Chapter 6 - A Test of Skill
The next several days progressed at an ordinary pace. For years, these people have been trying to obtain the one thing that could return them to their normal lives; the time machine. This machine, Edith said, had the power to transport anyone to a desired time. The Lothar corperation used it to take people from their time, but we could use it to take them back. This cooperation had been using this machine for the last three decades. Stealing minorities from their miserable lives of oppression and terror.
Not only were their victims minorities of race, religion, sex, gender identities, and sexual orientation… But these “Forgotten” had no value to the historical timeline. Edith, Catori, Bhaskar, Helda, Ralph and I held no value to this world. Our lives, in the eyes of the universe, would be forgotten by society. That’s why we were chosen. To prohibit the elimination of history you needed to pick those who would not change it. Our only value to history was supposed to be spent serving the twisted desires of the superior race and culture.
In summary, my life, meant nothing.
Grappling onto this strange world I encountered many changes that a simple man like me could only dream of. I found myself bogged down by the complexities of the new social and technological world. But this life of displacement didn’t drag down the others, no.
They embraced it.
7 years ago a couple of hundred people inhabited this factory. The top floor being used for leaders, while the descending floors were assigned to the ordinary Forgotten. Ralph told me of the facilities hidden within this place, both for leisure and training. And this information astounded me.
One afternoon Blake revealed that the black boxes were in fact phones. I denied it, saying it couldn’t be possible. But sure enough, they pulled out their phone and called Ralph across the room, who picked it up immediately.
To add to the wonder of 2020, the record player Catori brought me played an assortment of jazz dating all the way back to the 1920s. Blake noticed my liking for the music and brought me a book that explained it’s history. Over the last couple of days I laid in the morning sun, turning pages while exploring the beautiful masterpieces this time had to offer. The others seemed to understand that I needed to understand this world at my own pace. And thankfully, they gave me all the space I needed.
Everyone except Ralph and Helda had a job outside the factory. They’d all disappear for several hours and return to whatever meal they were present for. Although everyone seemed to be focused on their own lives, they made an effort to eat as a unit. Like a family. They’d share stories of the past and discuss current events.
And after a couple of days, I found myself sharing stories too. I spoke of my sister, no surprise there. As well as my work, and thoughts on the war. During a gloomy afternoon Blake had asked me to talk more about my interests. I didn’t know how to react. No one had ever asked me that before, nor did anyone care in the society I lived in.
Not understanding, Blake asked again, rephrasing their words. I spoke of my love for flowers, and how I kept dozens in my room. How’d I’d watch the sun kiss their leaves before the moon came to nurture silence. I moved on to my fascination of music, telling the group how crazy it was to discover just how popular black artists had become. They all knew this information, but they listened to me anyways. I could tell in their eyes that they actually cared about what I had to say…
“Catori?” Edith walked across the floor, joining us at the dining table set between the elevator and kitchen.
“Yeah?”Catori mumbled through her food, turning in response.
Whenever Catori spoke to her, Edith’s boiled expression softened, “Is Raymond awake?”
Catori nodded, raising her finger briefly to set down her fork, “Yes, he’s right here.” She moved out of her view of me.
“My apologies, I didn’t see you. Are you finished with your lunch?” Edith looked across the table, asking everyone.
“Yes.” Only I gave a verbal response, putting all eyes on me.
Catori laid her arms on the table, “Did you have something planned?” She asked softly.
“I did. Ralph, are you busy?”
Ralph looked up, surprised by Edith’s attention shift. Him and Helda exchanged a glance of uncertainty before Ralph spoke, “No, what do you need?” He twisted his arms, backing away from the table.
“We’re all going downstairs to train. I would like for everyone to join.”
Train..? Train for what?
Everyone nodded, understanding the request as they cleaned up their plates. Not wanting to be left out, I followed the others. I stayed close to Ralph, mainly because Catori had walked ahead to exchange words with Edith.
We joined together inside the elevator, located beside the stairs. I shifted making room for Ralph as Edith closed the doors. As the elevator groaned, a cool draft of air hugged our frames from the openness of the area. The elevator remained open to the factory with only a thin industrial gate preventing us from falling.
The conveyor belt shuddered to a halt as Edith unlocked the doors, swinging them open. Unlike the top floor, there were no walls separating the massive width of the factory. Our footsteps echoed to the other end of the floor and seemingly bounced back into our ears. A thick mat laid in the center of the floor with various machines and objects scattered along the walls.
Once we stood beside the mat, Edith turned to address me, “If you are going to stay with us, we must first assess your skill. And if you dislike it and intend to leave, then we must ensure that you are able to defend yourself. The last thing we need is for another one of us to be caught by the corperation. Now… For the sake of fairness, I’ll go first. Catori?”
Catori made her way onto the mat, standing several feet away from Edith.
“May I have one request?” Edith asked, shifting her body to a fighting stance.
“Of course.” Catori bowed her head.
“That you don’t transform, I need to get ready for work in a couple of hours and, I’d rather not be attacked by a grizzle bear today…”
Was that… A matter of expression?
“Darn,” Catori smiled devilishly, “Where is the fun in that?”
Edith teasingly shook her head before launching herself at Catori. Catori shifted her long legs, dodging Edith’s attack. Catori released an unusual snarl as her brown eyes overflowed with silver mist. She inhaled deeply, prompting Edith to spring to action. Thin vines blossomed from her palms, launching themselves at Catori’s possessed figure. Catori squared her fingers, miraculously slicing the vines as they fell to the ground.
Her legs, however, were unable to escape the natural enemy. The vines twirled up her ankles before Edith’s fists wrapped around the vines as she pulled. Catori fell to her knees, causing Edith to smile in triumph. Edith released her vines and sprouted a new arrangement of leafy ropes, straining Catori’s arms. She panted heavily, pulling against the restraints in an unsuccessful attempt.
An animalistic roar sounded from Catori’s opened jaw, causing me to jump. She bared her teeth, scrunching her nose with narrowed brows as she tore away the vines with newfound strength. Her muscles building tension as she rose to her feet.
Catori’s body loosened as she dodged Edith’s advances. Her body slithering from one side to the other as she closed the distance between them. Edith backed slowly, raising her leg, kicking Catori in the knee. Catori grunted in discomfort before reaching for her opponent’s arm. Edith’s body got pulled forward as she began hitting Catori’s arm for release.
Edith’s face tensed, fixated on Catori’s arm that raised her up. She dangled helplessly, powerless against Catori’s strength. She swung her body back, and rammed her legs into Catori’s stomach. Catori cried as she released her arm. Edith fell flat on her stomach, gasping for breath as her body seized.
Catori took this time to dive on top of her, pinning her hips between Edith’s and curling her fingers into her palm. Edith tried to push away, but she wasn’t strong enough.
“Time.” Edith panted through a breathy gasp.
The two of them seized fighting, taking a moment to regain their breath. My jaw dropped from the sight.
And here I thought Catori was just some innocent giant who made all her guests feel welcomed. Her strength showcased another side of her. Fear shuddering down my spine. Her powers, what were they…? I had forgotten that we all were powered. I’ve been so lost in the complexities of this reality that I had forgotten the strangest concept of all, our powers.
Wait… Edith was expecting me to demonstrate my powers. That’s what she meant by “assess”. A sickening feeling dropped in my stomach. I hadn’t used my light since Blake’s apartment. Haven’t even thought of them.
Helda jumped up and down in her usually bubbly manner, “I’m totally gonna beat your ass!” She laughed, prompting a smile to appear on Bhaskar’s freckled complexion.
As I watched Bhaskar and Helda spar I realized just how unprepared I really was… I looked to Ralph, who fidgeted nervously in his chair. Surely, I wouldn’t be fighting him. Wait… Would Edith make me fight her? How could I compete with those vines?? I think I’d faint if Catori asked me to spar her instead...
I stared down at my small frame. These noodle arms couldn’t win a fight against any one of them. I spent my entire life running away from fights, not getting into them.
A grunt from the mat pulled me out of my thoughts. Bhaskar tossed his arms in the air, spouts of flames exploding out his body. Helda dropped to the floor, the flames singeing her white shirt. The two of them moved in unison, trying to win the fight. I held my hands behind my back, desperately preventing myself from chewing my nails.
From what I could tell, Helda didn’t possess physical powers. Her powers must be contained in that energetic brain of hers. Her oddly masculine structure held well against Bhaskar’s attacks. Her golden locks swayed in a cocky manner when she won the fight. As they left the mat they received genuine praise from Edith before she turned.
“Now.” She crossed her arms, “Ralph and Raymond.”
My eyes widened. Looking over, Ralph nodded reluctantly. His eyes fell to the floor, taking a moment for himself. He reached for his glasses and propped them on his wheelchair. His large hands gripped the sides of his chair, taking a deep breath with closed eyes. Suddenly, a dark, emerald mist began to wisp around his body.
His power… It floated in a mesmerizing motion as it intertwined within itself. The mist festered at the base of Ralph’s amputation, slowly molding into a large spike the size of his other leg. It’s point glimmering from the light cascading down the nearest window. Ralph paused before halling himself to a standing position. His footing was shaky, but he carried himself perfectly fine.
He could stand? I tried my best to not stare but… How could he stand?? Why did he use the wheelchair if he’s able to move on his own?
“Interesting design. Got tired of a normal foot?” Edith commented, causing Ralph to chuckle.
“Something like that.”
Ralph made his way to the center of the mat with unstable footing. He held his head high, waiting for me to join. I looked to Catori, who shared a similar concern as I.
Should Ralph even be sparing? He could hardly walk like that…
I walked onto the mat in awe of the encapsulated swirl of his powers. My gaze shifted upwards just to meet his. An unusual feeling, given that I had been looking down to him all this time. Ralph gave a dismissive smile, and raised his fists. I mocked his movement, trying to act normal.
Ralph took a step forward and I immediately stumbled back. Another step and I flinched, anticipating the unknown. My vision grew hazy and the thumping in my chest quickened. Those drunks, in the alley… I hadn’t the slightest clue how to defend myself, and I ended up here. I couldn’t save myself. Swing.
I covered my cowering lip with trembling palms.
“Focus, Raymond.” Edith commanded.
Ralph lowered his arms, waiting for me to calm down. He stood patiently, waiting for me to make the first move. I took a step but my vision doubled. The alley. The scientists. That man who chased me. Too much… It was too much…
“You’re in a safe space. You’re not actually there, Raymond.” Catori reassured.
I wasn’t there. I- I wasn’t there.
I stared blankly at my open palms, “Channel your light…” Edith instructed, prompting me to close my lids. “Don’t resist. Let that feeling consume you.”
Inhaling deeply, I thought of Poppy. My only reason for using my light. As a kid I would create random nonsense, running around to show an overly enthusiastic Mama and a disapproving Father. A prominent energy crawled its way up my veins, curling around the skeleton of my hand. I never wanted to harm anyone with my light. But protecting myself was different from fighting. Edith was right;
If I wanted to protect myself from the Lothar Corperation, I needed to learn how to defend myself.
A small orb bloomed from my dry palm. I wrapped my fingers around it’s weight and hurled it at Ralph. A sea of mist curled around his fingers as he reached out and stopped it, throwing it back. Twisting out of the way, the orb whistled past my ear.
Ralph marched over to me, unaffected by my pathetic attempts of defending myself with light. Deflecting them with the wave of his wrist.
“Strike him.” Edith ordered Ralph, “In a real fight there is no room for fear. Strike him. Blake can heal either of you if you get hurt.”
Ralph’s eyes narrowed, not in determination, but irritation. Despite this emotion he threw a punch anyways, knocking me back. He striked again, this time at my head. I moved just in time and threw a flimsy punch in defense.
“Try straightening your punch, not curving it.” Edith instructed.
Ralph crouched, twisting his body on his spike while the other leg knocked mine from beneath me. Landing harshly on my tailbone, I scrambled to get back up.
“Always watch the legs.”
The next several seconds consisted of us playing defense. One of us advanced while the other fell back.
“No mercy, Ralph. Don’t hold back.”
A deadly glare shot from Ralph’s eyes, not at me, but to Edith before fixing themselves on me. Ralph sighed, then charged. A burst of emerald mist clouded my vision.
The force of Ralph’s power tossed me in the air and slammed me to the floor. My intestines slinking beneath my ribs in a nauseating discomfort. Sweat collected at the back of my shirt. Rolling over, I created a large orb of light and chucked it at his face. Ralph caught it, his mist consuming it’s illuminsciense before shattering it into tiny fractals that shot across the room.
“Picture the shape you want. Feel it in your palm… Make a knife.”
Listening to Edith, I pictured our fight at the apartment. My panicked defense forced by fear. The fragmented shield that fended off Bhaskar’s flames. The knife when she choked me…
I threw myself at Ralph, balling my fist as my light morphed into a weapon. Ralph shifted, pulling his fist for a punch. Leaning back, I slammed my heel against his knee, causing Ralph to fall to his knees. WAIT! He gritted his teeth. My eyes widened, no no no NO!
I kicked the wrong knee…
Ralph trembled, his balance uncertain as he rose. His expression grew cold. What did I do?? He stood tall, taking a step with his fake leg, collapsing.
“Enough!” Catori cried.
“No.” Said Edith.
“Yes.” Catori snapped, rushing to Ralph’s side.
He bit his lip, sweat beading around his forehead, “I’m fine…” He insisted, moving his leg and immediately tensing, “I said I’m fine!” He shouted, shooing Catori away.
“I didn’t-” -”Don’t.” Catori whipped her head over to Edith. “Not with me. Not here. We’re done.” Catori shook her head with disgust, her usual sweetness gone.
What did I just do??!
Edith froze, taking a moment before addressing the rest of us. “You can all leave now.”
I backed away from Ralph, stepping off the mat. His eyes were held tightly shut, the mist surrounding him gone.
I parted my lips, but nothing came out. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything, not when I caused him so much pain he couldn’t move. He sat on the ground with his legs sprawled out. Catori next to him. I turned around, tears gathering at the bottom of my lids.
I just ruined my relationship with him, Catori too.
My hands ran against my temples. How could I have been so stupid?!! I shouldn’t have done that… I should have called time. I should have…
“What the fuck?!” An angry voice came from outside my room.
It had been a couple of hours since the training. I- I couldn’t handle going out and facing Ralph. I ruined our friendship. My heart tugged at itself. He wasn’t a Lothar. I don’t know why I defended myself like he was. I shouldn’t have listened to Edith, I should have just refused…
“I assume Ralph told you.” Edith spoke coolly.
I crept towards my curtain, curiosity crawling up my spine to see Blake and Edith exchanging a heated conversation.
“Yeah, he did. What the fuck Edith?” Blake crossed their arms, curving their brows.
“You question my leadership?” Bitterness licked off Edith’s tongue.
“Yes, actually, I do. Ray’s only been here for two weeks. Two weeks! And you tell him to spar Ralph, claiming no mercy? Are you out of your fucking mind?! You know the toll that has on Ralph and I think you’ve forgotten Ray’s just an ordinary citizen.” They scolded.
“I needed to assess his skills.” Edith stated, “The sooner he can adapt to the threats that haunt us, the better. He doesn’t have a choice. And as for Ralph, he needs his strength.”
Blake huffed, shaking their head, “He may have powers, but he’s still disabled.”
“Are you? Cause you’ve seem to have forgetten what it means to be a leader.”
Edith’s face distorted to anger, “You have no authority to criticize my leadership, you’re barely even here.”
“Because unlike you, I have a life outside this place.” Blake threw their hands in the air, gesturing the factory around them.
“Because you’re not one of us.”
“... I know…” Blake crossed their arms, silence enveloping the air.
“Look,” They stuttered, “All I’m saying is you’ve forgotten your empathy. Can’t you remember what it’s like to come here, scared and alone?”
“Don’t speak to me of what it’s like to be displaced through time.” Edith warned, crossing her arms.
“Fine. But atleast give Raymond a bit of a break.” They begged.
“I’ll admit, maybe I’ve been too harsh. Why don’t you and some others take him out to the city. Just, don’t expose him to too much technology, he won’t be able to handle it… I barely could at this stage.” Edith spoke, past experience motivating her response.
Blake nodded as Edith retreated to her room. A large sigh escaped their lips before they walked in my direction. Panicked, I pushed my body through the curtain, swatting it behind me before our eyes met;