Winter had barely begun and it was already looking like one of the coldest on record. It was the first day of school for Leno, a senior in college, and he was running a little late. He dashed into the bathroom to wash his face and then, as he was changing his clothes, Atron-905's voice rang out:
"Breakfast is ready!"
"How long has it been since I last heard those words?" he thought, smiling, remembering how much he had enjoyed his last vacation. Atron-905 was a second-generation, home-sentient android, with an autonomous AI, designed to nurture and care for humans - from their first cry to their last breath. It was the only family he knew, part of the legacy of his parents, who had mysteriously disappeared years before.
"I wonder what the big announcement they plan to make today at the ceremony will be", he thought as he remembered the message his partner Mia had sent him the day before and to which he had not yet replied.
Leno took a few seconds to comb his hair back with wax. Then, putting on his special glasses, he sat down at the kitchen table, plugged and switched on the 3D projector. The newsreel announced a "Great Discovery on Mars" in white letters on a red background.
"Dr. Hoffmann, Director of NASA's Colonization Department," the announcer reported, "has discovered an innovative method for fertilizing the soil on Mars. His system employs nanotechnology with the aim of..."
"Tsk... they should at least clarify that part of this achievement is the result of mom's research," said Leno to Atron-905, who always listened to his complaints, slightly nodding his metallic head.
He took the last sip of coffee, placed his cellular strap on his wrist and headed for the door, where Atron was awaiting him with his backpack.
"Thank you, I almost forgot. I don't know what I'd do without you," he said as he bowed in a clumsy way. Then he slipped into his sneakers and ran out towards the elevator, which had just stopped on his floor and was about to close its doors. Someone kept the doors from closing with their leg and allowed him to get in, just in time.
It was Oli, his Arcturian companion. Her parents had come to Earth from the Bootes solar system during the last great migration. They attended the same university and often shared a class or another. Leno was finishing his degree in quantum computer science and Oli, in biomedical engineering.
Oli's skin was as blue as the ocean, with white spots. She had an oval face framed by short black hair with straight bangs. She wore some orange glasses that had been very fashionable in the twentieth century, which covered the elliptical shape of her eyes; a titanium ring peeked out of her small nose. Oli was not over five feet three, but her strong personality far outweighed her short stature.
She wore a black hoodie with fluorescent green stripes and enjoyed shrouding herself in a halo of mystery.
Although they had known each other for over three years, they didn't usually talk much. However, Leno found something attractive about her and struggled to decipher whether it was her lonely appearance, her style, or perhaps a mixture of both.
The elevator ride took more than two minutes, as they were almost at cloud level, and it was just about the time when the other students and workers were leaving to start their day. At six feet tall, Leno was easily distinguishable from his neighbors. On the security recordings, anyone would recognize him by his narrow face, pointed nose, green eyes and slicked back hair.
Everyone remained silent until the doors opened and they began to descend.
"Did you see what happened?" Oli asked. "My father says that fertilizing the soil of Mars is a breakthrough, I've never seen him so excited." Leno was speechless. He was surprised that Oli had initiated the conversation, and that gave him the drive to say what he had been thinking about during those two endless minutes on the elevator unfiltered:"
"Oli, are we going together? We're just starting senior year and I'd like to get to know you a little better before this is over.
"No, you're on your own!" She replied crisply, and hurried off getting lost in the crowd.
Despite his shyness, Leno had managed to bond and share experiences with quite a few women. And while he didn't consider himself popular, he knew how to get by. Oli seemed to be unreachable; as distant as the stars, he felt he could never get to her; and if he did, he felt at risk of getting burned.
As he left the building, he greeted Charles, a friendly policeman who guarded the door and who he had known since he was a child.
"Vade cum lumine," the man replied, as USTRA students were commonly greeted.
The first thing that Leno noticed in the streets was lots of families running from one place to another taking their kids to school or grown-ups starting the first day of their job after vacations. The snow from the night before had painted everything white, even the mountains to the west. Over the last 100 years the old buildings in Neo-Tamel Aike had been demolished as part of a systematic plan. As one of the main megalopolises situated in the Patagonia region of the Republic of America, population growth had reached such a rhythm that the mainland government was forced to relent and allow the construction of skyscrapers for citizens to inhabit.
The only old buildings that remained in these cities were museums, libraries, and anything that belonged to the State. But not everything could always be saved.
Light was a privilege that usually those who lived above the clouds or in the outskirts had the pleasure of enjoying. But one of the benefits of living in the middle of the second millennium was that there was no traffic: all vehicles were controlled by AI. Humans no longer worried about driving; taking the road or flying through the sky was the AI’s decision and it always followed the rules. Gone were the excuses; only you were to blame if you were late for an engagement. "How should I conquer an Arcturian?" thought Leno, as he stepped on the footprints others had left on the snow. He watched the thin blue strips of sky between the skyscrapers through which a small ray of sunlight streamed down and after a moment of peace, he continued on his way.
Leno was some blocks away from university, and, judging by the atmosphere, the announcement that would take place seemed to be extremely important.
Human, android and arcturian families were walking rapidly towards the main entrance. The block around the building was packed with the vans of the most important news agencies from the six continents. It was difficult to get through the abundant and raucous crowd.
Leno – who had inherited his talent from his parents– attended The University of Science and Technology of the Republic of America, which was the most renowned University around the world. Research on cutting-edge technology was carried out there, and its graduates were the most sought after by the megacorporations when hiring for important projects. Great heroes and innovative characters had come from the USTRA, like Verónica Salazar, who was the first to apply nuclear energy at a micro scale in spaceships and androids, and the famous David Martin, who created the formula for cryotasis, making interstellar travel possible for humans.
"Hey, stranger, what did you do during the holidays?" Leno heard when walking through the main entrance, while someone tapped his back.
"He must have been thinking about a thesis he could present to win over professor Kiera." It was Ian and Tommy, two fourth year students of other majors. Ian was into programming; virtual reality was his passion, he wanted to build and link up worlds, making people's dreams come true. Tommy, by contrast, belonged to the realm of AI, a dreamer who had chosen the path of space sciences, and his aim was to take humanity to the confines of the universe, or at least help in the process. Androids were at the top of the list of preferred resources for operating in outer space.
"I was in Mekachin, I had no way of communicating with anybody. I'm sorry, I disconnected from the world... " Leno replied, losing his concentration for a second when he glimpsed Oli walking by herself among the other apprentices.
"I'll tell you more about it later, we should now get to the auditorium. The inauguration speech is starting in ten minutes and I feel it's not going to be the same as usual," Leno replied. "Hey! I forgot to tell you that Mia was looking for you a while ago, but I guess she's inside waiting for you," Tommy said while they hurried through the university gardens in order not to be late.
At the entrance to the auditorium, the teachers were greeting the students with their classic motto – "Vade Cum Lumine, apprentices!" – There were also journalists there, with their cameras, attempting to get testimonies from the most renowned apprentices.
Leno, Tommy and Ian scurried into the crowd.
The auditorium looked like a pyramid from the outside, and the inside was as big as four soccer fields; the ceiling was so high up that it disappeared into the darkness. When going in, the first thing to draw attention were the colossal monuments of the four previous directors. They raised from each corner as if they were gods, their stares judging the students. Ultimately, it was the most important university in the world, and that had to be displayed in every aspect. For a change, most of the students were already seated, the journalists were at the back, and some fifty cameras were pointed at the center stage.
"Your classmates are there! See you later..." Ian said to Leno, who then fist-bumped them and moved into the crowd. Kiera, his teacher, was waiting for him with an unamused smirk on her face. "You are late, please take a seat, apprentice Kodawa." Leno apologized and saw his classmates grinning at the situation.
"Pst, you didn't reply to my message yesterday!" His android friend Mia complained when she saw him arrive. She had saved a spot for him at her side. "What happened? What took you so long?"
"Ian and Tommy held me back. Don't you want to know how I'm doing after so long? How my holidays were?" He replied, a bit upset.
"That's for later, in the afternoon, you fool, when we go for some beers," she replied, while she combed back her hair, strands of cables she would normally use to hook up to any kind of electronic device.
The lights went out and the stage got lit up. From the pit, the orchestra started playing a traditional arcturian symphony, while the professors got on stage and took their places. When everybody was set, it was the turn of the Major Council, which was cheered with great enthusiasm. Every year the Major Council picked a director for the USTRA, who was the last one to come on to the stage, and it seemed like an Arcturian had been the favorite this time. Standing behind the central pulpit, his hard features came to show: he had Fibonacci-shaped horns, large gray eyes and his wrinkles emanated an aura of wisdom. The Arcturian made a gesture forming a circle with his fingers, took it to his throat and thus modified the volume of vibration of his vocal chords. The orchestra went silent, and so did the audience.
"Vade Cum Lumine, dear apprentices. Be welcomed to this new cycle." His voice boomed through the auditorium, even though he was not using a microphone. Arcturians knew the laws of metaphysics and were able to manipulate matter at the quantum level; one could say they were sorcerers.
"First of all, I will introduce myself... Some of you have known me for years, some may not know me at all. My name is Khael Vizedrix and I am the new director by the majority vote of the Council."
A brief applause interrupted him. He gestured thankfully with his hand, but also requested silence. "Some may be wondering about what it would mean for our planet for an arcturian to be the new director of this institution. I dare to say that it means a new beginning!" He said serenely and passionately, while the apprentices and the remaining audience listened with attention.
"Today is a great day, because it marks the start of a new stage for the USTRA and the future of Earth. After several years of research and communion among humans, androids and arcturians, we may say that we have achieved a certain harmonious unity in trinity. The moment has arrived: today, arcturians have acquired permission from the old masters to accomplish the change we are looking for in the Milky Way. At this new stage, an evolutionary leap is necessary. But the change will not come to pass from one day to the next, we require everyone to contribute a grain of salt to this new cycle. The Council believes that this is a good moment to reveal to the whole world watching one of the great truths of the galaxy we inhabit. We had not done it yet, because we did not consider you were ready."
A murmur spread across the room and quickly faded out. Vizedrix carried on with his speech, gesturing now with his hands in the shape of a hexagon. He pronounced some words in his native language and, right in front of him, a hologram took shape, reproducing the images he narrated.
"As every student here should know, we live in a world balanced by light and darkness; good actions affect the bad ones and vice versa. It is important to understand that this balance needs to be upheld for the prosperity of our civilizations and of life itself. Order and chaos are two sides of the same coin. Do pay attention. It is not my intention to lie to you, there are beings that present themselves as a threat today; not all of them are evil, but their survival unfortunately depends on drawing sustenance from our energy, like parasites. It is in their nature to foster us to produce the energy they require to grow. These beings are known in our space-time as Yikkivire, and just like us, arcturians, do not belong to this plane of existence. Apprentices, we have heard from some trusted sources that they might be already here, occupying senior positions in different circles of society. Normally, Yikkivire have always inhabited a plane that humans and androids do not have access to due to a slight delay in dimensional evolution. But they are growing stronger and may look for bodies on which to sustain themselves, vessels they may corrupt."
The auditorium remained silent. In spite of some members of the human race having displayed special gifts for years already, and "magic" being an increasingly common sight, they had never heard anything like this.
"Well, it is not that serious," Vizedrix carried on.
"There is always hope. And thanks to the research that we have been carrying out together for 20 years, we are close to finding a way for humans and androids to break through the barrier imposed on them in ancient times. I believe it is our responsibility to support you in taking this next step; it will not be easy, but once we have done it, you will have a new conception of the reality and bodies we inhabit. This will be necessary to fight against what is coming. We are happy to count on the help of those among you that feel interested in carrying out this task. We are doubtlessly facing a year of change and discovery... a year to...
Right then, the lights pointed at the stage went out and the nearby cameras stopped working, some of them exploded into hundreds of pieces. Nobody understood what was going on. Frightened, Mia took Leno's arm while the hologram created by Vizedrix got distorted and then grew in size. Suddenly, it turned into a star that seemed forged in black fire; a strange mouth with pointed teeth emerged from its center and pronounced the words: "Oskurita iz camine de en", and then the fire split and mutated into hundreds of dark figures, some of them winged and fanged, seeming to be amidst a violent battle. Screams and cries could be heard coming from the projection.
"Oh Radis Fiole Yermaine, illumina hoc spatum!" Vizerdix shouted and a violet ray fell from the center of the auditorium's ceiling, illuminating the hologram and ending the projection...
Some people from the audience were traumatized, they cried or ran disoriented. While the journalists worked on fixing their equipment, the adults calmed and reorganized the young apprentices.
"Professors, this here is over, take the apprentices out of this place immediately. Council, I want a meeting now!" said Vizedrix, looking quite angry, since nothing like this had ever before happened at the USTRA.