The apocalypse didn’t go as expected. No volcanic eruptions or tidal waves. No asteroid, aliens, or celestial horsemen.
That’s not to say it wasn’t bad.
It was devastating.
There were riots, fires, and food and water shortages lasting months. It took more than five years for the wildly swinging pendulum of normalcy to find balance on its newly fashioned scale. Now, fourteen years after Ascension, we’re finally—mostly—there.
The New Normal.
Funny how the passage of years will shift perspective and how adaptable the human species is when faced with reality-bending circumstance. What once seemed so catastrophic is now a worldwide holiday, celebrated with festivals, retail markdowns, and used car tent sales.
July 28. Ascension Day. Or, in more personal terms: The Day Fifty Million People Died.
Like millions of others, I lost my way post-Ascension. My current avenue of life, according to my dad, is more like an alleyway to nowhere. I work part-time in my uncle Mal’s pub in Los Angeles and do taxes on the side.
Despite the chaos that followed Ascension, not much has changed in terms of societal structure. People are still assholes. Capitalism is alive and well. And yet, everything is different.
For starters, the President of the United States is a werewolf.
It was a typical Friday night at Sullivan’s Pub in Silver Lake. The atmosphere was purposefully dim, with rock music providing a frenetic backdrop to an old, familiar story: a bar full of women and the men trying to go home with them.
I’d like to say that when the rest of our brains came online, emotional IQs increased exponentially, leading us to seek more meaningful, lasting relationships. Not so much. If anything, the lack of STDs and accidental pregnancies have made casual sex disturbingly conventional.
Founded by my uncle Mal over thirty years ago, Sullivan’s was a neighborhood fixture long before Silver Lake turned trendy. Over the years, the crowd has evolved from blue collar workers and biker outlaws to trendsetters, artists, and the young entrepreneurial crowd.
“A Manhattan, please.”
I nodded at my customer and poured the drink, then carefully traded booze for cash across the counter. “Change?” I asked, glancing up from the bill in my fingers.
He shook his head, sending shaggy blond hair flying. Even without the dog-like wiggle and yellowish tinge in his otherwise brown eyes, I knew he was a shifter. Given the area, most likely coyote. His aura was a weak pulse—definitely low on the alpha scale.
“What’s with the white streak in your hair?” he asked.
I closed the cash drawer, keeping my fingers away from the metal sides. “Stuck my finger in a light socket.”
The shifter smiled, displaying slightly elongated teeth, an indication of too much time spent in his other body. If he stayed in human form, the effect would fade in a few days. I had a feeling that wouldn’t be the case with this guy.
Undeterred by my dismissive vibe, he continued, “What’s your name?”
I swallowed a sigh and glanced down the length of the bar, sizing up drinks and customers. Katrina, my usual scapegoat, was at the other end dealing with a couple of vampires pissed that we were out of O-Neg. To my chagrin, no one needed my immediate attention.
I answered shortly, “Fiona.”
“Hi, Fiona, I’m Eddie.”
He stuck out his hand for me to shake. I ignored it. Maybe he meant well, but I was just jaded enough to suspect he didn’t. This wasn’t my first rodeo.
“Nice to meet you, Eddie. Enjoy your drink.” Hoping he took the hint, I turned my back to the counter and began restocking pint glasses.
“Told you she’d burn you, dude,” slurred a voice behind me. “You owe me twenty bucks.”
“Shit,” groaned Eddie.
I glanced aside to find Katrina watching me. She rolled her eyes and mouthed, “Assholes.” I nodded and went back to work, well aware of my reputation as a prude and completely fine with it.
Twenty minutes later there was another contender, this time an Amber mage whose power was a dim orange flare around his shoulders. He didn’t bother with flattery, going straight for the money-shot.
“So, what are you? Cipher or null?”
It was the million-dollar question. They were the only two options for me, seeing as I didn’t turn furry, drink blood, or cast spells.
Ciphers, accounting for 18.3 percent of the population, were humans who had come through Ascension more or less unchanged, save an imbedded defense system toward supernaturals. Vampires couldn’t work mind control over them. Shifters couldn’t infect them with a bite. No matter what a mage threw at a cipher, they remained untouched.
Nulls, on the other hand, were humans for whom Ascension was a passing, uneventful storm. No changes. No powers. Just a headache that lasted most of the day. They comprised only 8.5 percent of the population worldwide and even less, 4 percent, in the United States. Most nulls stayed away from the heavily supernatural city centers, preferring communal living in rural areas. I didn’t blame them. Those who stayed, less than 1 percent, invariably hired mages to work protection spells over them, giving them almost the same level of immunity as ciphers.
But I wasn’t a cipher or a null.
Lucky for me, my uncle Mal was kind of a badass, a mage whose power was a vibrant blue nimbus. Long ago, he’d embedded spells in the skin of my arms. They weren’t inherently defensive, as we’d discovered I was mostly immune to mind control, but served another, dual purpose. The snaking vines of text obscured the narrow ribbons of white scarring on my arms, bolstering my self-control while simultaneously projecting a subliminal warning to those around me.
Off-Limits. Do Not Touch.
Most of the time, the spells worked. But humans, Ascended or not, were stubborn and arrogant. They didn’t like mysteries. Didn’t like other. When, two years ago, a troll had crawled out from under the Brooklyn Bridge, the poor guy had been shot at, hit with cars, and set on fire. It had taken a hundred police, acting on orders from the president, to isolate and thereby protect the ancient, albeit naïve beastie.
Unsurprisingly, no other fairytale creatures have come out of the woodwork since.
“So?” pressed the mage. “Cipher or null?”
From behind me, Katrina snarled, “That’s none of your business.”
The mage scowled. “No need to bite my head off, kitten.”
The moniker was a mistake. With one long-legged stride, Katrina was halfway across the counter and had the mage’s collar in her hands—her abruptly claw-tipped hands. With a notable growl in her tone, she said, “Call me kitten again.”
The customers to either side began edging away, which was smart of them. I wondered where Mal was. If he was watching.
“I-I meant no offense,” gasped the mage. For a few moments, he struggled futilely against her hold. Then he tried another angle, turning wide eyes to me. “I’m sorry. Really. My bad.”
The warm, familiar weight of a large hand settled on my shoulder. As it belonged to the man who’d set the spells on me, he was unaffected by the resulting electrical surge. The deep blue radiance of his aura filled my peripheral vision, undetectable to all but me.
Uncle Mal said calmly, “Let him go, Katrina.” She did, tossing blond hair over her shoulder as she sauntered to the other end of the bar.
The accosted mage blinked at Mal, clearly uncertain as to whether he should offer thanks or apology. I could have told him which, but kept my mouth shut.
“How much?” asked Mal.
Another owl-like blink from the mage. “What?”
The jewel-toned light grew more pronounced, now visible to anyone looking our way. Mal didn’t often show his true colors, but when he did, people noticed.
A sapphire aura signified a high ranking mage, one who didn’t need preparation or tools to enact spells, just words and gestures. The only level of mastery above Sapphire was Opal, denoting a mage who could trigger a spell with a thought. There were only five Opal Mages in the U.S., and four of them were government employees.
Sapphire Mages weren’t as rare as Opals, but they were rare enough. Since undergoing his mandatory training ten years ago, Mal had been approached no less than twenty times by various government agencies. He always turned them down.
In a low, dangerous tone, he asked, “How big is the betting pool on whether Fiona is a cipher or a null?”
The lesser mage blanched, stumbled off his stool, and disappeared into the crowd.
“It’s okay, Mal,” I said softly.
He grunted at my lie. It wasn’t okay and we both knew it. Exposure as something other than the acceptable classes was a fear I carried every day. It was so much a part of me that it was a dull ache, like the back pain I’d had pre-Ascension.
When the first mandatory Census happened two years post-Ascension, I’d managed to pass as a cipher with Mal’s help. The tests were much more rigorous these days. Past-due notices to renew my registration were piling up in a junk drawer at home.
Eventually, someone would come looking for me. When they found me, I had no doubt the rest of my life would be spent in an underground testing facility somewhere. Probably with the Brooklyn troll for a cellmate. The media line was that he’d vanished without a trace from FBI headquarters in New York.
“What are we going to do?” I murmured, turning to look up at my uncle. He was stuck in his early sixties, with one of those faces that reached peak attractiveness in middle age. Coupled with a full head of chestnut hair and sparkling hazel eyes, my uncle had no problems with the ladies.
Right now, his eyes were worried. More worried than I’d seen them since the early years, when he and my father had resorted to keeping me in a basement until I could manage my ability. For my own safety and theirs.
Except for my brief, stress-ridden foray to the local Census Department, I’d spent the majority of six years underground, a veritable live wire with perpetually singed-off hair, until both my hard won control and Mal’s spellwork had earned me reintroduction to the world.
I was struggling with control right now, which probably accounted for the concerned frown on Mal’s face. It’d been a long day and I hadn’t slept well last night, two key ingredients in my personal recipe for disaster.
Tiny, electrical pulses traveled the scars on my arms, triggering a powerful itching in my palms. My long-sleeved shirt began to heat, chafing my sensitive skin. I sucked air through my teeth and closed my eyes. Relax. Relax.
Mal squeezed my shoulder. “Take a break,” he ground out.
No need to tell me twice. Ducking past him, I made a beeline for freedom, sidling past customers and down a short hallway to the back door. The metal bar depressed at my touch, throwing a thick spark that was thankfully blocked by my body.
I stepped into the mild September evening, letting the door slam closed. The alleyway was blessedly empty of humanity. Just me, two ripe dumpsters, and scurrying rats.
Crouching, I slammed my palms into the asphalt and released the charge in my body. The current happily complied, pulsing outward in ever weakening cycles, until, finally, I was back to normal.
Whatever normal was.