I woke up to a high, white ceiling. Old-timey double layered windows gave sight onto a misty gray morning and the green of a well kept garden. I was sunken into an oversized down pillow and covered by a just as overly stuffed duvet. On a bedside table next to me I found a small bottle of mineral water. A wooden desk with some papers spread out on and an ornamentally carved wooden closet completed the set of furniture in the small, stone tiled room. I looked for my phone, but it wasn’t anywhere near or on me. Which made me notice that someone had changed me into a pair of navy blue pajamas while I was out. That definitely made me feel even more creeped out about this whole situation.
Sitting up in bed I verified that the water bottle was still sealed. Satisfied by the scrutiny, I opened it and greedily quenched my dry-throated thirst. I put on a pair of white slippers that were laid out for me and went over to the desk to have a look at the papers. There were printouts of what looked like newspaper articles and on top of them, a handwritten note in nicely written but hard to decipher cursive.
Good morning Benjamin,
I’m sincerely sorry that things have gone the way they have. I do hope that you will come to understand the necessity of our actions.
Please make yourself at home on this floor. Breakfast is served for you in the kitchen down the hall. Come find me in my study upstairs once you have had a shower and made yourself comfortable.
Given the state of affairs I advise you not to leave the premises. I have arranged for the police to be notified the moment you do so.
Spread out under the note were printouts of online articles, all covering the same topic: The murder of Leon Tourbier. Holy shit. She actually killed him. A wave of guilt and panic crashed down over me. I sat back down onto the bed holding the articles in my shaky hands. They all told a similar story. Leon and his flatmate had gotten into a fight early Saturday morning which ended in Leon being stabbed and dying on the spot. The culprit had fled the scene and was still on the loose. The police had not yet released an official statement.
This was absolute bullshit. Leon was dead. And I was probably wanted for his murder? Someone must have seen that woman arriving at our place. Some camera must have recorded her driving there. But then again what story was I going to tell the police? It wouldn’t exactly speak for my case If I started rambling about magical killers that were after me. Also, I clearly wasn’t in police custody yet. So where was I?
I got up, threw the stack of papers back onto the desk and carefully tried to open the door. I half expected it to be locked, but the wooden door smoothly swung open. I walked into a corridor of what looked like a well retained couple of centuries old mansion. I faced an open door to a modernly renovated bathroom. To my right the somber corridor displayed an array of closed doors. To my left it led to a widely swung staircase. I decided to go upstairs and try to find whoever J.M. was before further exploring. I had to know why I was here and where exactly here was. As I walked up the stairs, I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts. I tried to push down the welling emotions of Leon’s death as much as I could.
Upstairs, a similar looking corridor awaited me. Behind a half open door, I spotted a dimly lit wall of books. Approaching, I could hear the clattering sounds of rapid typing on a keyboard. I knocked on the door and carefully pushed it open. Both sides of the office were lined with walls of books. Heavy dark-green curtains framed the windowfront on the far end of the room. And sitting behind a polished dark-brown desk sat a gray haired man, slightly hunched over his keyboard. After a couple of moments, his focus shifted from his screen towards me. His tailor made clothes did their best to make him look good despite his age and skinny frame.
To my startled surprise, a heavyset man got up from a couch to my right. He towered more than a head over me. Adding on his stern look, he was definitely intimidating me.
The elder man cleared his throat and mustered me once my attention was back on him. He slightly wrinkled his nose. “Marco, why don’t you show our guest downstairs and help him find the shower and some proper clothes. I will come downstairs shortly and we can have a civilized conversation.” Before I could even think to answer I was gently but assertively led back out of the door by the large man.
Marco didn’t speak a single word. He led me downstairs, pointed at the bathroom and then led me back into the room I had woken up in. The wooden closet contained the clothes I had worn the day before, washed and neatly folded into a pile. By the time I looked up from the closet Marco had already disappeared. He moved eerily quietly for a man of his size. Giving myself a quick sniff I had to admit that despite seeming like a pompous prick, J.M. was right that I desperately needed a shower.
A steaming hot shower later I felt much better. And though still tense and nervous, I also felt the rumbling reminder in my belly that I hadn’t eaten anything in more than a day. I thus decided that it definitely couldn’t hurt to go look for some food while I was waiting anyway. There had been a mention of breakfast awaiting me in the letter after all.
I passed by a closed door, heading to the far end of the corridor. Entering, I found myself in a small dining room, the table with four chairs around set for breakfast. White bread rolls, a plate of meat and cheese, butter, honey, and a glass of orange juice were awaiting me. I immediately sat down to dig in, slathering a roll in butter and honey, impatient to get some food into me.
A few bites in, a noise had me shriek up. The room I was in was half-separated from an adjacent kitchen by a curved wall. The ceramic tiles on the wall once built to radiate the heat from the fire heated stove which was doubtlessly on the other side of it. And said kitchen was where the bean-grinding sound of a coffee machine was now coming from.
“Do you also want a coffee?” A clear female voice called out. Taken aback and caught with a hearty bite of bread in my mouth I managed to mumble out a “yes please” after the initial fright. Hearing the coffee maker run a second time, it took a few moments before a woman holding two cups of coffee made it around the corner. She seemed close to my age, if maybe a bit older. Dark brown hair contrasted her otherwise pale skin. Wearing a loose t-shirt, sweatpants, and avocado-patterned socks, her attire greatly contrasted what I’d seen from this place so far.
She put down a steaming cup in front of me. “Milk or sugar?” She asked, to which I shook my head. “So, Benjamin, how are you doing on this beautiful gray morning?” She asked ever so slightly theatrically. I put down my half eaten bread roll. Where am I even supposed to start.
“Where am I?” I asked after short consideration. She slightly raised her eyebrows at me. “Straight to the serious stuff. Alright alright. I get it. You are in a residence of Dr. Jonathan Meissner. Meaning in some old villa in Zurich. And if I have understood correctly you are to be forced to become his newest recruit. You have my sympathy for that. Though honestly I don’t mind having someone around who hopefully isn’t a complete asshole.”
“Forced to become his recruit?”
“He desperately needs people on his side. And with his admittedly somewhat reasonable paranoia he is running out of people he can rely on.”
“So he randomly kidnaps people, kills their friends and then expects them to help him? What kind of a shit plan is that?” I retorted, the pain and guilt of Leons death resurging.
She sat down on the chair facing me, coffee in hand. “I’m really sorry for what happened to your friend. You would definitely be dead as well if it wasn’t for your talent. You have to understand how extremely rare it is for someone your age to acquire it. Even kids who are groomed from the moment they are born only have a small chance of being talented enough to impactfully alter things. You’re either incredibly lucky or have some serious talent. Probably both. I guess that’s why Meissner is taking a chance on you.”
As if summoned by his name, Dr. Jonathan Meissner entered the dining room through the door behind me. “I see you have already gotten to know Veronica”, he said in his deep scruffy voice. “Veronica, if you could please let us have the room, Benjamin and I have some matters to discuss.”
Veronica got up and bowed theatrically. A bit of her coffee splashed onto the floor from the quick movement. Glancing our direction to see if we had noticed, which we definitely both had, she quickly stepped onto the spill and strode out of the room.
The elder man made his way over to the chair facing me and slowly sat down. He cleared his throat and took a moment before beginning to talk. “I believe that some clarifications are in order. My name is Dr. Jonathan Meissner, and, to be upfront, I am a man of considerable wealth and influence. And though the way our paths have crossed is regrettable, I am glad that they did. With your talent and my support you now have the chance to become so much more than you could ever have amounted to in your life as a civilian.”
Regrettable? The murder of Leon is just regrettable? What an arrogant fucking prick. I did my best to keep up my poker face. His nonchalant attitude had me seething with anger but I had enough self control to realize that insulting or attacking him wouldn’t be the smartest move at this point in time.
He either didn’t notice or didn’t care about how infuriating he was being and calmly carried on. “Let me start from the beginning. As you will have noticed, what some people would call magic is indeed possible. Though magic is not really the appropriate term. To truly start from the beginning, to understand what the altering is, you will first need to understand what life is.”
“Billions of years ago, when life had its canonical beginning, molecular machines developed the ability to replicate. Following the simple rules of evolution, these machines became more and more complex, ever improving on their ability to create offspring. And after countless rounds of mutations and selections, here we sit, having breakfast as human beings. But doesn’t that intuitively feel wrong? That this is all we are? Nothing but an immensely complex machine of deterministic molecular interactions. Where is the life in that? The sense of self, of existence, of consciousness?”
This clearly wasn’t the first time he was giving this speech, as he carried on in his impassive way. “What really happened is that somewhere along the evolution of these molecular machines, they formed a symbiotic relationship with what we call spirits. To our current understanding, spirits, or souls, are manifestations of a closely aligned alternate dimension, where the alternate laws of reality allow for the existence of beings of free will.”
“On their own, these spirits are nothing but a sense of self. Not being part of our reality, they can barely interact with our dimension’s environment. However, through their symbiotic evolution with our world's early animals, intricate interaction systems started developing in the form of neurons. Very small actions within neurons could suddenly be translated into real interactions with the world. From there on out, more and more complex networks of neural cells started forming. Through what eventually became brains, spirits surpassed their diffuse existence of selfness and developed conscious thought, emotion and memory.”
He gave me a moment to digest his monologue. This sounded completely crazy. “So you want me to believe that spirits are a thing? And that me and everyone else is a being coming from an alternate dimension?”
Meissner answered in his calm and collected manner: “What makes you you is much more than simply a spirit. Your body and your spirit are highly interdependent. How much of yourself is within the spirit and how much of it is encoded in your brain is still a heavily debated question to this day. But I can tell you with absolute certainty that spirits are real. Just think about it. For millennia it has been common knowledge that souls exist, and that some people are capable of magic. It’s something we intuitively know. Until we were taught otherwise at least. In the 16th century, groups of talented alterers and influential families started organizing internationally and consolidating their power. They quickly realized that exclusive access to powers would be the key to their continued success. They started hunting down all alterers and slowly worked on changing the public narrative. In the greatest feat of propaganda ever achieved, they managed to convince the world that altering was impossible, and thus ensured that no one would be able to oppose them.”
I stand by my point that this sounds crazy. What kind of a conspiracy theory is this? Sounds like it could have come straight out of one of the dark corners of the internet. Anyway. Let’s hear him out. I mean, magic is real. At this point I might have to redefine my standards of craziness. “So, how exactly does all of this translate into a woman being able to electrocute me with her mind?”
“As I said before, spirits are capable of minimal interactions with our physical world. Usually, this interaction is confined to the brain, where the spirit resides. However, one can learn to reach out with the spirit to affect one’s surroundings. The forces that a spirit can exert are minute, which is why the brain was necessary as an interface in the first place. This is what makes using powers so incredibly complex. You have to be very precise and efficient when altering your environment to have any kind of effect. This is also why kids, who might still believe in the possibility of magic, almost never accidentally stumble upon it. And once they grow up and develop the mental capacity necessary to understand and use the talent, the impossibleness of magic is already ingrained into their minds.”
He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. “I digress. There will be time for proper schooling and lectures. For now, let us discuss the nature of our collaboration.” I silently nodded, eager to finally get an idea of what exactly was going on and why I was brought here.
“I can promise you that you have a lot to gain from me. I will offer you intensive training and schooling of your talent. In exchange, I expect your loyalty and help with day-to-day affairs once your gift is sufficiently developed. It is as simple as that. Someone of your talent is of great value to me and your loyalty will be rewarded accordingly. Disloyalty however will not be tolerated. We know where your friends and family live. And you are a fugitive currently wanted for murder. So please spare us both the trouble and don’t get any funny ideas. That being said, I of course hope that our relationship will be nothing but cordial.”
What an absolute bastard.