Gwen Song awoke to the melody of Grande Valse blaring with the strength of an air siren.
Reflexively, she groped for her smartphone, making the familiar sliding gesture to unlock. Instead, her vague fingers encountered the strange sensation of physical buttons. A moment of frantic fumbling ensured, then a sound began to stream:
“BBC World Service, September 21st, 2001: An ancient Red Dragon has destroyed a section of the London Metro, resulting in over two hundred dead and thousands injured, paralysing the city. Authorities have linked this latest incident to similar occurrences involving Magical Creatures carried out by the anti-tower cabal known as Spectre- Magister Livingstone, Mayor of London, calls the latest terrorist attack a day of infamy…”
More terrorism, Gwen groaned wistfully. Finally she found the mute button.
Slowly, synapses dulled by Moet & Chandon ignited one by one.
What’s that, a new euphemism for WMDs?
Wait— Her mind performed a double-take.
The date was correct. It was September twenty-first — but the year appeared to be missing a decade and a half. It had been 2017 when she stumbled into bed, but the report had said 2001.
Regaining a measure of lucidity, she inspected the brick in her hand to confirm the date, only to be bemused by an alien device constructed of ceramic-seeming material, with a screen that looked nothing like back-lit LED.
The only clue that it may be a Nokia was the bloody ringtone.
She turned the device over.
No logo. No ports. No battery sliders.
This isn’t her iPhone.
Her brain throbbed.
Could she have been roofied? In her office, at her very own corporate party? That would be absurd. Even if she had, there were security guards and staff who were sober enough to send her to a hospital. Concurrently, her joints were on fire. She was dizzy and light-headed, hungry and hollowed out. Additionally, the sickening sting of digestive acids lapped at her throat.
But for now, she chose calm over panic.
She inspected her surroundings.
Firstly, she was sleeping in a single bed.
Secondly, she wasn't naked or anything. She wore her PJs, although, for some reason, her silk nightie had transformed into coarse cotton. A sloppy, cheap-looking duvet covered her body. The print was vaguely familiar—a horrid, half-faded floral design commonly used for IKEA curtains.
The bedroom felt claustrophobic; the ceiling low and oppressive.
Isn't this her old apartment? From when she was a kid? Why was she in the bedroom of her adolescence? What had happened to her bayside home? Her French-windows?
The bedroom to which she now occupied had existed only in the distant past.
She had been in high school, living with her divorced father.
“Is this a lucid dream?!" she muttered to herself.
It was youthful and sweet and without the abuse of all-nighters, scalding coffee, and copious amounts of alcohol.
She closed her eyes to think, but the memory of her last conscious hours was a scrambled mess of whites and yellows.
Slowly, in fragments, recollections came.
Here was her old home. Her original home. The apartment she’d grown up in as a girl-child. Over yonder was the fold-out desk she had piled her clean laundry on. Next to the cabinet was the basket for her dirty laundry. To her right was her study desk, which her father sometimes used as a Mahjong table. She could even see her study guides.
But where she expected volumes on chemistry, physics and literature, she instead saw thick bound volumes with strange names.
Allenberg’s Primer for Astral Theory? Otsu's Primer for Evokers?
Without warning, her head split.
A jackhammer ripped through the interior of her skull. Memories flooded her brain, bloating its synapses so that she felt as though two fingers were pressed against her optic nerves. If anything, the sensation was akin to the time she had forgotten to take her quinine tablets in the Amazon and had malaria shitting on her brain for a week.
I have an aptitude test today. A stray thought boomed across Gwen's consciousness.
No, you don't, Gwen dissuaded the voice in her head. You just had a staff party where you celebrated your consultancy's second anniversary. You drank and danced and forgot all about what champagne could do to a woman who was no longer in her twenties.
Unbidden, another thought solicited her stream of consciousness, accompanied by gut-wrenching anxiety. Her chest convulsed. She couldn't breathe.
Today is an important day.
I need to go to the Awakening Test.
Mother will be upset if I fail.
"Ugh!" Gwen fought back the acid reflux threatening to escape her oesophagus. Jesus Christ, she cursed. Was she now suffering from paranoid schizophrenia? Dr Monroe never said anything about MPD disorders!
"Shut up!" she threatened the ceiling.
The voice ceased.
She ran a hand over her forehead and found it drenched with perspiration.
"Alright," she whispered to herself. Her mind remained sceptical even as her senses seemed helplessly invested in this new reality. Cynically, she pinched herself hard on the thighs until a welt appeared and her eyes moistened.
"Shit," Gwen affirmed her worst fears. “Why is this happening?"
Frustrated, she rubbed her eyes. Her fingertips came away with crusty chunks of dried mucus, which she crushed between her fingers. Shit, had she been crying?
Her internal discourse was interrupted by an intruder. Instantly, her blood ran cold. She was trapped in a strange parallel world, who or what could be coming through that door?
The door opened.
It was her brother, Percy, who peeped in with a face still drugged with sleep.
“Dad called and said you have to get up now,” he informed her. “It's your PMAE today.”
She quietly regarded the boy, mindful of any buttons or cross-stitching that would reveal a skin-suit.
Percy was her brother, an athletically-inclined adolescent with olive skin and large luminous eyes. He had the thick lips of their mother, taking after the family's mixed heritage.
She pulled the cover over her collarbones and scowled at her brother. What kind of an idiot barges into the room of their teenage sister? She was hardly dressed for decency.
"Oi! Get out of here!" she yelled angry nothings even as Percy yawned disinterestedly.
With her brother gone, she pulled herself out of bed. A full-length mirror ran the length of her built-in-wardrobe. Now that she was up, she had to ensure that all the pieces of her body were present.
What she saw was the reflection of a dark-haired girl who was a little underfed but reasonably proportioned. She had the pale skin and high cheekbones of her mixed father but had inherited her mother's eyes. Her striking irises, afflicted with central heterochromia, possessed an amber core bound by a ring of dark emerald, hinting at her cosmopolitan origins.
Gwen pulled on her earlobes, watching her simulacrum wince.
It wasn't a lucid dream.
She was indeed back in her teenagehood.
After a moment of deliberation, she removed her pyjamas for a more thorough inspection.
When she had struck the big three-o, she had wondered about her adolescent body. Would she have loved or loathed it? Though her answer was ambivalent, what she found queer was her paleness. Her skin was unusually pallid, almost as if she'd rarely seen the sun. By her recollection, she had spent the whole summer of 2001 hawking ice cream at Bondi and learning to surf. As a result, she had been positively caramel. Compared to her old Billabong body, her present physique smacked of anorexia.
Still, at a meter-eighty, she cast an impressive figure for a fifteen-year-old.
As young as twelve, people had assumed she was older. She had been denied children’s fares at carnivals and accosted by boys who thought her their age. Once, a bloke at Bondi had propositioned her, offering to teach her about her maturing body.
Gwen dug through the wardrobe and found something to wear, straight away arriving at a pair of cut-off jeans and a white tapered tee.
The door opened again. It was Percy.
“Why are you in your Sunday clothes?” he questioned in his youthful voice. “You need to be in your uniform for the Awakening.”
At the mention of the word, another wave of nausea bowled her over.
"Get out!" she hissed. Percy fled.
She held herself against the mirror until the buzzing went away.
A little immodestly, she performed a self-examination, concluding that it wasn't that time of the month.
"Fine, I'll go to the damned test." She told her reflection. "Happy now?"
She searched through her wardrobe again and located her school blouse and skirt. She remembered being horrid at chores, so it must have been her brother who had collected and packed the laundry.
Making a note to thank young Percy, she Googled her fragmented memory and found the school blazer hanging in a separate section of the closet.
She inspected the result.
The Blackwattle High School senior uniform was a little loose around the bust but appeared otherwise handsome and prim. A grey-white tartan skirt, a navy blazer, and a white blouse gave the costume the feeling of a private academy. There was a vest as well, but Gwen had forgone it for reasons of budget.
An alarm went off on her phone.
“You’re going to be late for the train!” her brother called out.
Gwen opened the door to see Percy with a piece of toast packed in foil, the acrid smell of Vegemite and cheese polluting the air.
“Thank me later.” He grinned, revealing pearly white teeth.
“Cheers,” she replied, her teenage voice sounding strange as it reverberated through her skull. She needed more time to collect herself, but the urgency of having to attend the Aptitude Test hastily drove her through the door.
Following an internal compass, she managed to board a train for the city.
The streets of Sydney's CBD were the same old familiar concrete and bitumen, but the transportation had shifted from the grumble of fossil fuel into the thrum of humming mana cores. For the moment, Gwen was glad that no airships sailed across the horizon, completing the vision of a dystopian Weimar Metropolis.
The journey towards Blackwattle Bay proved enlightening. In her brave new world, trains ran on ley-lines, fed into a network of mana conduits known simply as the Grid. All around her, geo-dynamic mana powered the city's infrastructure, the most important of which were the Shield Barriers.
A shield what? She pinched her brows.
Shuddering memories informed her that humanity was hardly safe in this world, that despite the rule of Mageocracy over the Earth, much of it remained under the control of Demi-humans and Magical Creatures. Hell, there wasn’t even an aviation industry thanks to the presence of predatory monsters ruling the skies. The average man could only survive in secured enclaves, sheltered against the unknowable world beyond the Shield Barriers.
Despite wearing her blazer, Gwen shivered uncontrollably. Apathetic to her distress, the silent carriage dumbly made its way on enchanted rails into the heart of the city.
She disembarked at Pyrmont, finding herself among like-patterned uniforms walking to school.
The day was Saturday, the day of the Aptitude Test, A.K.A. “The Awakening”.
“Awakening” to what though?
M-Magic?! Mages? Spells?! Gwen shook her head, attempting to make sense of her new lexicon. Where the hell had she ended up? Was this budget Hogwarts? You’re a Witch, Gwen?
With great agitation, she trawled her mind again, fishing the flotsam and jetsam of her fragmented memory.
One by one, details emerged.
Where her old world had had the SAT and the HSC, this world had the dreaded Projected Magical Aptitude Exam, or PMAE for short, undertaken to segregate Mages from the multitudes.
As it stood, the vast majority of humanity were non-magical citizens, lovingly denominated as "NoMs". In a world of Spellcraft, NoMs lived in the Mages’ shadow, living diligent lives as administrators, service personnel, labourers for manufactorums and bodies for the frontlines.
For the mundane citizen, ascension was improbable. For those with a magical lineage, one could additionally become a Magus or Magister, whose rare convergence of sorcerous, physical and intellectual potential ensured a charmed life.
I can't fail the test!
Okay! Fine! Gwen assured her spirit of PMAE past.
She ruminated on her new knowledge.
So… apartheid. Gwen bit her lower lip as the unpleasant epiphany traversed her mind. Moreover, her imminent ordeal seemed especially dubious. Was her memory informing her that a single test determined if she would be a worker ant or an august queen?
That seemed ridiculous to Gwen, whose old world at least entertained the illusion of egalitarian meritocracy. The PMAE appeared solely based upon manifest destiny.
Even assuming she passed, what of the life she had been living one inebriation prior? She had worked tirelessly to build a company of her own, collecting devoted staff over a decade. They’d just had their second anniversary, and she'd only recently acquired the Lendlease account.
Fuming, Gwen trudged with resentment towards her destination. In the distance, the Blackwattle campus appeared more extraordinary than her memory served. An entire wing of buildings appeared appended to the existing sandstone facade that loomed over the bay. Concurrently, the Fish Market next door bustled with semi-magical bounty, disseminating an ignoble stench of discarded seafood.
A chirpy voice rang out from the multitude of bobbing heads walking the steep incline up toward the school's gymnasium.
She turned to see a spry Asian girl rushing towards her, two imposing masses rioting as she ran, her face plump with adorable baby fat.
“Gwen-Gwen!” The girl embraced her before landing a quick peck on her cheek. “Ooo! I missed you so much! I am beyond happy that we're seniors together!"
She recognised the overfamiliar girl as Yue, a Shanghainese girl whose family had immigrated from the southern capital. Yue’s china-doll face was milk white and porcelain, punctuated by the small pink of her mouth. Her eyes, two luminous crescents beset by prominent lashes, seemed to swallow Gwen with their softness.
The sight of a friend she had not seen for a decade took the words right out of her mouth.
Yue Bai had been her closest and dearest friend back in high school, though they had drifted apart when Gwen escaped her home.
“It's only been a month.” She smiled back, hiding the fact that the original Gwen wasn't in the driving seat.
Though faint and spectral, she could sense her alter ego hovering around somewhere in the dark recess of her brain like the Ghost of Banquo, only she hadn’t done anything to warrant its unpleasant haunting.
Beside her, Yue began an endless stream of small talk.
Gwen listened as her old friend chittered excitedly about the latest gossip—who had been tested for what; who had been picked for which scholarship; what was the best element was to pair with which School of Magic.
When the duo finally made their way into the hall, the rest of the student body was already waiting in the auditorium.
The headmaster and the instructors were in militant dress uniforms that reminded Gwen of decorated veterans on ANZAC Day. She scanned the hall for more familiar faces but was quickly shuffled into place by a prefect.
Upon the podium, the principal addressed the assembly.
“Students, staff, members of the chancellory, welcome to the 2001 PMAE. This exam is carried out statewide on Spellcraft course Year ten students. In a moment, you will be asked to approach the dais and place your hand on the Awakening Crystal…”
A murmur spread across the auditorium as the officious announcement reverberated through the air. The principal, a raven-haired man of advanced age, spoke sonorously over the assemblage.
She recognised the man as Magus Jules Bartlett, principal of Blackwattle. Under the man's watchful eye, generations of Acolytes came and went, all remembering the ever-present personage that was Principal Bartlett at the gates, 0700 sharp, dutifully greeting each student. Amiable and approachable, the principal was a man fond of oration.
“Students! Young Mages! The Path of Spellcraft is glorious but fraught with danger and risk! Upon the Path, many trials shall beset you—forbidden knowledge, creatures horrid and savage, Demi-humans cruel and heartless!"
The students broke into a murmur.
“For now, your lives are peaceful - but make no mistake, let not your daily comfort confuse you. We are beset on all sides by forces far greater than humanity itself. Compared to the creatures of the Wildlands, we are weak. Compared to the creatures of the Deep, we are few. Compared to the beings of the Elemental Planes, we are mortal!"
"Yet WHY is it that man persists upon the Material Plane? Why has man survived the aeons to establish our civilisation on Earth against all the odds? It is because, through the application of Spellcraft, we are strong! We, the human race, are united in our mastery of sorcery!"
Abruptly, the principal’s voice took on a new intensity and volume.
"The PMAE is only the first step, but it is a significant one. It will define who you are and what you aspire to be. Do not fret; there is a place in our world for everyone. No matter your talent, you will be appreciated! The survival of one contributes to the survival of all!"
Thunderous applause filled the auditorium as the students roared their collective approval. Though confused, Gwen clapped alongside, not wanting to appear the stranger.
"All of you already possess magical affinity; your studies in junior high have proven that you are worthy to be Mages,” the principal announced confidently, “Some of you, perhaps, may even become Magus! But know that be you Citizen, Mage, Magus, or Magister: only united, can human civilisation push back the tide of the Wildlands seeking to subsume us."
Compared to the earlier clamour, the applause grew demure. Gwen wondered if each student was thinking of their chances at the hands of Fortuna, pondering whether they would awaken to glory or slumber in anonymity.
To her understanding, the principal had told a compelling truth. Who would not wish to possess the power of destruction and creation? Who would not desire to wield the raw elements of nature, to freeze one's foes with shards of eldritch ice, to blast apart the monsters that threatened one's home?
But it wasn't the old Gwen who now had to face the music. It was her, and Gwen realised she had no idea what was going on. The only sensation she truly felt was numbness—numb for the world she found herself in, stunned by the chaotic emotions smothering her over and over.
Survival of humankind?
Magic to rule the world?
She was in her PJs an hour ago!