Guest Post by J. Edward Tremlett
#1: The Institute
(File Under: Aliens; Demons; Fae; Secret Government Projects; Sorcery)
Not everyone knows about the Institute, but everyone knows their handiwork. Because everyone knows at least one kid who just changed, seemingly overnight. One day they were super-interested in something – or had a real talent for it – and the next time you saw them it was just gone.
Like someone switched it off in their head.
What people don’t often know is that, not long after that change, their parents changed, too. They stopped complaining about money woes or that awful job, or worrying about that guy who really wanted his money back. Maybe a new car appeared, or the house got new furniture, or they moved to a much better neighborhood.
Maybe they had one hell of a vacation and never quite came home.
The kids couldn’t tell you what happened. It was like a memory of a dream, though some pieces might tumble out: a trip to see “a specialist”; a big, red building with tall, white columns; a doctor whose face they cannot (must not) remember; waking up with a strange sense of loss. Hypnosis or other memory-recovery therapies rarely reveal more.
Confronting the parents gets more answers, just not comfortable ones. Their stories are fairly identical: they weren’t doing well financially, and not long after some expert told them their child had a “gift,” they received a white business card with a local number to call. The person on the other end (Doctor… something) represented an “Institute” that could take a portion of their child’s gift to give to someone suffering a crippling lack of that ability.
The Doctor insisted the procedure was painless and non-invasive, and the child would not even remember it. And there would be a substantial tax-free sum in exchange, so long as the parents kept quiet, did not tell the child, and would not seek legal redress if anything went wrong.
(But things hardly ever went wrong! You could trust the Institute. After all, the Government did…)
Parents who refused never heard from them again. Those who agreed were given directions: somewhere on the outskirts of the nearest big city, down a lonely, long road that opened up on a field. A big Georgian building with tall, white columns sat behind a small, red brick fence. There were not a lot of cars, there, and they never saw any other patients.
That’s all the parents can remember: not the Doctor, not the paperwork, not the wait – nothing. The money was in their hand when they left, along with a tax form. And the kids were fine, usually. Just dazed and confused, as if they had something on the tip of their tongue but never remembered it.
But sometimes too much was taken, leading to serious handicaps. Some developed dyscalculia or dyspraxia, suffered a difficulty understanding language or science, or just had no artistic talent at all. Some collapsed into the hole in their mind, suffering severe depression as they mourned what they could not recall.
The paper trail had vanished, though. The cards were missing after the trip to the Institute. The phone number never worked again. And anyone who retraced their steps found the building was gone – the road ended in an empty field…
Asked about the morality of such a choice, every parent echoes the same thing: “The Doctor said they’d never miss it, and we had bills to pay.” They then adopt a pathetic look, as if they need their inquisitor to agree with them, or at least understand.
2: The Desert of Stolen Years
At the far edge of the world, in an arid, Sun-baked place where life is harsh but strangely rewarding, lies Al Sahraa Al Sanawat Al Da’iaa – the desert that eats time.
The desert is well away from human habitation – far, far past the shoreline Emirates and the villages that mark their dominion, and deep within the rocks and dunes where only the lonely or wandering dare go. Three lonely, dark peaks known as Al Akhawaat Al Thalaatha – The Three Sisters – are well-known to the nomads and hermits, for just past them lie the first, glimmering dunes, as well as confusion, death, and possible greatness.
Those who live or travel near that wide and deadly expanse tell many tales of The Desert of Stolen Years. They say Sahraa Al Sanawat Al Da’iaa was there long before the greatest of cities were mere villages, and before the greatest of kingdoms were merely a king, a fortress, and a throne. They say the desert itself was once a great kingdom, with a capitol that put all to shame with its wealth, knowledge, magic, and miracles.
They also say that something terrible happened, there, though no storyteller can agree upon exactly what. Now, they can only point to that desert, and invite the curious to listen to its strange unearthly winds, and see how its frequent sandstorms seethe and pulse with eerie lights.
To go into that desert is to play games with time, they say – dangerous games. Young men go in and come out old men; boys become their fathers. Sometimes a traveler will meet his future self, maddened and wizened from the journey and begging him to turn back.
Sadly, they never do.
But every so often, someone who knows the ways of time and chance enters, and returns to tell stories of wonder. These daring explorers speak of areas where time is not out of control – oases whose waters salve the lost years, encampments where time is meaningless. They whisper to the tribal elders of the great city of old – still there, still laden with the treasures of that bygone age, still guarded by deadly traps and strange guardians.
They say that in the center of the city is a prize worth all risk: the secret to use time as a tool, so as to no longer be ruled by it. But none who say they have entered the city have managed to claim that prize – or at least been of a mind to return and tell of their victory.