Seventeen-year-old Kallum has life all planned out: pass his simulation test, snap up a job on the upper rung, and ask the girl of his dreams out. No more working at the bakery.
But life has a funny way of ruining plans.
Not only does he get reassigned to a hermit, but his hallucinations also make him fear that he’s turning into his worst nightmare: becoming one of the Crazies.
Worse still, the aetherium, an energy stone bestowed by the alien race called the Aeternas, is failing. And, according to the hermit, it’s all Kallum’s fault. Without the dome shield protecting Levitor, the Reavers and beasts roaming the land outside are bound to invade.
Levitor’s fate rests upon Kallum’s shoulders. He’s the only one who can seek out his father, who has the means to save the city. But the Aeternas are hunting him down, and he’s running out of time.
What will he sacrifice for the greater good?
Welcome to the Aeterna Chronicles.
Strands of Time is the first installment in the Aeterna Chronicles series. If you love young adult sci-fi, portal fantasy, time travel, and a touch of romance, don’t miss Kris Ruhler’s debut novel.
Two things weighed on Kallum’s mind as he stood on Krohnur’s front steps: Yadira and the Fear-Inducing Simulation (FIS) test that evaluated one’s reactions to their deepest fear. Kallum reckoned his biggest fear right now was asking Yadira out. But to do that, he would have to pass the FIS test, which would improve his job prospects.
Well, better to face Yadira in a simulation than in reality, right?
If only he had known this moment would change his life forever… Not every day one witnessed a murder—sort of.
At first glance, Krohnur, with its research labs, medic rooms, and offices, didn’t seem a dangerous place. Yet its gray stone walls loomed over him like a monster, dwarfing the surrounding cluster of dwellings. Inside were labs, tests, medics, and the Crazies. Nothing unusual.
Still, Kallum’s instincts told him to run. The familiar prickling sensation at the back of his neck bothered him, and he remained still, uncertain. After all, he had promised his guardian, Boniface the baker, that he’d go through the test no matter what.
On his right was Dustan Academy, where he had outperformed his peers. Darn, he had worked so hard there. On his left was Ankur palace, where Levitor city’s rulers and officers resided. Its frosted glass walls glared from the stark artificial light above.
Now, one ultimate test was all that stood between him and a job within Ankur’s pristine walls. Well, getting that job wasn’t really his ambition. It was Yadira’s. So for her, he would endure this test.
The temptation to run grew stronger. The test couldn’t be that bad, could it? Kallum had no clue what to expect since everyone would look away, hiding their terror when he asked. Steeling himself, he climbed the steps up to Krohnur’s grand entrance door, trying to think of something clever and witty to say to Yadira.
The Test Prep’s dazzling smile froze as he walked into the reception area. Under a well-oiled bun, she peered down from behind glasses perched on her nose and grimaced.
“Kallum Farron?” A speck of her spittle flitted on his forehead, for she sat a head higher behind the counter. “Baker’s apprentice.”
Her tone said enough: disapproval and mocking astonishment. Why would a baker’s apprentice want to go through the test?
Greasy Mop turned toward her holoTab, a see-through screen hovering in midair. Kallum squinted, trying to make sense of the reversed words and symbols. A razor-sharp red fingernail tapped on the counter and drew his attention.
He shook his head. No medics for him. He was in perfect health.
She paused, a slight hesitation betraying her unwillingness to usher him into the test room. There were no rules against anyone, in particular, taking the test, and to stop him might cause more trouble than letting him through.
“Follow me,” the Test Prep finally said.
She rounded the counter and led him down a corridor lined with doors with unusual signs. Two semispherical bots detached from the wall and glided after them, wiping his footprints. He shook the flour off his black cloak, and three more trailed behind.
A proud smile tugged at Kallum’s lips. Yadira had trained these bots well. He wracked his brain to strike the right conversation. We’ve grown up together. Nope. Your eyes remind me of…a dying light? Nope. How about we go to the festival together? Nope, they did that every year anyway. Get a drink? Nope, she would just laugh at him.
Greasy Mop, the Test Prep, threw him a withering glare that wiped away his smile. She stopped in front of a scanner, and a blue light pulsed on her face. A door emerged and slid open.
“Wait inside,” she said before moving away, the click of her heels echoing in the corridor.
Kallum strode into a waiting room lit by bright orbLights hanging from the ceiling. The name “Hansa” was called out. A girl stiffly stood up, picked up a device, and exited via another door. Both doors hissed shut.
Kallum pressed his palm on the wall, and a seat jutted out before him. In the room were four other subjects. Their black cloaks, shirts, and pants looked like stains on the white walls and floor. He stood out in his flour-covered clothing. He never blended into anything.
A snicker on his right drew his attention. His heart sank. That square jaw, dark blue eyes, and muscular build were too familiar: Haggen, the bane of his life. His hand mimicked the shooting of a blaster in Kallum’s direction.
The three other boys—whose names Kallum could never remember—chuckled. They would wait for him outside, no doubt. Darn, he should have paid attention to the exits. A shiver ran down his spine. He wasn’t inside the bakery, the safety net, with Boniface the baker as his shield.
The three boys sneaked glances at him and murmured. However, with the high ceiling magnifying their whispers, they might as well have shouted in his ears.
“He shouldn’t be here,” they whispered. Kallum agreed completely, but he told himself that Yadira was worth all this trouble.
Soon everyone had exited but him. The chemical scent was suffocating, the silence eerie, and the waiting endless.
The hair on his neck prickled again, and his leg bounced up and down. Nerves. It was that sixth sense that alerted him to Haggen lurking around corners or creeping upon him. However, this felt different, like adrenaline was surging inside him.
Something dormant was resurfacing.
In the first ten years of his life, he had been in a healing cryo here in Krohnur. Maybe that explained why everything felt familiar: the gleaming floor, the glaring overhead lights, and the benches receding into the walls. Even the chemical scent from the air filter jolted him, a memory tipping at the edge that he couldn’t grasp.
Darn, he agreed with the boys. He never should have applied. The buzzing in his ears and the prickling at his neck increased. What unsettled him, he had to admit, were those living—in a loose sense of the term—on the upper floors in Krohnur.
Inside the back rooms, past the white, flawless walls and floors, dwelled the Crazies: men and women isolated for their safety and everyone else’s.
Crazy was contagious, like a disease. So they said.
As if in slow motion, hands emerged from the wall. Arms and elbows with purple and pink sleeves followed. They reached out for him and grabbed his cloak, startling him.
Walls didn’t have hands and elbows, Kallum told himself. He closed his eyes and clenched his fists, willing them to stop shaking. Painful arcs were imprinted in his palms.
Seeing things no one else did was the first symptom of becoming a Crazy. And people labeled with such a title ended up in the Sanatorium somewhere in Krohnur.
The door hissed, and the name “Farron” was called out. Kallum opened his eyes, grabbed a device from the pile, and fled toward the FIS test room. Greasy Mop looked disappointed to see him. Kallum sighed, glad to be out of the waiting room.
“Imprint here,” she said, pointing to the screen on the wall. A blue light pulsed and scanned Kallum’s face.
“You’ve read and understood the rules?” Greasy Mop asked, pointing to the device. The see-through glassTab fit in his hand. He had no clue what to do.
Greasy Mop sighed at his blank look. “The FIS doesn’t last long, except for the brain scan. It searches for abnormalities.” She proceeded toward a contraption that appeared to be halfway between a bed and a chair.
“Irregular patterns. Brain waves and such. Sit down.”
Hundreds had been in this seat before. The thought didn’t make the knot in his insides any less tight. He was no wimp, so he stepped into the sleek contraption, leaned back, and focused on the dark ceiling. His breath sounded like a wheeze in his ears.
“Relax,” Greasy Mop said, sweeping her fingers on the panel under the holoTab. She fastened sensors on his fingers and temples before saying, “I have to calibrate these.” The pinch bristled his nerves. “Any trouble sleeping?”
Kallum paused and swallowed. “Like everyone else.”
“Why go through the FIS?”
“I’d like to apply for work at the Control Center,” he said, relieved she had asked a question he prepared for. “I need to prove I can work under pressure. My scores on data manipulation studies are excellent, and my skills will be a valuable addition—”
Cold metal cuffs snapped around his wrists, startling him.
“Stay calm,” she said, tapping on her glassTab. “Don’t pull on the straps. The pod won’t open until the FIS program is over.”
A hiss erupted, and a transparent screen slid on top of him. The sound of Greasy Mop’s voice reached him through a speaker inside the pod. “If your heart rate goes above range, the FIS will end automatically. But in an emergency, eye the rightmost part of the visor, and you’ll forfeit the test. An assistant will supervise. So stay calm.”
“Stay calm? That’s all I need to do?” Easier said than done.
“Precisely. Stay as calm as you can.”
When a person repeated three times over to “stay calm,” Kallum could only imagine what lay ahead. Her attempts to reassure him had the opposite effect. He knew the tone, the impatience with the last customer at the end of the workday.
The FIS extracted your deepest fear and reconstructed it. Its intended purpose was to observe one’s reaction to stress—no shortage inside the Control Center. From the rumor he had heard, trainees faced their worst fears: loss of loved ones, dome quakes, and exile.
Kallum reckoned he would face the Crazies in his test. He had seen a couple of them once, moments before Levitor city had exiled them. The matted strands of hair, the constant twitching, and the muttering with nonexistent people still haunted him.
His good reflexes had earned him the nickname Kallum the Dodger. So he would dodge the Crazy and pass the test. Ankur Palace and the Control Center weren’t distant, out-of-reach dreams.
Suddenly, the pod’s walls seemed to tighten around Kallum. He could hardly move. Panic welled up, his breath fogging the screen. Greasy Mop knocked on the screen, and her lips moved. She strode away, a blurry shape. A visor glided over Kallum’s eyes, swallowing him in darkness.
“Nod if you can hear me,” she said, her words muffled by the speaker. He could barely nod. “Stay put,” she added. Well, it wasn’t like he was going anywhere. “My glassTab has glitches. I’ll get another.”
A long silence ensued until a series of disclaimers scrolled across his visor. Kallum skimmed over them, his eye movements and finger twitches tracking and selecting the different options. He blinked his signature across the waivers, and something sharp stung his temples and the back of his neck.
“Choose objects,” a cheerful voice said, startling him.
Cold sweat snaked down his neck, and he took a deep breath. Stay calm. He jerked his fingers and selected a blaster set to stun—no need to kill virtual Crazies. Getting them unconscious should be enough.
Trepidation curled in his stomach. The urge to strip off the visor and rush out inexplicably gripped him. Instead, he recalled Greasy Mop’s instruction: eye the rightmost part of the visor and the FIS would end. Safety protocols were in place. For now, he would wait for Greasy Mop’s return.
The screen blanked to pitch black at first and then slowly morphed to a greenish hue. Green background, grass, moss, leaves. A perfect scene with neither cracks nor stains.
Kallum relaxed. Admittedly, that couldn’t be his deepest fear. The leaves fluttered, and given enough time, he could break down the seemingly random trees and stones into a formula. The unnatural rocky patterns and ridges under his feet mesmerized him with their symmetry.
The scenery captivated him so much that he almost missed the flash in the corner of his eye. Suddenly, a shadow was upon him. The figure angled its arm above, wielding a spear. Sheer reflexes saved Kallum from the strike. He ducked, and the spear skimmed his shoulder, the friction sending a tingle of pain.
Amazing. The simulation felt so real. Kallum straightened up, taking a defensive stance, and clenched the blaster. He froze.
This was no Crazy, but rather a Reaver.
Kallum had seen distant footage of Reavers: savages roaming the land outside the domed city of Levitor. In fact, he had heard one had been captured and brought inside Levitor for “research.” But this one was in a simulation. The FIS recreated the creature vividly: its humanoid appearance, muscular build, ridges that ran just below the eyes and sharpened the cheekbones, thick eyebrows over eyes that were almost black. Eyes that focused on him, the prey.
It lunged so fast, it was almost a blur. Long clumps of hair flew around its head like critters’ tails. It’s not real. Kallum shifted stance, let out a breath, and calculated the distance. He ducked and rolled when the Reaver was at two arm’s lengths. But the Reaver didn’t trip as Haggen would’ve. It stopped and spun toward him.
Kallum’s gut instinct was to run. Dunstan Academy had taught him precisely that: See a Reaver, run. He should have set his blaster to a lethal sting. He fired his blaster, and the Reaver smoothly swerved sideways and crouched in a fighting stance, ready to spring.
Dodging was all Kallum was good at: wear your opponent out. That was how he had defeated Haggen. This tactic worked in an actual fight, but an opponent didn’t wear out in a simulation program.
It dawned on Kallum: why was he afraid? He would feel pain, but he couldn’t die. The FIS test measured his response to his worst fears and his ability to remain calm. So he took deep breaths, slowing his heart rate. He could endure it.
He wondered whether a Neutox shot that delivered a mist of toxins would work on the Reaver, since he was so good at dodging. Then doubt crept in. Wouldn’t the Neutox affect him, too, since he wore no protective equipment?
One way to find out. He crouched down and gathered a handful of soil.
The Reaver sprinted at him. Kallum hurled the soil in its face and rolled on his side. Unfazed, the Reaver sunk into a crouch, ready to lunge again. Darn, he was undefeatable.
Suddenly, another Reaver stepped in between Kallum and the Reaver. He had neither ridge nor twisted skin on top of his cheekbones, but he was a Reaver all right. His skin was also tanned and his muscles lean.
The scenery suddenly disappeared, and a bright flash blinded Kallum. The visor glided away, leaving half of his body trapped under a glass screen.
A man in a lab coat came into his line of sight. “Ah, your pulse spiked a lot, young man,” he said into the speaker. He squinted at the holoTab. Elcar Moar, Kallum read on his left wrist. The man continued, “What a shame.”
Kallum’s heart sank at the words. Had he failed?
The medic called Elcar turned to face him, frowning. “Farron? Are you from the bakery?”
Kallum nodded, frustrated. The pod wall pressed on this chest, and his lungs ached.
“Let me out,” he called out.
“You shouldn’t be here,” Elcar muttered. He seemed to speak to himself. “No, no. Who knows what can surface? This is a mess. You’re not supposed to be here.” He squared his shoulders and leaned in front of Kallum, his face calm. “I have to fix you again,” he added with pity.
His eyes filled with regret, and his face was apologetic. Boniface had that strange look once before when he had to put down the rodon critter, a rodent that had raided the cellar for days.
The cuffs tightened as Elcar’s fingers hovered over the holoTab. Kallum strained against the wall, to no avail. His temples tingled at first, and then a slow warmth radiated across his face. It retreated at intervals and returned with renewed force, burning and digging into his head.
A growl erupted, and he realized it came from him. He thrashed, hitting his head against the screen. A hiss startled him, and the transparent screen slid back.
“What are you doing?” Kallum shouted. “It hurts!”
“Just a relaxant,” Elcar muttered. “Soon, you won’t even remember the pain.”
This man was erasing his memories. But why? Kallum had to distract this madman. No one would take his memories from him!
“I’ve never seen you before,” he cried out, “and I’m not a patient. You have the wrong person.”
Elcar fidgeted with instruments on a nearby table. “Of course you don’t. That’s how the procedure works.”
Then he held a syringe above his head, checking its purple contents against the dim light. Kallum strained weakly against the straps. If he wriggled his arms, Elcar couldn’t get a shot.
White spots crowded into Kallum’s vision, and his head swam. He struggled, his arm flailing weakly. Strange exhaustion overwhelmed him as he waited for the sharp sting.
Ignoring Kallum’s pleas for his life, Elcar unstrapped his right wrist.
The sting never happened.
Instead, a confused Elcar took a step back, his gaze sweeping to the door. It hissed open, and a blurred red shape strode in.
Kallum blinked, and his vision focused for a moment. Relief gushed into him. A guard in red uniform came to rescue him from this madman. The guard had his back to him, but Kallum recognized that ponytail trailing down past the shoulder. Lex, Kallum’s team leader at Dunstan Academy.
Lex glided toward Elcar, weaponless and defenseless against the syringe pointed at him. As Elcar bore the needle down, Lex ducked, twisted his body, and weaved behind the intern. In a blur, he had his right forearm around Elcar’s throat while with his left hand he pressed three fingers on Elcar’s chest. Three hooks. Elcar’s chest rose as he struggled for breath. The syringe clattered to the floor.
Few guards knew that skill. Elcar’s breathing turned into gasps.
“Stop!” Kallum cried out. “Leave him be!”
But Lex didn’t seem to hear his shouts. When he released Elcar, the latter crumpled to the floor, eyes glassy and lifeless.
Lex turned toward Kallum and merely frowned. Kallum couldn’t have torn his gaze away if he wanted to.
Then Lex spun toward the door and disappeared. Kallum released a deep breath.
It had been three years since the last murder in Levitor city. Three years since Levitor exiled a citizen.
Lex was no murderer. Had he turned Crazy? Did Elcar deserve to die? Kallum needed an explanation for why he was performing the Memory Blocker. Why did Lex kill that intern?
Kallum couldn’t bear to look at the crumpled body. The pod walls were no longer constricting. Hands shaking, he struggled to unfasten the strap, willed his body to move, and sat up from the pod. He needed to call for help, to report this murder. But he couldn’t bring himself to move or say a word.
Yadira, the reason he agreed to the FIS test. Now he had failed and witnessed a murder.
Just as he thought his situation couldn’t get any worse, darkness engulfed him.