The First Reckless

Helping someone revisit their past can come in handy once in a while. Just ask Gladstone Freely.

This short story takes place about 1700 years before the events of my debut novel, MagicLand.

The characters in this story do not appear in the novel.

It’s not an ordinary thing for an augmented human to walk our land.

We are magicians. We don’t take kindly to Augmenters. No. Let me rephrase that. Our city has always been an Augmenter-free zone. I had never seen an augmented human in our city before her arrival. It is our city, after all. Not a place for those who are often referred to as The Destroyers.

The First Reckless by Charles Bastille
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

But Gladstone Freely was a mistake. Or a defect. Or, she sometimes said, the result of a hacker’s vicious sense of humor. Maybe, she said, she was all of these things. Could a hacker have done this thing to her had she not been defective in the first place?

In many ways, she was indistinguishable from us. Her human form, perhaps too perfect, her face, perhaps too beautiful, were both designed in a lab, I suppose, where she was grown and nurtured in an artificial womb. She did not go through the process of squeezing out of a birth canal. She did not experience the sudden, unexpected fright of birth. This alone made her a different species.

At least ten generations have passed since the Third Eradication. It has taken that long to secure the city. Our magic rules the air, so the augmenters’ drones cannot attack us in our homes at night with aerial bombardments.

I found her wandering, stumbling, really, unaware of who she was. Her memory had been wiped clean.

Steampunk image of Time Master with a watch
Image ©2021 Nejron Photo via Adobe Stock; licensed from Adobe Stock

I didn’t know who I was but I do now. Merrick has helped me. I owe him more gratitude than I will ever be able to repay. How did he revive my memory? I don’t know. He’s just gifted. I’ll stay here in the land my people call MagicLand, away from my own people, for as long as MagicLand’s people allow.

My own people rejected me because of a bad arm. Such a thing. But then, all imperfections are eliminated, so I was lucky to survive into adulthood.

When I arrived in their city I was injured — unaware of my condition, my capabilities, my past.

She was sitting on a pile of broken masonry on the outskirts of our city, Portero. This was a city that was meant to be theirs. It had once been the home of the mechanical brains that had nearly wiped us out. Their original reach had extended further south into the southern bay shore. The large city south of us was essentially their capital.

So we took both cities.

That was a long time ago, maybe a hundred years. The augmenters fled south, to a land called Hollywood, and there they focused on augmentations geared toward beauty and personality enhancements. In effect, they ceded their territory to us, realized they could not defeat us in war, and redirected their augmentation efforts away from soldiering.

Their society became devoted to pleasure and happiness.

We were fine with that, even if it did come after the death of billions of innocent people. All we wanted was to be left alone.

So when I saw Gladstone Freely sitting on a pile of rubble and noticed her mechanical arm, first I became alarmed, and then I wondered why she was here.

I’m not a warrior. Few of us are. I’m a Time Master, which means I can look into past and future events, although I cannot visit those times in any physical sense. Being a Time Master isn’t particularly useful. Nobody wants to know their future, and the past is almost too ugly to revisit.

But helping someone revisit their past can come in handy once in a while.

Just ask Gladstone Freely.

“Top of the morning to ya,” said the weird-looking man with the top hat. Damned if he wasn’t dressed in watches. Upon closer inspection, as he drew near, I began to think he was a living watch, full of gears and other mechanical parts of a timepiece.

I didn’t know where I was. My amnesia was absolute in regard to my own past, but I was able to recollect my society, and this was not it. Sure, the man was dressed in a way that seemed like he could be one of ours, but, well, it’s difficult to describe how, but he simply didn’t look like one of us.

His epidermal layer, for one thing, seemed sickly. He never would have made it out of a birthing center looking like that. It’s not like I had a lot of time to contemplate. He trotted over to me like I was a long-lost friend.

“You are quite lost,” he said.

I was reluctant to react. In normal circumstances, I suppose you might think it was because I needed a moment to decide if he was friend or foe, but if he wasn’t one of us, then he was a magician, which made him a foe. I lifted my bad arm and threw a deflector array around myself.

Her reaction to me was swift but harmless. I saw some kind of patterned energy field wrap around her body as she stared at me emotionless.

“I’m not here to hurt you,” I said. Then, I lied. “If I wanted to, I could have done my damage before you saw me.” In truth, I had no such capabilities. It seemed safe to assume she could not know that.

She stood up from the pile of rocks and continued to look at me. She was truly a miracle of the beautification arts that augmenters had perfected. Her hair looked like a complex brown weave of resplendent silk wrapped in a multitude of directions around the top of her head. Her European-style skin was impossibly free of blemish. Her face consisted of carefully sculpted lines that drew into an angular, pointed jaw and the thin lips favored by the wealthy of Old Earth. Her upper lips had two magnificent arcs that dropped into fine, narrow creases at their ends that then curled up as if lured to a higher spot.

“I want to help you if I can,” I said.

She backed away and fell into the rubble. As I approached to assist her she threw a mechanical hand up with its palms facing me. I understood the warning and held back.

Her entire arm looked mechanical. I could not imagine any possible reason. “I just want to help,” I whispered. I thought I saw a tear emerge from her left eye.

“I don’t care if I die,” she said boldly. “I just would want to know why.”

I nodded and took off my top hat. I made the mistake of saying, “Sometimes there’s no time for that.”

Luckily, she didn’t react, which gave me a chance to recover. “But you are not going to die today.”

She smiled at that. This was such a victory that my heart pounded. Not out of love or affection. I was very devoted to my wife Irina. No, my heart was thrilled by the moment, the sudden dissolution, I hoped, of mistrust.

Her hesitancy remained, but her face changed out of its hardness and her mechanical eyes became more human.

“Where am I?” I asked the strange man.

The man sighed in a friendly way. He was more interesting than I could possibly have imagined. “You are in Potrero,” he said. The friendly nature of his voice was camouflage. If he wasn’t lying to me, I was in mortal danger.

“But . . . how?” I stammered.

“That I cannot say.”

“It’s impossible,” I said. “Potrero is . . . it’s not . . . I can’t be in Portero. They’ll kill me if they find me.”

“If who finds you?” asked the man as he placed his hat back onto his head.

“You know. Your people.”

He shook his head. “We are not in the business of extermination. That is your domain.”

But I knew that to be a lie. Every story of an encounter with a magician had the same outcome. Somebody died. Not always us, not always them. But one or the other.

“I believe you will be welcome here, as long as you move along. Back to where you came from. I can assure your safety for a time.”

“I don’t know where I live.” I could remember things. But they were abstract pieces of knowledge, probably stored in my various memory nodes. These nodes were implanted into us at birth, and they grew organically like the rest of our organs. I could feel, sense, and remember facts, figures, and people, but none of them seemed relevant to me. And I remembered nothing of myself.

I shook my head. I didn’t want to expose my vulnerabilities in this way, but the words jumped out of my mouth before I could stop them. “I don’t know who I am.”

He looked at me like I had shot myself in the foot. “How does that work?” he asked. “Did someone clip a wire in that arm?” He pointed to my bad arm. I could tell he was being facetious or thought he was being funny. I didn’t think it was funny and I glared at him in reply.

“No. Really. How is it possible for a memory chip or whatever on someone like you to just fry out like that? I know nothing of augmentation mechanics. Why would I?” He shrugged his shoulders, then took his hat off again. I found that annoying. Just keep it on or keep it off, I wanted to say.

I found my hat annoying sometimes, but it was part of the look. A look that didn’t matter in this case. I examined it while asking my next question as if the answer lay within the interior of the hat’s cylinder. “Okay, well, no matter. How did you get here? Do you know that much?”

She shook her head rather violently as if I had suggested we go for a swim in the chemical stew that was our nearest lake.

“Let your shield down. I can help you.” I looked at her with no expectations, but she shook her mechanical hand, and a set of flashes resembling lightning zipped around a visible but mostly transparent hood over her body. All of that disappeared.

Her entire arm seemed to be some kind of mechanical configuration as if a gross mistake had been made during her development. She looked nothing like a refugee or reject from her society if one could imagine such a thing. She wore a flowing white top that was immaculately clean, and a pair of beige pants that had nary a speck of dirt. This was quite illogical. How had she traveled such a distance without getting dirty?

“Hold out your arm so I can touch it. I won’t hurt you.”

She held out her mechanical arm. I guess this made sense since she probably considered it a handicap and therefore needed correction. “No,” I said, “The other one.” She offered it to me with a questioning look.

He grasped my forearm so firmly I thought the nanowires embedded into my arteries would be damaged. Suddenly, my mind was gripped by a siege of visuals. I was running down a long hallway, looking behind me while a legion of small police drones rolling on the floor chased me.

I dodged another as it came at me from my front. I ran into a room, which had another door on its far end. I raced for that, closing the first door behind me. When I reached the second door, the first door exploded open and fell forward flat onto the floor, making a violent sound. Several police drones rolled over it.

I opened the second door, which led to a ledge outside. I closed that door, knowing that only a few seconds would elapse before the police drones blew that open, too. I looked over the ledge at an impossible jump. I must have been ten stories high. Where was I? There was no escape to my right or left.

A medical clinic, came an immediate answer. From where did that answer come? I didn’t know, but I knew it to be true. My arm. I was here for that. But something went wrong. There was no place to go. The drones were about to knock the second door down. I wondered where they would take me.

I closed my eyes and did the strangest thing. I think I prayed to some God of Old Earth by saying, “God, if you’re out there, set me free,” and then, before I knew it, before anything else happened at all, I was somewhere else, with a strange clock man holding my hand and retrieving a memory.

I looked at him. “How did you do that?” I asked.

“I took you back. To the when of how you got here. It is very reckless of you to be here, but, well, anyway, how’d I do?”

“My eyes were closed,” I said, “ and I was being chased. Then, somehow, I ended up here.”

“Impossible. Only magicians who can transport can do such things.”

I shook my head. “Yet here I am.”

Such began the mystery of Gladstone Freely.

Was she an augmented magician? Had she been captured, and then augmented? If she had been captured, it would have had to have happened in her childhood, because nobody in the city recognized her after I finally convinced her to return with me to Potrero.

But this was powerful magic, this ability to transport. Many people would have wished for such talents.

Gladstone dedicated the rest of her life to teaching her craft, becoming a friend to me and hundreds of others.

I would often pass her on the streets, smile, and tip my hat to her. And as a joke, she always threw her defense array around herself with a wild cackle before continuing on her way.