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Authors: Dima Zales,Anna Zaires

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BOOK: Limbo (The Last Humans Book 2)
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The monster screaming with Jeremiah’s voice bursts into flames in my arms. The world becomes fire. The burning is unbearable. I try to scream again, but we get so close to the lava that the world goes out in a flash of fire.

24

I
’m falling
.

Instead of waking up in the bed in the black building, I’m in the sky over the pine forest.

I’m clutching a flying disk to my chest. My wrists twist in a throwing maneuver that’s all too familiar. I did this move the last time Phoe chose to have me fall with the disk clutched to my chest.

Like last time, the disk is instantly under my feet, and I fly away from the dozen Guards pursuing me. Thanks to the fall, I have a big lead on them—the point of the insanity I just lived through.

Now that I’m not weightless, questions spring to mind: Why am I actually here? Where is
here?
Am I inside the Test? The last thing I recall is lying down to sleep to initiate the Test.

Something materializes in front of me. It’s a being of light and power, like an angel or deity. I’ve seen this too-beautiful-for-mortal-eyes sight once before, in my cave after I got Phoe the resources of the IRES game. She looks the same way now, only we’re here in the real world—if that’s where we are.

“Oops,” she booms in that too-sacred-for-mortal-ears voice. “This is an accident.” In her normal voice, she adds, “I just got the resources from the Test. It’s magnificent, Theo. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

She once again looks like her pixie-haired self, and the meaning of her words penetrates my adrenaline-clouded brain.

“The Test is over?” I suck in a breath to calm my racing heartbeat. “How? Are you sure this isn’t it, right now? Is this like that IRES game’s trick where it wanted me to think it
was reality?”

“The Test doesn’t work like that, and I told you so before you started it,” Phoe says urgently. “Go to your cave. I’ll deal with the Guards without your consciousness. I’ll explain everything there.”

I show my pursuers two middle fingers, and a white tunnel takes me to our favorite VR hangout. I appear between a dinosaur skeleton and a giant one-eyed teddy bear.

Phoe waves, and the area clears. A plush chair appears, and I gladly sit on it. Phoe chooses to sit on her own chair across from me.

Between us, on the holographic display Phoe likes to use to show the outside world, I watch Guard-Theo fly away from his dozen pursuers.

“The Test happened, Theo,” Phoe begins. “And now that it’s over, I’m well positioned to take advantage of the coming opportunity to fix things. As we wait for it, let me tell you what happened.”

She proceeds to tell me about the Test: the ethical and logical dilemmas, the battle with the anti-virus-like protector, and the horrific way I lost all memory of the whole ordeal.

“I can’t believe I could’ve lost the ability to recognize faces and my control over my arms,” I whisper. “Was that creature telling the truth?”

“Yes. You likely would’ve died had you not killed yourself in the Test. If your Test self had been written back onto your current consciousness, the damage to your motor regions would’ve prevented both you and me from dealing with the fall in that critical moment. Of course, had you survived, the damage you suffered in the Test might not have been permanent. For one, you might’ve gotten some functionality back due to natural neuroplasticity, which allows new brain regions to take care of ones that get damaged. Also, I could’ve used your nanocytes to compensate for lost—”

“That’s enough.” I put my hand on hers and keep it there. There’s an ache in my chest. I came so close to dying, and a part of me did die—the in-Test Theo that I don’t remember.

Phoe looks at me, her eyes filled with sadness. “I warned you, back there in the Test, but you didn’t listen.”

“I’m sure I had good reasons,” I say uncertainly. “Though it’s hard to believe I could do something so—”

“You did it for me, and I should never have allowed it.” Phoe turns her hand to grab mine and squeezes my palm. “I’m so sorry.”

Now I feel bad for upsetting her. “Look, Phoe, I’m fine,” I say. “You got the resources you needed. It’s just a few memories. Besides, if you’re so worried about it, can’t you plant those memories in my head the way you did with that Pi Trojan thing?”

“No, that wouldn’t be the same since I can’t give you the exact memories you lost,” she says.

“And I don’t really want to remember the kind of pain my Test alter ego must’ve gone through,” I mumble.

We sit in silence for a few minutes, just looking at each other. Finally, I say, “Listen, what’s done is done. The key thing is that you got the resources, right?”

“Yes. Once your score was sent out, the Test system tried to permanently store that super-large value in a variable that was much too small. The buffer overloaded, as I hoped it would, and that allowed me to inject my own code and bring the whole system down. I’ll bring it back up for a day next year, so the Elderly-to-be can take the Test on the next Birth Day without anyone being the wiser.” Excitement dances in her eyes as she says, “You have no idea what I’m capable of now. The Test was a resources glut. More than I ever suspected. My new capabilities are—”

“So why are the Guards still chasing me?” I wave at the hologram. “Can’t you use your super resources to control those guys without the Envoy learning about it? For that matter, have you learned what the Envoy is?”

Phoe scratches her blond spikes and says, “I’m waiting for an opportune moment to deal with the Guards. A Forgetting is about to begin, and when it does, I’ll highjack it to make the right people Forget anything having to do with our misadventures today. Since it will seem to be part of a sanctioned Forgetting, the Envoy will not learn of it.”

“But who was Forgotten—” I begin to ask, but she shushes me and gestures at the hologram, which grows brighter in response.

Guard-Theo is descending quickly, while the crew of Guards chasing him suddenly stops mid-air.

“The Forgetting is happening. They don’t remember what they’re doing there anymore,” Phoe says smugly. “I need you to take care of one last loose end before I give you all the answers. Even with my prodigious resources, I can’t control your body in that building.”

On the hologram, my real-world self just landed next to the Quietude building.

“Do the gesture to get back,” Phoe commands. “Our Forgetting window is small.”

I do as she says, and after a whirlwind of white, I find myself standing there, next to the gray doors of the Witch Prison.

“Now go. Get the trapped Guard out of there and give him back his uniform,” Phoe whispers. “The answers are coming.”

“Fine,” I think and walk into the corridor.

It takes minutes to get to the room in question.

Phoe’s ghostly Screen is nowhere in sight, but the door opens at my command. She must’ve already undone the jam she created earlier.

“Finally,” the Guard says. “There’s been a terrible—”

When he sees me ready my Stun Stick, his eyes widen and he falls silent for a second. Then he says through his teeth, “
You.
You won’t get away with—”

“Shut up, Noah,” I say and zap him.

Since no Screen from Phoe shows up to tell me which way to go, I drag my victim the same way I came from. I don’t come across anyone on the way, which I guess is normal given the time of day. If I had, I’d probably be dragging more bodies.

“Swap clothes with him,” Phoe says when I come out. “Hurry up. The less surveillance footage I have to delete, the better.”

My helmet snaps off, as do other parts of my suit.

I take everything off. Phoe watches with fascination.

“You just wanted to see me naked,” I mumble as I swiftly pull up my Birth-Day-edition blue pants.

She grins and says, “I’ve seen your stuff before. Now back to your cave, and maybe I’ll show you mine as a way to make amends.”

I flush—and not from the obscene gesture I’m forced to execute.

After yet another psychedelic white display, I’m standing between a shark tank and a pile of dynamite someplace deep inside my man cave.

We return to our cushy chairs and sit down.

On that same holographic display, I watch my real-world self walking somewhere, obviously under Phoe’s control.

“We’re walking to your room,” she answers my question before I get a chance to ask it. “I want you in bed early today.”

“What about—”

“Noah already Forgot that you ever attacked him.”

“And—”

“You’re not in trouble anymore,” Phoe says.

“How about—”

“It’s complicated,” she says. “Like I started saying, the only thing I can’t do is penetrate that cursed Firewall. Still, I think I have a pretty good guess as to what the Envoy is, but I don’t want to share this until I get proof, which I’ll have within minutes. For now, you still have some catching up to do, as you don’t know what happened in the real world during the Test. Due to the time differences, it’s only been a short while, but it was
very
eventful.”

“Oh, right, we were being—”

“—chased by the Guards for a good reason.” Phoe crosses her legs, catches me staring, and gives me a mischievous wink.

“How—”

“The subjective time in the Test was many, many years, though your poor in-Test self wasn’t cognizant of that time once I started taking the Tests for him. Here, it’s been less than an hour.”

“Wait,” I say. “How did you know I was going to ask about that? Are you finishing my thoughts before I even express them? I noticed—”

“Yes, that’s what I’m doing.” Phoe’s speaking so fast I have trouble keeping up. “Predicting most of your thoughts is trivial for me, given my new resources. I have the bandwidth to—”

“Can you please
not
do it? It’s eerie.” I rub my temples, wondering if she knows what I’m about to say next. “It makes me feel like I don’t have a choice about what I’ll say or think.”

“Sure,” Phoe says, at a more normal speed this time. “I merely thought to speed up our communication, given how much you’re dying to get those answers. Besides, the very fact you asked me to stop doing something proves I didn’t anticipate your reaction, else I wouldn’t have started finishing your sentences. Anyway, I can also tell you don’t want to discuss free will.”

I scratch the bridge of my nose, narrow my eyes, and say, “Let me finish my thoughts.”

“Agreed,” she says.

“Now please answer one of my questions.”

“Okay.” She gets up and paces. “I’m trying to decide where to start.”

“How about at the beginning?” I can’t help but say sarcastically. “Tell me what happened to get those Guards to chase us.”

“It’s not so simple,” she says. “But fine, here goes. I won’t just tell you. I’ll show you.”

A large Screen appears in front of me.

Jeremiah is standing next to an antique wood table in an unusual room filled with ancient relics. The old man is no longer wearing his helmet, but he still has the rest of the Guard suit on.

On the table in front of him are two long-stemmed glasses made of crystal. They look like wine cups from ancient movies. Jeremiah takes a small box from the table and empties its contents into the glass to his right. Whatever he puts inside the glass is nearly invisible.

Phoe freezes the recording with a gesture and says, “I’m not sure what to show you next. He’s about to change into normal clothes, and I have two options as to how to continue.”

“What’s that stuff he put in the glass?” I lean closer to the Screen, hoping to read any writing on the box.

“It’s called cyanide—one of those friendly ancient discoveries. It’s a powerful poison. Whoever drinks from that cup will die.”

“Who—”

“Just watch,” she says and gestures.

The Screen comes to life again.

Jeremiah is dressed in an intricate costume. He’s holding an ancient-looking bottle.

Someone knocks on the door.

“Come in, please,” Jeremiah says, his voice unusually friendly.

The door opens, and Fiona walks in.

25

F
iona is dressed
as nicely as Jeremiah, her neck adorned with a golden necklace and her white hair braided intricately. She looks at Jeremiah, then looks at the bottle in his hands, then at the glasses, and her cold eyes show a glimmer of warmth.

“Jeremiah?” she says. “What’s this about?”

He gestures toward the cup, smiles at her sadly, and says, “That my offer of goodwill surprises you proves my instincts were right. There’s too much tension between us—the two most influential people on the Council.”

At his ingratiating words, Fiona straightens and walks toward the table.

Capitalizing on his success, Jeremiah pulls the cork out of the wine bottle and pours two glasses. “This here isn’t something the Culinary Anthropologists made up.” He picks up the leftmost glass and inhales the scent of the drink. “This is the real deal—authentic, ancient wine.”

Fiona walks up to the table and takes the rightmost glass by the thin stem and says, “If you think this bribe will change my mind regarding Theodore…”

I tense in my chair.

“This is just a peace offering, nothing more. We deserve a bit of Birth Day celebration, after all.” He makes the ancient ceremonial gesture for a toast. “I agree to let the Council decide Theodore’s fate.”

Fiona relaxes and lifts her glass to her mouth.

The picture pauses, and Phoe says, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. By this point, Jeremiah has seen the video where Fiona wants to quit the Council. She has not yet seen the video of Jeremiah cursing and smacking her, or else she might’ve been more careful.”

“Wait, Phoe—” I start to say, but my friend continues the recording, and I stop talking, unable to peel my eyes from the Screen.

Jeremiah sips his wine and grunts approvingly. “Hard to see why alcohol ruined so many lives in antiquity,” he says.

Fiona takes a tiny sip of her wine and says, “It’s exquisite. Thank—”

She doesn’t finish her sentence because Jeremiah does a cleanup gesture at her glass, his own glass, and then the bottle. All three objects disappear.

“What are you doing?” Fiona frowns. “What’s the meaning of this?”

“I’m getting rid of the evidence. When I make myself Forget this, I want no clues as to what transpired,” Jeremiah replies, his tone even.

“I don’t understand. Why would you want to make yourself Forget this nice gesture?” she asks, her eyes widening.

“Quickly,” Jeremiah says. “Tell me, when did you last sleep? Did you nap today?”

“No.” Fiona gives him a baffled look. “The last time I slept was last night. What does that have to do with anything? Is this some kind of Birth Day joke?”

Jeremiah appears relieved at her words. “I just wanted to know how much of today’s events you’ll remember after you ascend to Haven.”

“Haven?” Fiona’s already-pale face turns pure white.

“Yes, that’s where you’re headed,” Jeremiah says, his voice subdued. “I just poisoned you.”

“You did what?” she hisses and closes the distance between them.

I squeeze the armrests of my chair so tightly that my hands cramp up. It looks like Phoe’s fake video is about to become reality—only in this case, it’ll be Fiona smacking Jeremiah.

To Fiona’s and my surprise, Jeremiah steps toward her. Before she understands what’s going on, he grabs her shoulders and holds her at bay with his much-longer arms. He looks into her eyes, his own gaze the epitome of sadness.

In a soft voice, he says, “Look. We’ve been at each other’s throats since we joined the Council. I always thought you principled, if stubborn, and deserving of respect. This latest act of yours, however, is unforgivable. Making the Council Forget a meeting, making
me,
the Keeper, Forget over some stupid outburst goes against everything the Council stands for. It goes against everything
you
once stood for. I know you probably made yourself Forget, as I will make myself Forget killing you, but I can’t let you go on any longer. Sometimes the Keeper must bypass the Council and take matters into his own—”

Before he can utter the last word, Jeremiah pales. Letting go of Fiona, he clutches his throat. His eyes roll into his head, and he collapses. His body disintegrates, molecule by molecule, the way Mason’s did when Jeremiah killed him.

I watch in stunned incomprehension. “What the hell was that?” I finally manage to ask.

“His body’s resources are automatically reclaimed by the nano—”

“No, I mean, why did he fall instead of Fiona? And how could you let him try to kill her? You said you’d look out for—”

“Hold on,” Phoe says. “Let me rewind.”

The Screen flickers the scene backward too quickly for me to follow. The video is back to the moment when Jeremiah stepped out of the room, leaving the two wine glasses on the table.

Nothing happens for a few moments. When I’m about to ask Phoe what I’m looking at, the door to the room opens, and a Guard walks in. He walks up to the table and swaps the rightmost cup for the leftmost.

That explains things. Unknowingly, Jeremiah drank his own poison. And that Guard must be—

“Yes, it’s you,” Phoe says. “Or me, or whatever the right term is. While you were taking the Test, I kept an eye on our friends here. I
did
promise to take care of her, after all. Since I had control of your body, I walked it from the black building to that room”—she points at the Screen—“as soon as I realized what he was about to do. This is, by the way, how I picked up the Guard tail we shook off.”

“So the Forgetting you hijacked—it was Jeremiah’s?” I relax a little.

“Correct. I weaved my own instructions into Jeremiah’s Forgetting—which Fiona initiated soon after he died as a matter of protocol. All but one person, besides you, remembers what transpired today.” Phoe waves at the Screen again.

“Who’s this other person?” I ask but realize she’s already answering my question by playing something on the Screen.

Phoe winks at me and turns toward the Screen.

Fiona is on the Screen. She stands there in her usual spot, surrounded by the Council.

“As the new Keeper, my first order of business is to reassure you all that the investigation the prior Keeper and I initiated is complete.”

Hushed murmurs move among the crowd.

A thin, unhealthy-looking Councilor stands and asks, “Is this message coming from the Envoy?”

Fiona’s eyes glint with ice as she says, “I will meet with the Envoy shortly. I’m sure he will agree with my decision.”

Phoe pauses the video and says, “When she tried to figure out why Jeremiah would attempt to kill her, she came across my fake video—the one implicating Jeremiah. This is why she considers the investigation over. She figures Jeremiah was the culprit.”

Before I get a chance to question her, Phoe resumes the video.

“It’s my duty as the Keeper to warn you: I will make you Forget about the investigation so you can—”

Phoe stops the video. “That takes care of pretty much all the loose ends except for Fiona.”

“Right, but that’s one big loose end. Fiona knows about my neural scan being out of whack. Can’t you make
her
Forget so everything is really over?”

“Doing so would be too risky. She’s the new Keeper and messing with her mind might raise red flags.”

“But—”

“Don’t worry. I suspect I won’t need to do anything anyway. She’s talking to the Envoy—”

“Wait. About that. Nothing is over until we know who or what the Envoy is,” I say urgently. “He still knows about the investigation. I think it’s time you explain


“I don’t need to explain,” Phoe says. “I can show it to you, since, as I was trying to tell you, their conversation is happening as we speak.”

I stand up. “What conversation? Are you torturing me on purpose?”

“You didn’t want me to answer questions before you asked them. Now you want me to predict what you want to know and tell it to you?” Phoe pouts. “Fine. You heard Fiona. She told them she and the Envoy were meeting. That meeting started a few minutes ago. I can show it to you. So far, it confirms all of my suspicions—suspicions I developed once I smartened up, thanks to the resources of the Test.”

“Yes, please show me.” My mouth is dry as I add, “Now.”

In reply, Phoe makes the orchestra-conductor gesture. My vision and hearing blur into white noise. It’s the same thing that happened when she took me to the cathedral-like place where Jeremiah met with the Envoy what feels like years ago.

My senses clear, and I see that I was right. I’m surrounded by the magnificent space, with music blasting like last time. Only instead of organ music, it sounds stringy.

“It’s Bach again. His
Cello Suite No. 1, The Prelude
,” Phoe whispers. “I’m showing you a recording that’s only a few minutes old. They’re still talking, you see.”

“Who?”

Phoe shows up next to me and points to a slender, white-hooded figure kneeling next to the big stage, where the Envoy last appeared.

It’s Fiona, which of course makes sense. She’s the new Keeper, and the Keeper gets to meet with the Envoy.

Bright rays of light spread out from the middle of the platform. I cover my face and wait. This happened last time too. The Envoy likes to make an entrance.

When the light subsides, I look at the stage.

A luminous figure is standing there, but it’s not the Envoy. More accurately, it’s not the same Envoy. The being clearly shares similarities with the guy I called the Envoy before, and they’re of the same species, as it were, but this is a different specimen. The wings of this being don’t have feathers and look more like the wings of an albino bat. This figure also lacks some of the confident majesty of the other one, and he’s wearing some kind of short britches or capri pants rather than a loincloth. As with the previous one, his torso leaves no doubt that this Envoy is male, though he isn’t as well built.

Fiona pulls the cowl from her head and studies the face of the visitor. Something about his face both fascinates and upsets her.

This Envoy’s replacement has a young face like that of his predecessor’s. This face is actually familiar, but not because it bears any resemblance to the Envoy Jeremiah spoke with.

Thinking of Jeremiah puts it all in perspective, and I blink a few times. If these were ancient times and Jeremiah had a son or a younger brother—and that brother was much better-looking than his kin—this is what his relative’s face would look like. The face of the being in front of us matches Jeremiah’s features, only it’s much younger and more pleasing to the eye.

I look at Phoe.

She meets my gaze, nods, and points at Fiona.

Fiona gets up and murmurs, “This can’t be,” as she approaches the stage.

The music stops, and in a surreal voice that sounds like a cello, the Envoy—or whoever he is—says, “Tradition dictates that you stay where you are, Keeper.”

If a cello could play a youthful version of Jeremiah’s voice, this is what it would sound like.

“Did you think that guise would confuse me?” Fiona squeezes her slender hands into tight fists. “I recognize you, even if the last time I saw you like this was when we were Youths.”

“This is not a guise,” the Envoy says patiently. “It’s the way we Forebears choose to make ourselves look after ascension.”

“And you are—”

“No longer the man you knew as Jeremiah,” he says. “You will now refer to me as the Envoy.”

BOOK: Limbo (The Last Humans Book 2)
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