A landscape colored in white expanded in front of Altera’s eyes and reached towards the horizon. The moment she had left the stairs, the second floor had transformed into an open area, far too wide that the tower could contain it.
Trying to rely on the rules of physics could turn out to be a fool’s errand. What she considered ‘normal’, may not exist. But this was more reason for her to rely on her wits and ideals. If nothing mattered, then she would color the world with what she believed was right.
Altera waved her hand through the space. She walked across the white. It felt like was going over air, yet her heels clicked with every step. Her eyes saw walls, but her hands touched nothing.
“This landscape could use some colors.” She looked at the white that expanded in front of her eyes.
Who thought of this room? Altera wondered.
It was all white. To the left: white. To her right: white. Above and below: white. And in front of her and behind: white as well. White. White. White. White. White all around. Why was everything so monotonous? Had they never heard of creativity? Minimalism only satisfied hacks. The world had to be colorful. What was the point of depriving the world of its colors?
Annoying. Altera rubbed her eyes.
Why couldn’t there be anything? Just like the training room back at the academy. That was also white. She had requested to paint the room multiple times. But did the staff listen to her? No. Hacks. All of them. No wonder many soldiers became sympathetic towards the alternate right and their ideology. When only hacks taught, the students would drift away and lose their way. Extremists would catch them and indoctrinate them in their progressive-hating ways. Anyone who threw a temper tantrum because some chocolate bar changed its name should sort out their priorities. And a boy identifying as a girl was not a sign that human culture was declining.
Altera grabbed her arm.
Uh-oh. She had to control herself. The white was annoying but better than spending one more minute with that woman on the ground floor. That was super annoying. Eric had been busy studying the tower. Great company he was. If he loved ruins so much, he should marry them, go on a honeymoon, and have some ruin babies.
Altera took a deep breath and pinched her arm.
Why was she aggravated? It was this woman. Everyone would be erratic after spending time with her. It was torture. Yeah, that was the reason. Quin irritated her. There was nothing to worry about because that was a legitimate reason. Who wouldn’t lose her mind in the company of that skank?
Altera stopped again. Above her palm, she summoned a disk. She pressed her fingers against its center, and it began to spin. Her eyes focused on the movements and her mind on her fingers. If the pressure became too high, she would halt the spinning. Was it too low, the momentum would decelerate until the spinner stopped moving.
Altera exhaled. She relaxed her body, dropped her shoulders, and crushed the spinner within her palm. Her heels echoed through the world – for a better lack of a word that could describe the area.
At least sound wasn’t disabled. She had heard of sensory deprivation chambers that simulated the void. Luckily, she wasn’t in one of those. These did scary things to people. Hallucinations weren’t the worst one could experience. In the past, governments had used them for brainwashing. At least, that’s what she had heard. In such a chamber, her ability to function might deteriorate further. By contrast, here, it felt like she had stumbled upon a canvas.
“If only I had a brush and some paint.” Altera’s eyes wandered through the space. “I could make this pretty.”
From behind, a door opened, and Altera turned around.
A man entered the world.
Altera narrowed her eyes.
She had seen that man once before. Ah, right. He was the priest who had held that techno sermon when they had arrived in Utgard. How did he come up with that concept? He spread the word of an evil god with techno music. What was his intention, and what was he doing here? Quin had mentioned that there were overseers. Was he one of them? Why did her brother mingle with a priest trying to disrupt the word of Twice?
“Don’t worry,” said the priest. “I will leave shortly. I have come to transport the overseer here.”
He snapped his finger, and next to him appeared a man. A straitjacket bound his arms, and a metallic trapeze covered the lower half of his mouth. His posture was straight like a stick, and his black eyes glared at the white environment, not caring about her.
This was her overseer? A person from a mental asylum? It had to be Quin’s doing. That vile woman. No. She shouldn’t dwell on old-fashioned stereotypes. He was insane. That only meant his way of thinking differed from society. It didn’t mean he was violent or out for murder. But he wore a straitjacket. Even so, she shouldn’t jump to conclusions. She had no right to and even less than other people. Would she be different from her tormentors? No. She had to rise above the common folk and bring forth the change she wanted to see in this world. For the sake of Aes and humanity, she had to succeed. And for that, she had to abandon her flaws. She will overcome everything and shine brighter than the sun and guide the world to a better future. Her mission wasn't for herself. It was a fight for the world.
“I wish you good luck, Ms. Xion.” The priest disappeared and in front of the restricted man’s feet appeared a paintbrush, the size of a short sword.
So, the mad man was an artist. Would this become an art contest?
She would show him an artwork that will leave him in awe. If one gave her the tools, she would create a new world. A painting, he would mistake for reality. She could see it: every spec of her creation, every hue, and every motive. But still. How would that man do anything? Should she unbind him? Even if he wasn’t an overseer, leaving a human – no, any living being in such a position was a humiliation that violated their human – or living – rights. He might attack her, but that wouldn’t deter her. She would deal with the consequences then.
Altera took a step when the men started to emit grunts. Muffled by his metal mouth mask, they sounded like the beats of a gran cassa.
Did he try to say that he didn’t want her to help him get out? Or did he want her to, and she should help him? The second option seemed more logical. But as he was possibly insane, his reasoning might differ from hers. What he considered logical could seem illogical to her and vice-versa.
Taking his mask off would be a good start. He would be able to tell her what he wanted. If he didn’t want her to remove his restrictions, she could put the mask back on, and everything was fine. Her mission might be that she had to free him and prove her ideals. Or it might be that she had to let him stay constricted for any number of reasons. Who knew what Geißel and that Quin had hatched out. It could be because there were some clues about the actual reality of the situation or that the point was that she respected the norms and rules of society. How annoying that she couldn't live according to her virtues. Instead, she had to follow Geißel's guidelines. He was always like that.
She was in an unknown situation. Neither did she know what she knew nor what she didn’t know. She had to consider as many facets as possible to create a picture and understand the situation enough to claim victory. Another possibility was that the man didn’t need his bindings removed. If he had an ability that bypassed them, it didn’t matter. Taking off the mask was her best bet. It posed the smallest risk of her failing the task, was reversible, and it was the right thing to do. Two birds with one stone. Why did such an idiom exist in the first place? It didn't make sense. What idiot thought killing birds with stones would be a good idea? Oh, right. She wanted to take off his mask.
Altera took another step.
The man dropped on his knees. His grunts increased in frequency and volume; the mask clinked and fell off. He leaned forward, contorted his body to a hump, and faced the floor. The man opened his mouth and pulled his tongue out. With it, he grabbed the paintbrush, dragging it to his teeth, and bit into the wood. He waggled the brush up and down, and blots of ink squirted out of its bristles. They rained down on the ground, staining the white with black.
Altera froze, her pupils enlarged, and her hand started to tremble.
In her mind echoed screams. Innocent lives, tentacles dragged away. Death and destruction were around here as the ink squirted and drenched her in the liquid.
Altera grabbed her hand and exhaled.
She had to focus. For example, where did the color come from? The brush’s tip was as white as this world. There wasn’t any color on it. Was the power of this man to create colors? If that was the case, then how could he use it in combat? In Aes' history, no ability existed that one couldn't use in battle. Some had benefits outside of fighting, but that was a case of the user applying it creatively. Then, was the creation of colors a side application of the man’s actual ability? Or, if it was the main application, what potential could something as abstract as colors have?
A few of the inkblots landed on the man’s clothes, wetting the straitjacket. The man dropped to the ground, lying on his stomach. But then, he started to move. He rocked his body and slithered on the white as if he were a snake.
Altera took a step back, her eyes glued on the man’s activity.
She considered herself an open-minded person and, since a young age, did her best to abandon all prejudice. But this started to creep her out.
With his arms, the man tore the straitjacket open. He stood up, and the pieces fell on one of the inkblots. Despite the cloth's size, the blot sucked it in and flushed it away into an unseen world.
“Pretty nifty. Dontcha think?”
Altera’s eyes wandered back to the man. He didn't wear a shirt, and the rims of his ribs poked out under his skin.
Noticing where her eyes focused, the man looked down.
“Gimme a sec, if you don’t mind.” He raised his arm and circled the brush over his head. Inkblots fell on his skin. They expanded, and where they made contact, merged into one entity until they had formed a shirt that covered his skin. Together with his blue jeans, his appearance gave a smart casual impression. Were it not for his pixie haircut. The left side was one giant forest green-colored and combed-over bang, whereas the right side was cut short within mere millimeters and brunette.
Did she see that right? He was able to clothe himself with that ink, and when it hit the ground, it created a black hole. He probably was able to weaken the cloth of his straitjacket when the ink had hit it, allowing him to break free. If her current observations were correct, it meant that this man had a potentially infinite supply of ink since he could create it out of thin air. And he could do with that ink whatever he wanted. A minor reality warper with infinite supply – this could get difficult.
“Good morning.” The man formed a fist with his right hand and tapped his open palm against it. “I assume that it's morning. Anyway, I'm your overseer, Kim Jeong-hui.”