Chaos happens when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.
Historians have said that our world once was one whole realm. Both known sides once existed together, and there was a certain level of harmony. A cosmic event created the Barrier that separated our world into two realms: Axiom and Chaos. The division separated the natural resources of our world, and created an energy wave so powerful that each realm became invisible to the other. Most historians agree the Barrier holds the balance that allows us to coexist, even when we never meet.
Contrary to this, legend says that when all started, chaos ruled everywhere.
The poisonous plants were deadly to humans, and dangerous animals freely roamed the terrain. The high humidity masked the sunlight, and thus, it rained and snowed frequently. Life was dangerous and our livelihood was at risk. According to the believers, the Maker, our creator, grew tired and drew a line through our world. Chaos got punished and was forced to live with the monsters it created. Axiom got rewarded, enjoying the light and warmth from the sun.
Chaos and Axiom are twin realms that coexist thanks to the Barrier in between. Without it, both realms would collapse. The major catastrophe of the year 188A22, known as the Disruption, brought dire consequences to both realms. Our natural resources became invasive species, and parts of our cities collapsed into each other. Peace is now a distant dream.
Nevertheless, we kept on testing what is left of the Barrier. Resources, such as water and food, are randomly trafficked between realms. The powers born from the Disruption are destroying everything in their way. The Agency, our former defender, wants to control both realms, favoring their own side, Axiom, and hoping to establish a strong regime to control both realms. Axiom’s government wants to conquer and use Chaos as a supplier. The Corrupts, the crime organization, is the only one helping the victims, but as expected, their intentions are questionable.
Tom Umbrar-Ment knew all of this. He believed the Big One—his name for the Maker—wouldn’t have punished one realm over the other. He also believed that the truth about our world must be somewhere in between all these versions.
Tom seemed to have found a way. It is only fair to try it.
188A23 Year, Week 19
Week 17, Second day, Morning
Tom Umbrar-Ment rolled to his side and turned off his radio. He exhaled, wondering why it bothered him so much when anyone in the news tried to simplify their reality. Another irresponsible authority in Chaos had caused a flood in Axiom’s Sector 15.
The government, the broadcast, everyone loved to pretend Axiom was perfect and Chaos was the problem. Tom sighed. Why couldn’t he accept that too? Why did he care so much? He exhaled again, avoiding the well-known answer.
With a grunt, he rolled to his back but stayed in bed. Mornings weren’t his favorite time, even less after the long hours of the day before. He would rather have stayed in bed, but he had no option. It was the wedding weekend, and he had a project to finish by the end of the month. He sat up and rubbed his face. The sharpness of the new whiskers made him groan. Another reason he hated mornings.
He got up and opened his arms wide, but his muscles sent sharp warnings around his shoulders. There was no point in stretching his legs, because that would only make him feel worse. It didn’t matter how much he worked every day; installing a new floor was a full workout, and his body loved to remind him of it for days.
As he stood up, he remembered his yearly antidote appointment, making him roll his eyes and wish it was the week after already. He needed that ridiculous requirement to build by the Barrier. Another way for Axiom to pretend that everything bad was from Chaos, even though everyone knew those nasty ophidents lived in both realms.
The events of the day ahead flooded his mind as he walked toward the bathroom, and he hit his head on the stupid hanging plant in his apartment. He should have thrown it away when Charlotte ended everything. Now, that pot seemed to exist solely to remind him of his height and his inability to stay in a relationship.
He pushed the pot to the side, and a new branch poked his eye. That was the third groan of the day, and he hadn’t even made it to the shower. At least the mirror in the bathroom confirmed his eyeball was still inside its socket.
A deep sigh escaped him when the image of a girl he avoided thinking about came to mind.
“You know, few people have that deep ombre eye color.” The memory of Jess’s sweet and kind voice was as vivid as the image of her beautiful face illuminated by the sun outside her mother’s old house.
He should have taken the compliment, or argued that the way her wavy hair shone with the sunlight, almost in different colors, was an even more unique tone. Instead, he mocked the comment and ignored his longing to be with her.
“That’s dumb. I see a pair all the time,” he had replied, not daring to move his eyes from the bottle in his hand.
He thought he knew better. She was Bill’s little sister, and Bill was his best friend. More importantly, he had nothing to offer but trouble. It was best to stay away from her.
He clenched his fist, and even after all these years, the desire to hit the mirror ran through his veins. He’d behaved like a jerk to Jess many times after, and he couldn’t blame his teenage immaturity for it.
He rubbed his short hair and continued his way to the shower. It would be a long week. For once, the flooring project seemed more appealing.
Week 17, Second day, Night
Jess pushed her back against the wet wall outside the old store, holding her gun up and ready. The screams from Chaos’s people and the gunshots from the Corrupts echoed all around the alley in the narrow streets of Chaos. The image of the aftermath of the shooting made her stomach turn as her heartbeat pulsed in her ears.
Hundreds of takuosums, the scavenger creatures from the zone, continued to descend from the trees, preparing for the feast to come. Jess swallowed to keep the bile from rising in her throat, knowing how many of those bodies would never be recovered whole. Still, patience was their best bet.
Something had gone horribly wrong. Jess knew it the moment Karen Falc-Axon walked into her room, less than an hour ago, and the problem grew when her partner had to call for backup. The Agency should have known about any agent extractions. Especially the ones ending an undercover mission involving the Chief of the Corrupts’ son, his missing father, and an unavoidable confrontation.
“Put it down, you idiot!” Karen said from the other side of the alley, jumping out into the open.
Jess shook her head and swore under her breath. There was no way their reinforcement would arrive in less than four minutes. Her partner should have known it too.
“What the photons?!” a male voice said.
A burst of shots followed, drowning out the screams in the alley.
“I told you to put it down,” Karen said.
Jess exhaled and peeked around the corner. From her hiding spot, she had a good view of the Corrupt guy in front of Karen. He had to be at least two heads taller and three times Karen’s new size. Since her husband passed, Karen had put on weight, and her behavior became erratic at times. Like right now.
Another barrage of shots exploded, this time more of them and closer to Jess. A few takuosums ran around the corner, unaware of her presence. One of them stepped on Jess’s foot and its wet nose touched her knee. Its long fur and sharp claws brushed against her leg, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared, climbing up the wall and rocks in front of her.
Jess took a deep breath and counted down to five while exhaling.
The man shouted, “Photonic idiot! I’m going to—”
A single shot from Jess’s gun struck the man’s forehead, causing his head to bounce back at a strange angle. His body fell flat on the street, echoing in the alley. For a second, everything was silent, until the attention shifted to Jess. Every bullet from windows, balconies, and doors was aimed at her head.
Jess opened fire randomly, giving herself a chance to find Karen.
The ground quaked in Chaos Realm, as it often did, and the sudden movement stopped the attack, sending some of Jess’s attackers falling to the ground, along with a few takuosums. Large pieces of concrete also fell, and the smell of rotten water from the underground filled Jess’s nostrils. She ran back a block before finding cover behind a building.
She swore again and recharged her gun. They knew where she was and could reach her. However, her concern wasn’t her life, but the glimpse of Karen’s body lying on the ground.
For the next two minutes, Jess took advantage of her remarkable aim and put down several of the Corrupts who were attacking them. Over the years, she had learned to not think about it, but taking a life always left a mark on her. Even now, when her need to help her partner weighed on her.
The smell of rust and the screech of old hinges filled the alley. The Corrupts realized what that sound meant, and although they kept shooting, their running footsteps moved away from Jess. She snuck out just in time to see the light of several portals opening.
As expected, when the Agency arrived in large groups, they landed on the tops of the buildings. It was easier than trusting the realm’s stability.
Jess didn’t wait for everything to stop, and dashed toward Karen. The confrontation behind her became background noise when she kneeled beside her. To her surprise, Karen’s jacket had a large dark stain on the back. She leaned closer, and her eyes filled with tears when she heard Karen’s uneven breathing.
“Karen, what were you thinking?” Jess carefully rolled her onto her back with shaky hands. “Where is your vest?”
Blood soaked through her sweater, but it shouldn’t have. Their gear wasn’t magical or impenetrable, but the heavy brass on it would have stopped most of those shots.
“You should have worn—”
“Sorry, Jess,” Karen whispered, pausing between words to take a breath. “I thought I could do it, but…not to you. I didn’t want to—I missed him too much.”
“Please, Karen, try to—”
“I’m so sorry, Jess. It’s my fault…”
Jess sniffled, shaking her head, and holding her partner’s hand, until Karen stopped breathing.
Some agents around Jess moved closer. One of them knelt beside Karen and, passing her hand across her face, closed Karen’s eyes. Jess’s partner was a loved agent. A mentor for most of them, and an immense loss to everyone.
The rain poured down, and white dots nested in Jess’s hair. A chilly breeze picked up the dead essence of the place, and in the distance, the takuosums’ screams promised their return.
Peter Nigil-Pax, her captain and old friend, touched her shoulder and said, “We have to go, Jess. I’m so sorry.”
Jess closed her eyes and pressed her nails into the skin of her palms. Karen’s body had to stay there. Crossing over with a dead body was impractical, because particles behaved differently with living beings.
The Corrupts, being the good crime organization they were, wouldn’t risk losing their territory, and the east end of Chaos was the center of their illegal trafficking activities. A shiver ran through her body as she tried to erase images of what those bastards would do to her remains, and she punched the ground when she realized her best hope was that the takuosums reached her before the Corrupts.
“You know what to do.” Peter gave a shy smile and took a few steps back.
An old prayer came to Jess’s mind as she wiped her face. Her father died when she was fifteen, and her mom taught her how to ask for peace when loved ones couldn’t have a proper funeral.
Karen’s forehead still felt warm when Jess kissed it. “I hope you find him on the other side,” Jess said, and it took all her strength not to fall to pieces.
When Jess graduated from the Agency’s academy, the director Theodore Ven-Larve assigned Karen to be her mentor. Jess, who was nineteen years younger, had no trouble adopting Karen as her role model. Karen was also the only person who supported Jess’s decision to work with the Agency. Not too long after, Karen offered Jess the opportunity to become an active agent.
Jess’s mom and brother had personal reasons to hate the Agency. They claimed the institution didn’t really work to protect the realm’s safety or commerce. Unlike Karen, they turned their backs to Jess. Losing her mentor made Jess feel like she was alone in the world.
Once Jess accepted her new role as an active agent, Karen was assigned as Jess’s partner. As her partner, only Jess knew how Karen’s realm key to cross over between Chaos and Axiom looked like. Each agent decided which object to set as their key when they finished their training, and only shared their decision with their partners. Now that Karen was dead, her key became a relic, and the energy storage from all their traveling between the realms was too dangerous to leave around.
Jess put Karen’s key in her pocket, and its power left an electric twinkle in her hand. It wasn’t surprising. Karen was an outstanding agent, and her key had absorbed energy through years of service. In the wrong hands, it could mean a terrible disaster. The only safe way to return its energy was to bring it to the Welder, one of the highest positions within the Agency, and the only person with access to the energy wave of their world. This was now Jess’s responsibility.
With one last look at her mentor, Jess followed the others up the metal ladder. She needed to reach Main City, and she needed to do it soon, for everyone’s safety.
Peter stood beside her as he opened the portal to Axiom, her home realm, with an object she couldn’t see. Jess bit her lower lip when the bright, almost blinding white light opened in front of them. It had been too long since she had seen it, and she was certain the tweak in her wasn’t longing, but dread.
“Something is off, Jess.” His voice was barely audible. “I can’t figure it out, but you are going to your brother’s wedding. On the First, you need to bring the relic to its last stop.”
Jess stared at him, her mind numb as she pieced together his words. Her brother’s wedding, which she had no idea was happening until a couple of hours ago, when Karen told her about it. Also, an invitation that Karen had declined on Jess’s name. For sure, one that she would have loved to miss, and now it was part of her mission. Jess’s shoulders became heavier.
It didn’t matter how little she spoke to her brother in those days. Bill was going to throw a tantrum because she changed his plan at the last second, and now she was going to be presented in his special day. Hopefully, at least her mom would be happy to see her.
Week 17, Fourth day, Midmorning
Summers in Axiom meant lots of sunshine and high temperatures in the middle of the day, but wonderful evenings when the breeze from the Western Ocean reached every corner of the realm. Axiom people took pride in this and pitied Chaos people, who, as far as they knew, lived in an eternal winter.
Tom disliked gossiping about things he ignored, but agreed to enjoy the weather. Working under the sun had never bothered him.
“Done early?” Frank Ge-Arje asked.
“I am, but you’re not,” Tom said. “We need to finish by the end of the month. That’s, what…two weeks from today?”
Frank waved at him and kept walking.
Tom shook his head as he tossed his work gloves into the back of his truck and picked up his toolbox. The house was a critical project for their company, TowerUp. Even when Tom was a co-owner with Bill, without consulting him, his friend had allowed the client to pay for almost everything in advance and signed a contract with a set deadline. Tom feared the harsh consequences of the deal if they failed to finish.
Not for the first time, he wished Bill had chosen a different month to get married. His best friend wouldn’t help build anything. He worked better as the marketing and administration person. However, Tom would have had one more week to work on the house instead of attending the wedding.
He walked inside, groaning at the missing windows, half-painted walls, bare plywood floors, and holes for appliances in the kitchen. The finishes on all their projects were their signature, and everything depended on him. There was too much work to get done. Frank worked well, but only when supervised. Tom doubted Frank would remember to get the materials for their next week’s work. Another essential detail.
Tom pushed his hair back, exhaling. They could lose their company if this contract failed.
“Relax, Tom,” Frank said, walking down the stairs with a bucket of paint in each hand. “I got..."