“Beware the Face,” the Old Ones would say, solemnly, warning their children against straying too far into the wilderness.
The story had been told for as long as the old town had existed, probably. Passed along, like most stories, from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters.
The children would be reminded of the Rules: “Don’t go out there in the night cycle, and never venture into the woods alone. The Face is a Predator. It will attack the weak and the Singletons.”
Many of those children took these Rules to heart, though many others saw it as a way to contain their childish ways, to keep them from straying away from the Teachings, away from their Holy Seer’s wishes.
Jeth was certainly of this latter thought.
Always rebellious, ever the outcasted son of all his five brothers, Jeth saw the Face for the restraining limit it was.
He wasn’t one of the mindless looper-sheep that passed for the citizens of his town.
He wasn’t one of the “Good” and “valid” Sector Citizens like his father and mother and siblings.
He had been often warned that straying out of line would lead him down a path of misery, even destruction.
He laughed at such notions.
He strayed where he wanted as often as he could. He counted the cycles until his Final Test, after which he would be able to leave his parent’s unit and be truly free of their control.
Besides, he especially enjoyed the Woods that encircled the old town of Iyo. All his classmates ever talked about was what was Beyond the Woods, across the Plains into the Core, the City.
Most of those classmates were empty-headed drones that had no idea what life had in store for them. They just wanted to “do better” and “make their parents proud” and “become one of the valid”.
He thought all this as he made his way stealthily out of his assigned compartment, then opened a second-story window and shimmied his way down the latticework near the garden of his parental unit’s home.
He had done this many times before, and had only ever been caught once, half a cycle ago. He’d been reprimanded, isolated, and made to reaffirm his Pledge of Alignment to his root family, community, sector, and country. The standard punishment for a minor infraction.
He didn’t mind. He didn’t care one bit about the pledge, and only went through the reaffirmation to get his parents and instructors off his case.
He crossed quickly, quietly across the residential sector of Iyo, through the abandoned rail transfer yard, and onto the trail that led into the wilderness.
Into the Woods.
It was quiet here. A different kind of quiet than he ever encountered in town. Even in his compartment when the white noise emitter was activated for his sleep cycle. That kind of quiet was too perfect, too contrived, next to the silence he encountered out here.
Because it wasn’t a complete silence, always a rustling of flora or fauna, just beyond the soft light of this portable torch.
But it was a silence truly authentic. A silence that he knew had no artificial hand. No strings being pulled in order to acquire it.
It was the kind of silence he could only access here, and now. It left him alone with his most sincere thoughts, never having to be wary of a roving Scanner at home or school or-
Something moved in the darkness. Intrinsically he sensed it was moving toward him.
He paused. He waited. He listened.
His electronic torch barely pushed back the darkness a few feet in front of him, its blue-white illumination no match for the absolute lack of light pollution out here, beyond the community limits. The community itself had entered its sleep cycle, so any external lights had been shut off hours before.
After more than a minute without hearing the sound again, Jeth proceeded, but slower this time, down the narrow path. It was a path often traversed by his likeminded classmates, but seldom at night he was sure (and even more seldom alone).
Those Rules, even if scoffed at by he and his rebellious brethren, were nonetheless engrained in them.
But Jeth felt he was different from even these other young rebels, these other untidy fragments in the community who did not want to fit in so neatly.
Jeth saw himself as a true original…
“A True Original,” a voice from the darkness repeated.
Jeth spun toward the sound, searching with his meager light to reveal the source.
Nervous now, he spoke: “Unhide yourself, please.”
It was forbidden in his and most communities to remain hidden. Whoever was out there was required by design to show themselves.
“Unhide yourself,” he repeated.
“You know,” the voice in the darkness said, “that requirement does not apply to Administrators. Have you ever wondered why that is?”
Scared, and not sure how (or whether it was even wise) to respond, Jeth said simply, “I’m sure Administrators have their reasons. Now again, Unhide yourself, or I’ll-“
“You’ll what? Tell the authorities on me? I thought you were out here to rebel against such people, such entities? I may have misjudged you as just another looper. All talk.”
Jeth stayed silent, fully aware in this frightened state that he had nothing to say.
“Turn the light off, and we’ll talk about Unhiding,” the voice said after some time.
“That…that doesn’t make any sense,” Jeth said, “it won’t matter if you’re unhidden if I can’t see you.”
“You’ll see me,” the voice said. “Or you can leave that light on and find absolutely nothing out here, Jeth. You’ll never hear my voice again. Would you prefer that?”
Already the voice was beginning to fade.
“How do you know my name?”
“Turn the light off and we can talk,” the voice said, fading even more quickly.
Jeth fumbled with the torch’s on/off switch, finally clicking it off and began looking around in the dark.
At first, he saw nothing but the afterimages left by the now-extinguished light, the negatives of branches and leaves filling his field of vision.
Slowly, even those images began fading, like the voice, until he was in complete darkness.
“Now we can begin,” the voice said, very close to where he stood.
As the voice and the afterimages had faded just moments ago, the Face, when it appeared, did so in the opposite manner. It Un-Faded Jeth thought in that moment.
First the tip of the nose revealed itself, some ten feet in front of him, though he did not identify it as such until the rest of the nose filled in the picture. Next, the brow and the cheekbones, the lips, the chin, and the outline of hair and ears.
Last of all were the eyes.
Blue, like a single diode from his torch, but much brighter, seemingly pupil-less, and projecting none of that light outward somehow.
He realized only after his initial awe of these piercing eyes that the face belonged to a woman.
When she spoke again, he thought himself a fool for not noticing that the voice was undeniably female.
The Face hung out there, illuminated by some unseen light, seemingly from a string or on a pedestal, unattached to a body from what Jeth could tell.
“Step forward, Jeth,” the Voice now coming from the Face’s mouth commanded, “let’s have a talk.”
He did so, and as he moved closer, he realized that there was indeed a body connected to this face, it was merely cloaked in a heavy robe, the hands in leather gloves, the feet and legs in knee-high riding boots that reminded him of pirates or highwayman from his childhood storybooks.
Still he could not see how the Face shined in the middle of all this darkness. It was as if it had an internal light source, some way that it illuminated itself, herself, that was both captivating and eerie. Off-putting.
All of this he felt in the back of his mind. His initial shock at first hearing the Voice and then seeing, actually, physically, seeing the Face, remained as one thought kept returning to him:
The Face was real. Not some myth to scare little children and keep adolescents in check. It was real.
“Yes, I am most certainly real, Young One,” the Face replied to this thought, apparently plucked from his brain. Afraid to follow this line of thinking lest this figure continue to harvest his brainwaves any further, Jeth instead fell silent and lowered his eyes.
“Where is the brave young man that ventured into these Woods just minutes ago?” the Face asked, with just a hint of mock. “Felis apprehended your tongue?”
Jeth looked back up and regarded the Face once more, though he couldn’t bring himself to look into those eyes for more than a moment, preferring instead shift his gaze to the forehead or the mouth.
“Oh, young Jeth, you should not be afraid. You’ll be soon on your way back home. You’ll come to no harm out here with me. Now surely, you have some questions.”
Comforted by the softening in the tone of her voice, Jeth responded, “Well, yes. I guess I’d like to know who you are. You’re not some mythical monster like my parents have said, right?”
At this the Face smiled, though Jeth sensed a shift in the the intensity of her eyes. They seemed to dim, to flicker almost imperceptibly, for just a microsecond.
She replied, “No not that kind of monster at all.” It was only later as he drifted to sleep that he realized the subtlety of this response.
“Then who are you, really. And what are you doing out here in the Woods?”
“I’m an Outcast. A permanent Outsider, Jeth,” the Face responded. Her gaze never deviated, seeming to bore a hole into his own, increasingly nervous eyes. She began circling him, regarding him, slowly.
Jeth felt a cold sweat break out on his skin, and when she was directly behind him, he felt certain that she would accost him somehow; perhaps stab him with a hidden knife.
But her slow circle continued, until she stood before him once again.
“Tell me, Young One,” she began, “where do you live?”
“Um, in the residential district, of course,” Jeth began. That’s where everyone but the Admins lived, which he felt certain this woman knew.
“Yes, of course I know that,” she said, again plucking the thought from his mind. “What I want to know is where exactly do you live. What building, what level, what compartment are you assigned to? But-“ she interrupted him before he could verbalize, “don’t say it out loud. Think of it quickly and try to hide it from me.”
“How…how am I supposed to do that?” he asked.
“Shh-“ she chastised with a noise that cut into the soundless night like a blade, “don’t think. Just do as I say. Now, where do you live?”
The address flashed briefly in his mind’s monitor, then was erased just as quickly. He began thinking of other things, memories, random thoughts, in order to obscure that specific string of numbers and letters.
“Ah, yes,” she said, taking a step closer to him, “your Class Endeavor into the Hill Mines of Iyo. You were rebuffed by a girl when you leaned in for a kiss. How embarrassing.”
He felt heat rise in his face, this memory brought forth in this manner, in this setting, and he couldn’t be completely sure that he had even thought of it, actually.
Had she delved deeper into his mind and retrieved it all on her own? He couldn’t be sure.
“Perhaps I have, young Jeth. Or perhaps you’re not as Special as you believe yourself to be.”
She took amother step toward him, bringing them almost nose to nose. At this distance Jeth could see the workings of those glowing eyes, the iris waxing and waning as the stark-black pupils (which he didn’t see when the eyes first appeared) expanded and contracted in a seemingly random-rhythm.
So close now he could feel the puff of breath on his face when she spoke, “Not random at all. That rhythm is in fact in tune with your heartbeat.”
Could that be right? Why should that be? he asked himself in quick succession. He then noticed that he could distinctly hear his heartbeat, racing nervously, in his ears. He then looked at those pupils, dark as obsidian, dark as crude oil mimicking this beat, without fail.
“Ah, there it is,” she said, calmly, and stepped back, away from the frightened young man. “192 168th Avenue, Compartment 86 Room 1. The Gateway Subdivision, if I’m not mistaken. Your Parental Units have done well.”
At this point, he didn’t know how to respond, knowing she would know, already knew, what he was thinking. He looked down, feeling defeated without really knowing why.
“There is no reason to feel so, young Jeth. Return to your home. Get some rest. When you awaken, you’ll feel like a new man. I promise.”
Her voice, which had gotten quite grating as she was extracting his thoughts, had returned to its melodic tones, and it eased his troubled mind.
She began to retreat backward into the Woods, and the glowing aura around her began fading. “Fare you well, young Jeth. Know that you are enough, you have passed this Rite.”
The light was almost completely gone now, and she was several meters away when his previous thoughts returned to him. She shouted out to the Face, “Am I Special? Am I Unique?”
All he’d ever wanted to be was a True Original.
But she was gone.
He stayed there, in complete darkness, no longer afraid and willing her to return.
Wanting her to answer.
But she never did return. Nor did he to the Woods.
But she was right.
After that sleep cycle he was a new man.
Set Alpha && Beta reprogramming to good. SETAS Valid unit.
Analysis: Despite some progression from previous versions, no unique or original traits detected.
J3TH4558x reporting at satisfactory parameters after reformatting.
Delete current Master units…Promote J3th to Master Unit.
Create and Propagate J4TH series for evaluation.
If you enjoyed this short story, check out my Anthology “Going Gone”, available on Amazon for Kindle and Paperback