Eterna breathed mindfully, inhaling through her nose and exhaling through her mouth, gazing at her reflection in the steel door and wishing she didn’t look quite so… childlike. Her large, dark eyes rendered a babyish quality to a face which was already younger than its given years, amplifying every nervous tremor of her lips. The eyes themselves were a little too wide and staring. She blinked, refocusing them, settling her hand on the door handle. She’d chosen the service elevator specifically because it was the only one without glass doors. The gleaming metal gave her a moment of reprieve, of comfort; a moment for herself.

Just do it.

Sucking in a deep breath through her mouth, ignoring the ringing in her ears, Eterna pushed open the door and stepped out into a corridor she hoped would be empty. She was disappointed. Andromeda, the designer who occupied the office next door, was stood in the hallway by the water cooler, chatting to an acquaintance whose name escaped Eterna in the moment. They both turned towards the sound of her footsteps on the marble-imitation floor. Eterna smiled, heart thumping, hoping she didn’t look too false.

“Eterna! We weren’t sure you’d be in today.” Andromeda reached out to touch her shoulder while her friend smiled sympathetically. “How are you doing?”

The question grated against her skin, making the hairs stand on end. How was she supposed to be doing? “Fine.” Eterna smiled. “Honestly,” she added as both women raised their eyebrows sceptically, “just great.”

She slipped past them, trying to determine how fast she could get to her office without looking like she was bolting from the scene.

“Let me know if you need anything!” Andromeda called after her. Eterna just nodded distractedly, shoving the door to her office open with a little more force than was required.

Even in here, there was no peace. Axton, one of the few human cleaners was wiping the glass down on the window directly opposite the door. He half-turned as she entered, one vivid green eye meeting hers. Eterna swallowed, eyes prickling. It was such a silly thing to cry about, finding the cleaner in your office… but after the barrage of video calls all weekend and the very public route to her office, she had been relying on a few hours alone. A few hours away from…

“Hi Eterna, how are you doing?” He asked, turning fully. Eterna hitched her smile back into place.

“Just fine.” She reassured him.

Axton studied her, his green eyes sharp and knowing. Like all major corporations in Kaldan, DigiTech had to meet employment quotas set by the government. They were obligated to employ a percentage of human staff from each of the surrounding districts, including the slums. Most slumdogs never made it off the maintenance teams with the robots, but in spite of his lack of education, Axton had an intelligence about him which could help to lift him out of his poverty. Eterna had observed him late at night, pouring over the coding volumes and trying to teach himself a more lucrative skill. She’d leant him her own study notes from school. In return, Axton kept her office sparkling and tightly organised.

“You know what ‘fine’ stands for?” He quirked a dark red eyebrow. “Freaking out, insecure –

“ – neurotic, emotional.” Eterna completed, smiling properly for the first time.

Axton hitched his cleaning pack onto his back and stepped past her. “Don’t let the bastard get you down.” He threw over his shoulder. She could hear his whistling down the corridor right up until she clicked the door shut. To improve worker productivity, DigiTech offices were soundproof.

Crossing the room in a few steps, Eterna slid into her desk chair and opened up her laptop. It hummed instantly to life, welcoming her with its usual greeting message. Before she could even load up the program to begin work, another message pinged up on the screen which made her stomach do a flip. She was wanted up top. Okay. Just breathe.

She inhaled and exhaled again, before standing up. At least she wouldn’t have to go back out into the corridors and take the elevators again; the managers at DigiTech had decided long ago that they were too busy to wait for their employees to get to them by the usual means, so teleporters had been built in to every office. They only went one way: up. Eterna stepped onto the slick black pad, tapped a code into her dremote and vanished. She reappeared instantly inside a large, glass cubicle with breathtaking views across the city. She stepped out a little cautiously, trying not to look down. No matter how many times she walked on a glass floor, she couldn’t get over the feeling that she was about to tumble down onto the industrious workers below.

“Eterna!” Quixar, her line manager, looked up from behind his desk. His shade was the only other living being in the room, typing diligently away on a laptop in the corner of the room. Quixar stood to offer Eterna first his hand, and then a seat. “Thank you for responding so promptly. How are you holding up?”

Eterna curled her hands around the hem of her dress on her lap, her smile fixed to her face. How had Quixar heard already? “Fine.”

“You’re better off without him.” He waved a hand in a manner which was a little more familiar than professional. “Seriously, Eterna. You’re a rising star in this organisation and if he didn’t recognise how good he had it with you, then that’s just too bad for him.”

Not quite knowing what to say, Eterna simply nodded, tucking a loose strand of black hair behind her ear. Hopefully that was the end of that conversation and Quixar would get to the point.

“How long were you two together?” He asked. Eterna caught herself grimly wishing that her manager had as much tact as her cleaner.

“Four years.”

Quixar whistled. “And he ran off with… yes, I’m sorry. Anyway, I called you here about a placement offer.”

Eterna’s eyebrows lifted slightly. “Already?” She bit her lower lip, adrenaline spiking in her veins. She’d put her name forward for placements in the hours after Abraxas had left, barely able to see her laptop screen for tears. She wasn’t even entirely sure what she’d signed up for.

“Rustic chic is all the rage at the moment.” Quixar answered, tapping a few keys on his laptop. His DigiSketch Projector hummed to life, bringing up the image of a spherical, green and blue planet. “We’ve reached an agreement with the government of this world and want to send a chief designer out there to start recording and sketching. The world’s about as far removed from Kaldan as you can get. Very natural, barely any technology. We’re offering their king some basic tech as a gift.”

Eterna’s eyebrows shot under her hairline. “Their king? There are still places with kings? Where is this place?”

“It’s called Shaman. The placement’s for one year.” Quixar rested his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers together. “If you still want to go, you can go now. I’ll send my shade to get King Mordred’s gifts and you can gets yours to pick up your equipment.”

She hesitated, but only briefly. If the choice was between an adventure on a rustic world or staying here and being asked how she was doing every second for the next few months, then the choice was clear. She nodded once, pulled her dremote out of her pocket and keyed in a few commands. Quixar’s shade stood, moved over to a cabinet and pulled out a black bag reminiscent of the sports bags Eterna had designed last quarter. It handed the bag over to her. She stood and slung it over her shoulder, just as the teleporter hummed behind her and her own shade appeared, carrying a similar bag containing her laptop and DigiSketch Projector.

“Good luck, Eterna.” Quixar said as she stepped up onto the teleporter with her shade. “I can’t wait to see your designs.”

He keyed in a command sequence to his dremote. Just as Eterna took her final breath of cool, stale, conditioned air, she vanished. She reappeared in the most incredible place she’d ever seen.

It was… unreal. The ground was green and textured, just like the grass Eterna had seen in DigiScapes on one of her last digital vacations. Looming up a few hundred metres away was a curiously-shaped building hewn from what looked like grey stone, its windows short and thin. It was smaller than any building Eterna had ever seen; barely big enough to house a few hundred people. Opposite the great building were things Eterna had heard about, but only ever seen in encyclopaedia holograms: trees. Hundreds of them. They blocked her view of the horizon, stretching out as far as the eye could see. Her first breath of Shaman’s air was oddly fresh and sweet, like… like… there was no frame of reference. Nothing in Kaldan city bore any similarity to this strange, green world. Even her shade, which rarely expressed any kind of emotion, was staring about with slightly widened eyes.

“I suppose we better… oh no.” Eterna had glanced down at the dremote in her hand, but moved her hand away, looking down at her own body with dismay. Her clothes had vanished, leaving her completely naked. The breeze bit her skin where it whistled past. “Hold on, shade, let me just reset the dremote.”

She tapped at the dremote screen, jumping slightly as it sparked beneath her fingertips. A red error! sign flashed up, occupying most of the screen. Eterna wrestled with it, trying to digitise some clothes, to no avail. She glanced over at her shade, shoulders slumping. Shade was naked too, but then again, it usually was. Eterna wasn’t really one for dressing her shade up.

Quixar had said there was limited technology here, right? Eterna desperately hoped that digital full-sensory simulation technology was among that ‘limited’ scope. How did one dress themselves without a digital remote?
so grey is the face of every mortal
karl S

For replier's reference:
Eterna & Shade look identical, except Shade has a more vacant look about her and stands more stiffly (like an android version of Eterna). They're both naked. Both have black hair, black eyes and light brown skin, and are each carrying a black bag. Eterna's dremote looks like a smart phone.


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