Count to Three
ONE. Humans inhabit Earth’s surface.
TWO. Elementalists inhabit their country twenty-five thousand feet elevated in the sky.
THREE. Uns exist in the middle of the two societies and live with the Elementalists.
October 3, 2316
On the floor in the other room, Aideen played with several of her toys. Karin watched her from her position in the kitchen where she worked on a few batches of cookies. After deliberation, she decided on sugar cookies. While not terribly popular, she found them easy to make. Karin glanced up from cutting her circle and smiled. The afternoon sunlight filtered through the front window and gave Aideen an angelic appearance. In one hand, she held a GI Joe, and the other a Barbie. The Barbie towered over the smaller soldier, but Aideen didn’t bat an eye. Her pretend conversation for the dolls drifted through the air and warmed Karin’s heart as she rolled out the dough.
“If I don’t kill the enemy out there, then you may die.” The Barbie danced across the floor. “How brave for protecting me, I feel like I am your princess.”
Karin slid the cookie sheet inside the oven for baking.
“Baby, you’re not a princess. You’re my queen.”
The nanny snorted and covered her mouth with her hand to try and hide the noise.
Aideen looked up. “Karin, why do grown-ups call each other baby?”
“It’s a nickname. Babies are precious. It’s a way of saying you want to take care of the other person. I’m not sure where it came from.”
“Does daddy call you ‘baby’?”
“No. At least, he hasn’t, yet.”
“Do you want him to?” She stood up and carried both dolls with her into the kitchen. It took her several long moments to struggle up onto the stool at the counter while still holding her toys.
“I’ll be happy with any nickname your father wants to give me.”
“There are lots of nicknames?” Aideen snuck her hand over the counter and pulled a small amount of dough off to eat raw.
“A whole bunch.”
“Daddy calls me baby, sometimes.”
“Parents do that with their children.” Karin passed her a larger chunk of the dough.
“Can you bake cookies with your hands?”
“Human hands aren’t warm enough to bake them.”
“How hot does it have to be?”
“Three-hundred and fifty degrees for these cookies.”
Aideen hummed and rolled the dough in her hands. She closed it between her palms and a bright flash of light later, the little girl held out a baked cookie. “Like this?”
“You’re really good at magic. What’d you do with the dough I gave you?”
“It’s right here. I baked it with my hands.”
“There’s no way you did. You did a magic trick. You switched your dough with a baked cookie.”
“I didn’t, I baked it in my hands. I can do it again.”
Annoyed, Karin grabbed the cookie, expecting it to be cool, and nearly dropped it when the hot treat nearly burned her fingers. “How?”
“With matches.” Aideen held out her hands and red flame burst around her skin. Karin failed to hold in her scream at the sight.
“Matches?” She repeated dumbly.
“When daddy asks me to light the candles I do it like this. He always says I’m good at using matches. It’s matches.”
“That’s not matches, Aideen. You shouldn’t be doing that.”
“But daddy lets me.”
“Well, I’m banning it. You can’t light candles that way, it’s wrong.”
“Aideen,” she warned softly.
“No!” The child reached for the cookie she flash-baked, but Karin slapped her hand away.
“You don’t get cookies if you keep doing that.”
“Give me my cookie. I baked it.” Aideen demanded. She kicked the counter repeatedly with her legs.
“You’re going into time out. Go to your room.”
“I didn’t do anything!” She screamed.
Karin grabbed the child around the waist and swung her off the chair to put her in a forceful timeout, but she didn’t count on the toddler defending herself. A blast of fire swept out from the child and caught the kitchen on fire; her toys melted to the marble counter. Karin dropped Aideen out of pain and the child rolled over the tile. She ran for the door into the living room.
Flames erupted into life behind her from room to room. Karin followed hot on her heels. Neither of them noticed as the fire swelled and cut off their escape route down the stairs. The smoke grew thick in the air and Karin dropped to her knees. She found the child in her father’s bedroom under the bed and she grabbed her by the ankle and pulled her out. Her hand blistered when she let go.
Aideen ran fearless into the flames on the stairs and yanked the front door open. Karin swallowed hard and used the first momentary break in the flames to leap over the banister and into the foyer. Her ankle stung from the impact, but she followed the girl nonetheless—adrenaline coursed through her as she caught Aideen around the waist and pulled them to the ground.
“Let go!” She screamed over and over. Her legs flailed and kicked behind her until her knee connected solidly with Karin’s face.
The woman cried out in pain and the dry grass around them burst into flame. Aideen scrambled across the ground to the sidewalk, but when she turned back, she found Karin didn’t move. Her skin black and blistered. Her eyes stared vacantly out of their sockets and her face hardly human. The child screamed and curled into a fetal position—too terrified to recognize the harried cries of approaching sirens.
ONE. Humans need to be completely separated from newly presented elementalists for their own safety.
TWO. The elementalists are not allowed to use their abilities to assist the human race. People dying of deadly diseases who can be cured cannot seek help from the other race inhabiting Earth’s surface.
THREE. The Uns are a de-mutation and need to be separated from the elementalists. They are not human.
“Why is the filing system archaic?” Luana stood in front of one of the walls of grey filing cabinets with a stack of papers cradled in her arms.
Hans silently continued to file his own pages. The crash of 2180 imprinted on humanity as one of the biggest informational losses. None of the information stored online had a reliable backup; as a result, the elementalists and the world lost irrecoverable data. Paper records returned to fashion. Old versions of documents appropriately shredded and recycled.
The printer roared to life in the corner and shuddered out another few hundred pages before it beeped contentedly and shut off. Luana pursed her lips and flicked her ponytail behind her with enough force to flip it back into her own face. She sputtered and Hans let out a quiet guffaw.
None of them enjoyed filing, but no ordinary elementalists could be allowed inside council chambers. Their chambers remained their only sanctuary from the outside world.
“I propose a competition.” Hans opened one of the drawers with a loud click. He shuffled several pages and stuffed them into one of the unfortunate, overflowing manila folders. The drawer slid shut again. Luana focused entirely on him. “We could see who can file faster.”
“What does the winner get?”
She laughed openly and looked back at her own set of papers. “The ‘no real prize’ deal.”
“I can tell you’re scared. It’s understandable.” His hand landed on the handle of another drawer, but a light kick to his shin stopped him.
“I’ll accept your wager.”
Hans strode across the room and pulled the fresh stack from the printer. He roughly split it in half and added to both of their piles. “I’ll give you the honors.”
Both tackled the project differently but stayed evenly matched for twenty minutes. Sweat dripped down their faces, but they hardly noticed long enough wipe it away. On the last set, Luana finished milliseconds before Hans and she stood, narrowly missing hitting her head on his open drawer. It shut behind her and she found herself pinned to the cabinets in a kabedon stance.
“I won,” her voice cracked around the words.
“Bragging rights are yours.” He smiled and leaned down.
The door opened with a flourish and hit the table behind it. Hans slid away gracefully from the situation instead of jumping back as his nerves screamed at him to do.
“Sorry to interrupt,” Series’ eyes flitted between them, “but there’s an emergency. A five-year-old in America awoke her elementalist abilities. There’s one confirmed death. We’ve been called in.”
“Fill me in on the way upstairs.” Luana pulled her phone from her pocket and hit the emergency app installed on the home screen. With one swipe of her thumb, sirens blared through the academy and alerted the council and appropriate parties they would be leaving the country immediately.
Once together in the main entryway, they swung on their robes and left the chambers in a flourish of red. As they stalked through the halls, elementalists leapt out of their way. Ethan tripped a handful of times on his robes, but they made it to the transportation pods in record time. The mechanical team sent them off with a salute.
ONE. The power elementalists are born with is dangerous and can harm others, especially the weaker human race.
TWO. Elementalists are not meant to play with the fate of homo sapiens as the superior homo elementa.
THREE. The Uns are not elementalists, but they are still part of the elementalist people. Unworthy of death, unlike the rogue’s, they are separated behind guarded fences for their own safety.
A projection of Luana sat in the middle of the pod and Ethan found it terrifying how the image moved to accommodate his slightest movements. He could never escape her gaze and he wondered if she could see all four of them at once.
“Series gave me the basic rundown of the situation.” She rubbed her eye with an irritated expression. “A five-year-old in Why, Arizona awoke their elementalist abilities as a Fire elementalist, confirmed. The firemen are standing by with a water hose if necessary, but we’ve requested they hold off on spraying her.”
“Can she take that much water pressure blasting into her?” Scarlet’s voice filtered across the surround sound.
“Yes, because it’s just water. Water isn’t stronger than fire—basic elemental facts. She killed someone, most likely a parent in the home with her. The house is in ruins and every flame except for the child is put out. Our mission is to recover her without further deaths or damages to the surrounding area. She, or a potential second parent, may resist removal and we need to be prepared for removal by force. If necessary, I will give the signal and Hans will subdue the child.”
“Understood.” Eilene leaned against Dwayne’s shoulder and missed the twinge of annoyance from Scott across the pod.
“Dwayne, Scarlet, and Eilene, I expect the three of you to be on cleanup duty. You’ll need to repair the surrounding area where possible and work with local law enforcement to settle any disputes about damage claims. Series, you stay back at the pod and arrange for a psychologist and therapist to be at the ready for when we arrive back home. The child will no doubt be scarred by the events today and her mental health is our first priority. Ethan, stick close to Scott and he’ll show you the basics of standing as a sentry between us and the humans. If anything happens, you’ll need to step in.”
“Clear as day.” Dwayne announced for their compartment. “We’ll handle it according to your specifications.”
“I want to be in and out within thirty minutes.” The projection cut off and left them in silence.
“I assume not all removals are easy?” Ethan shifted to sit on his left foot, a comfortable position for watching their descent out the window.
“Not by a long shot.” Eilene shook her head. “I heard from the others yours was an interesting disaster.”
“Disaster for sure, but I left easily.”
“That was you done, but do you know how many humans we had to resuscitate that night? Not to mention all the countless elementalists we found mixed in with that bunch. It was a long night.” Scott closed his eyes and rested his head against the side of the pod.
“You were there?”
He made a non-committal noise. “I was still new. I didn’t recognize you until we looked up your file when you joined the council.”
“I’m disappointed I missed out on all the fun by a few months.” Dwayne chuckled. “But I’m sure the elementalist before me was quite capable.”
“Does the entire council always show up to remove kids from earth’s surface?” Ethan thought back to all his previous encounters with the council, which included all seven of them.
“No, we actually have a large-scale operations removal team. There’s at least one member for every language in the world and we try to have the elements as diverse as possible. It’s only the highly dangerous situations or the ones where we sense a particularly powerful elementalist we get called in on. I think almost all of the current council members were pulled by previous council members. Most of the time we try to send only one or two members—but a death changes the situation entirely. Collateral damage, a couple council members can sort it out in no time—a death, well,” Eilene shrugged. “We’ve now changed the lives of some humans without meaning to. We’ll need to pay the repercussions. It’ll never be enough to make them happy. We can’t bring dead people back to life.”
“Why can’t the normal removal team do the dangerous ones?” Ethan rolled his shoulders against the glass and glanced around the five-seater compartment. He had no room to stretch out his legs when the pod filled with tall people.
“They lack the same finesse and control a council member has. Even if we’re younger, we are the strongest representative in the country. If we sent in someone less capable than Hans to subdue the child, say we can’t get her out without using our abilities, there’s a chance she’d be killed by a less stable hand.” Dwayne put an arm around Eilene and pulled her further into him subconsciously. “We don’t want to kill our own people.”
“Which is why we’re forbidden to spar with one another without two instructors present.” Eilene yawned. “There’s a fifty-one percent chance we’d end up killing each other in a head to head spar without someone to intervene. With someone there, presumably more powerful, they can break up the fight before it turns deadly. As council members, we rarely spar with each other. Instead, we use specially designed technology which can take the brunt of our power without being destroyed.”
“Most of the time.” Scott amended her statement quietly; a scowl settled on his lips.
“Ignoring the rules on sparring,” Dwayne shifted the conversation back to their main goal for the day, “we have a child to extract.”
“Do you think their parents will resist?” Ethan stretched his arms above his head.
“It’s happened before. We have to take them per a governmental contract. If we don’t, we take liability for all damages and deaths they cause.” Eilene flipped her hair into a bun.
“It’s a legal obligation.” The Death elementalist nodded in understanding. “We’re going to Arizona?”
“Yes, Why.” Eilene paused and pursed her lips. “I wasn’t questioning you, by the way, it’s the name of the city.”
Dwayne rolled his shoulders and looked at the approaching desert landscape. “It’s fascinating how the desert here is different from Kalahari.”
“You would think they’d be the same.” Eilene’s eyes roamed over the sage brush covered mountains and rising rock spires. “This one resembles the landscape in the City of Barren more than anything else.”
“Elementōrum Patriam is part of the east coast, not the west.” Ethan pitched in. “I feel like I’m back home in Wyoming—or Nevada. This whole area is just the same stuff. Fire fodder.”
The spent the rest of their ride in relative silence and exchanged snacks and drinks. A short way out of landing in Why, they put on their robes. Ethan struggled with his, especially when getting the black mesh face piece into place, but Eilene helped him fit it snuggly over his body to conceal any defining features. Once the pods stopped outside the line of emergency vehicles, the doors opened and the eight Council members stepped out of their pods.
The crowd of humans parted around them as they moved toward the safety barriers and through the throngs of emergency personnel. Inside the sectioned off area, a little girl sat on her front lawn in the midst of blackened blades of grass. She pressed her head into her arms folded against her raised knees. They heard her cries and flames leapt off her body in dizzying patterns.
Luana approached the child and knelt on the ground in front of her.
“What’s your name?”
“I see you can control fire.”
“My daddy calls it ‘matches’.”
“Your dad knows you can control fire?”
“He always says I’m good at using matches when we light candles.”
“I see,” Luana crossed her legs and took a firm seat on the dry grass. “You’re very pretty. How old are you?”
“Five.” Aideen wiggled her toes in the char and looked up at Luana. “The firemen threatened to spray me with the hose. I don’t know how to stop my matches.”
“It’s really easy. Do you want me to show you?”
“You know how to do matches too?”
Luana nodded and put out her hand. It lit up in bright red flame and girl marveled at it. “It’s a special ability we share. When you’re scared of the flames, they get stronger and you can’t control them. As long as you’re not scared, you can do it at will.”
Aideen touched her flaming palm to Luana’s and moved from her fetal position to a more open and relaxed one. “I don’t want to be scared of my matches.”
“There’s no reason to be.”
The flames around the child ebbed in the near silence.
“Do you want to learn how to control them? You can come back to my home with me and we’ll show you how.”
“I’m not supposed to go anywhere with strangers. Daddy and Karin told me that.”
Tears spilled down the child’s cheeks and her flames flared up again. The firemen held up their hose, but at the approach of Scott and Ethan, they lowered it again. “Karin is my nanny. I killed her with my matches when she said I couldn’t use them anymore. Daddy always praised me on using matches, but she tried to take them away.”
The Council’s gazes flitted to the body bag on site.
“That would be distressful.” Luana placed a hand on top of Aideen’s head. “I have a secret for you.”
“What is it?”
“If you come with us, I know you can show the whole world what you can do. Karin is right to say you can’t follow strangers, but we aren’t strangers when we have the same ability.”
“We’re not strangers?”
“Nope! I know your name is Aideen and you’re five-years-old. I also know you can control fire, which means we’re practically best friends already.”
The child giggled and the flames disappeared.
“Look at that, they’re gone. Do you want to come with me and show everyone what you can do?”
Aideen nodded and took Luana’s hand. They stood and started their walk back to the transportation pods. Dwayne knelt on the ground behind them and restored the landscape with a simple flick of his wrist. Ethan’s jaw fell open in awe as even the cut, twisted, and charred timbers of the house restored themselves to their former glory.
A sharp voice cut through them as they approached the pods.
“Step away from my daughter!”
ONE. As the first race present on the planet, humans persevered despite elementalist evolution and still make up a majority of the world’s population.
TWO. Elementalists are proof of Darwin’s theory of evolution at its finest, and they prove nothing is impossible.
THREE. The Uns are an exception to Darwinism and should be studied further in an environment free from elementalist tampering.
Kim sat in his office at work and pretended to concentrate on problems he needed to address. He had a headache and the blue light caused burnout on his tired eyes. He only had a small amount of work to complete for the day and it didn’t look like he would get more. Kim leaned forward onto his desk and pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes. After a low, distressed groan, he turned back to his computer. Instead of jumping into his work, he turned to Google to look for new date spots where he could take Karin on a second date.
Aideen used to be the only source of worry in his life, but Karin moved into a free space in his mind and her appearance consumed him. Once he found a few potential options to check out, he did his best to focus on his work.
He worked for an hour before the ringing of his cell phone interrupted him. He scrambled to silence it as electronics should be on vibrate at minimum during the work day. Kim stood and speed walked to the break room where he could take the call without interrupting his coworkers.
“Kim? This is Sarah, your neighbor.”
He recognized the name.
“Your house is on fire. There’s a body—the fire crews are having a hard time putting it out.”
The phone dropped from his hand to the floor.
There’s a body. The words echoed around his head and swirled into a terrified spiral of the worst possibilities.
“Kim? Kim? Are you still there?”
He scooped up his phone and tore through the office to his desk. “I’m on my way, Sarah.”
“Kim, where are you going?” His boss yelled after him.
“My house is on fire. I’m going home.” He raced down the stairs to the underground parking and tore out of his assigned stall in his hover car.
On the drive home, he managed to stick to a speed that wouldn’t get him flagged for speeding by any passing cops. At his street, he couldn’t pull into it because of the emergency vehicles, and he parked his car illegally on the corner. As he shoved open the door, Kim noticed two transportation pods parked on the street and he felt his heart stutter in his chest.
I won’t allow it.
Frantic running down the street. An illegal jump over the barricade. A cop yelling after him. The elementalists on his charred lawn, hand held out to Aideen. In agonizing slow motion, between each pound of his shoes on the concrete, the five-year-old placed her hand in the elementalist’s. They stood and walked toward the waiting pods. The words clawed their way out of his throat before he could think about doing anything else.
“Step away from my daughter!” Heavy breaths escaped his lungs as he drew near to the edge of the street. The emergency personnel stopped their own chase—their eyes flitted back and forth between the two as if watching a tennis match.
“She is one of us.” The woman, he assumed from her voice, wrapped her hand tightly around Aideen’s and stood.
“She is my daughter.” Kim took a step closer to them and watched the little girl shrink away. “You can’t take her from me.”
“We are required to by law—we apologize for any strain this may cause your family and will provide adequate compensation to repair your home.”
“You think you can buy my daughter?” Kim’s voice cracked over the words. “No monetary value could cover the cost of you taking her away from me.”
“It is hard to lose a child, but she is an elementalist. This is for your safety. There is no other way.”
“Daddy, I want to go with them.” Aideen peered out from behind the stranger’s robe. “They can show me how to control my matches.”
“Aideen, if you go with them, I will never see you again. You’ll never see me again—you can’t leave your father.” Kim fell to his knees and held out his arms, ready to receive her in a hug.
“Daddy won’t want me. I killed Karin.” Her lower lip quivered and her gaze diverted to the ground. “I don’t want to kill daddy too.”
“What?” His gaze trailed over the wreckage and at the ambulance, he witnessed several people transporting a body in a bag on a stretcher into the back of a tented SUV style hover car. He focused back on Aideen’s face.
“Karin told me not to use my matches and I got mad.” She burst into tears and tugged at the elementalists’ robes. “They told me they’ll help me control my matches. I want to go with them, so I don’t kill daddy.”
“Aideen, please,” Kim’s voice softened. “Your daddy can’t live without you. He’ll help you with your matches.”
“Not allowed, sir.” A police officer broke in. “I’m afraid your daughter will have to leave with the elementalists today.”
“You can’t let them do this to me.” He pled.
“This is yours.” Another elementalist walked forward, female, and held out a bank card to him. “There should be enough to pay for the damages to your home as well as extra for displacing you and your daughter.”
Kim bit his tongue. He knew no matter what he said it wouldn’t stop the outcome of the situation. They paid him off for his only child with an laughably low amount of money.
One of the elementalists wrapped a fire-retardant blanket around Aideen’s shoulders before they hoisted the child into the air.
“You’ll be safe with us.” The council member reassured.
“Aideen, I love you.” Kim called after them, his voice nearly inaudible over the sound of emergency vehicles restarting. “I will come for you.”
He struggled to his feet and one of the officers watched him closely to make sure he wouldn’t chase after the elementalists.
Aideen stared over the shoulder of the council member until the moment the car door shut; the child separated from her father. Kim raised a hand and clutched at his shirt; he pulled at the fabric above his heart.
ONE. Humans are set to follow the whims and rules of the elementalists.
TWO. Elementalists have too much power.
THREE. The Uns are tired of watching their world die behind a fence.
Aideen didn’t speak for the entire ride into the sky where Elementōrum Patriam awaited them. The pod lowered itself in its soft spiral until it reached the unloading platform of the docking garage. The council stepped out of the pod and flanked the small child. Whispers followed their procession into the main entry hallway where they a line of Academy professionals greeted them.
“Fire,” Luana called out with command.
A woman with graying hair pulled into a tight ponytail stepped forward immediately. She turned with military precision and walked toward them.
“Aideen, this is Madame Dyan, she is one of the many teachers at our school. She’ll help you to control your power.” Luana explained. “Madame Dyan, this is Aideen Rolfe. She is a confirmed Fire elementalist. We pulled her from a loving home with a doting father. Please take good care of her.”
“Of course, your grace.” Dyan bowed respectfully to the council members. Her thick French accent washed over them. “Lady Aideen, would you like to meet the other teachers who will help you grow?”
Aideen turned back to the council. “You’re leaving me?”
“I’m afraid we have to, but Madame Dyan is exceptionally kind. She’ll be a much better teacher than myself. I look forward to hearing the report of your progress. Please make sure to work extra hard!” Luana encouraged.
“Madame Dyan, can I see your fire?”
“Of course, little one.” The woman held out her hand the flames danced in colors across the rainbow. Aideen clapped and grasped the woman’s hand.
“Please show me how to make a rainbow.”
The council slipped away while the officials distracted her. The other officials of the academy bowed as they passed. They treated the return to their chamber with less urgency than their exit, but they made sure to walk upright and calm.
Once inside the main hallway, as they shirked off their robes, Dwayne offered up an option for their evening.
“We get back from rescuing a five-year-old from an extremely tense situation where she has committed accidental manslaughter and you offer virtual tennis a solution?” Series gently hung her robe on its respective hook and watched the taller man out of the corner of her eye.
“I have to agree with Dwayne—it would be more fun.” Scarlet pitched in as she spread out the robe to avoid creases. “I’d hate to give any more thought to politics after the day we’ve had.”
“I think, it’s a great idea.” Luana admitted. Her shoulders slumped forward, and her face rested, devoid of any distinct emotions. “I can’t possibly think straight after today. Emergency pulls are always the worst.”
“I’m up for a game of ping pong—I don’t think I can bring myself to make the full swings tennis requires.” Ethan yawned and stretched his arms over his head.
“Fair assessment.” Eilene leaned against Scott and let out a slow breath. “I think I may nap lightly while you guys play.”
“Perfect plans,” Scarlet smiled and headed down the hall. “Last one to the game room plays first!”
ONE. Humans frequently find themselves less athletically inclined.
TWO. Elementalists are heavily regulated by human laws.
THREE. The Uns are almost completely unchecked.
October 10, 2316
Why, Arizona, United States of America
They took my daughter. Kim reclined on the bed in cheap motel he found in town. He convinced himself of bed bugs in the sheets, but he couldn’t find it in himself to complain to management. They will pay. He clenched his teeth unable to pay attention to the true crime show playing on the television. The TV could only get one channel, and he considered most of the shows on the network absolute trash. Kim couldn’t return to work until he finished dealing with the grief of the situation—he didn’t know if it had a significant ending point. She is the spot of brightness in my world—it’s their fault she’s not here.
Kim grasped the TV remote and turned it off. He rolled over on the bed and stared out the dingy half curtained window. He saw a few people make their way past in swimsuits, but he held no interest in joining them. He needed a plan to get his daughter back from a country twenty-five thousand feet in the air
If they never existed, my life would be normal. I would still have my daughter. The elementalists are a plague—leaving only destruction in their wake. It is my duty to stand against them and take back what is rightfully mine. Kim sat up. He needed to research and find help. If he wanted to be successful in affecting the governmental policies which governed between the elementalists and the humans. He needed other parents like him.