inches too long for a dress.

When she finally felt civilized, she turned back to the samaritan, awkwardly maneuvering her foreign anatomy into a lounging position on one of the packets of dirt. “So what’s your name?”

The officer of the law blinked away some imagined distraction and turned her focus back to the lizard offender. “Cerval. You said yer name is Wadjet? Can you spell that?”

The lizard tried to shrug, but in her current position it wasn’t very comfortable. “Maybe it’s W-A-S-H-E-T, maybe a Z instead of an S, or W-A-H-apostrophe-J-E-T-T-E… Honestly I’m only vaguely sure I can read. I’ve been reading these packets, but I don’t know if that’s a language or, like, robo-code, so I can’t be sure I’m not just hallucinating.”

“I don’t blame you,” Cerval sighed. “Not many have much of a reason tuh read these days—kids passing thoughts back and forth on their implants. I’m sure if it wernt in the education system no one would bother.”

Wadjet’s elbow was going numb again so she shifted to a more comfortable position on her belly. “Is that what you’re using? An implant?”

“Oh, o’course. I just picked this samaritan job up on my way to the office. I can’t imagine how I’d get all this infermation otherwise. I’d have tuh know what I needed ahead’a time, and download it from a terminal. Are you not connected to the network? Like, when I mention the founding samaritan, you don’t get an image of an old guy in a coat and fedora? Or at least ‘is name: Kincaid?”

“I’m not a samaritan, so I wouldn’t remember what he looks like or his name.”

“No, I mean from yer connection?” Cerval was following the conversation but she had her attention divided. Her fingers twitched as she sat with the padded club across her knees. There was something Wadjet couldn’t quite place about the woman, something that made the lizard want to like her. She reminded her of someone close. The diminutive lizard was startled when she spoke again. “You’ve only got one IO thread, I’d guess that’s your think-ball. Fer some reason I can’t get a trace back to it. I’m pretty sure I’m doin’ this right… As far as the system is concerned, yer not here, so I guess I could make it easy on the both of us and just say you should probably squeeze yer little self back in that bag and go to sleep. Yer probably a robot, and sleep is kind of like being off. I think that’ll count, and neither of us will get in any trouble.”

“You don’t want to chat?” Wadjet was disappointed for a number of reasons.

“Nah, I was really just lookin’ for a free ride. Savin’ money where I can so’s I can keep up appearances at the office.”

Wadjet stifled a laugh. “So they pay stowaways to check for stowaways?”

“That’s what I was thinkin’. Sweet deal right? I didn’t realize I’d run into some kinda livin question mark.”

“Well, pardon me for questioning your existential binary. Would it ease your mind if I slit my wrist so you could see if I bleed or spurt oil?”

Cerval took the question more seriously than intended and had to pause to think. “I’m not sure if that would be an answer, and I don’t really like where this little talk is headed. I’ve just gotten myself into a really comfy place in life right now, and you sound like yer gonna start asking some serious political and religious questions that I’m just not willing to explore.”

Wadjet shrugged. “I guess that’s a practical stance, and if it means we’re both just trying to stay out of trouble, I’m game. s’just…” Wadjet felt her dialectical slip and hoped it didn’t make her sound like she was making fun of the woman. “I’m not all that tired, that bag feels like a tomb, and you look a bit like a flamboyant grim reaper.”

“Oh, this?” Cerval circled her face with her index finger. “It’s a literary thing; not everyone gets it. It’s based on a nickname from an old friend, and I haven’t had a chance to get it changed. Here.” The samaritan pulled a small green bottle out from among her things. “This stuff is usually too expensive for my taste, but it’s pretty good fer force-scheduling a nap. I don’t figure you’ll need more’n a nip.” She removed the cap, fished a small white cube out of a pocket and poured some of the green liquid over it and into the cap. The substance fizzed and foamed as the cube melted.

Wadjet accepted the proffered cap, which she held in both hands like a small bowl, and took a tentative sip.

It tasted like the back of her nose was being pulled down her throat, and it was the last thing she remembered other than a friendly warmth that settled over her nervous energy like a blanket.

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