Don’t think of a pink elephant.
There’s a funny thing in psychology—or maybe it’s more appropriate to say in reverse psychology—where trying to suppress a certain thought makes it stick in your mind longer, harder. Your brain can’t just turn off a thought, because keeping “don’t think Thing” in the background of your mind just primes your brain to bring Thing back to the foreground. The technical term for the phenomenon is ironic process theory, but it’s easier to summarize the concept with that age-old mind-game expression: Don’t think of a pink elephant.
So, trudging through the golden halls of the Provincial Estate with the Exarch’s mind-reading enforcer right behind me, how was I supposed to avoid thinking about Stone Cold Stormtrooper Luke back in my prison room?
Luckily, there are thought suppression strategies that do work—and any psychologist worth their weight in DSM-5 manuals should be able to teach them to you. Chief among them: redirecting all your attention to a different thing instead.
You might not be able to turn a thought off, but you can certainly drown it out.
“Sooo…” I began, unsure of what I was going to say next until I had already said most of it. “Normally right about now I’d feel obliged to make some kind of small talk, maybe ask how long you’ve been working with the Exarch—but I guess you’ve all been instructed not to answer any of my questions? Uhh, that wasn’t a question; I just intoned it like one.”
Shit, now I was thinking about Dammodel and his subtle defiance of the rules. I didn’t want to get him in trouble, either. Double shit, now I was thinking about recent visitors to my room. Pink elephants. Distraction. Don’t think about anyone. Don’t think about thinking. Fucking hell, I just lost The Game.
“Anyway,” I continued, “I could understand if it was state secrets you didn’t want me finding out—I respect your governmental authority here; I don’t want to throw anything out of balance—but, like, skyball? Is it really that dangerous for me to know what kinds of sports you have here? Or maybe I’m way off track and it’s nothing about dangerous knowledge—maybe this is just your policy for all prisoners here. I mean, if that’s what I am. Is that what I am? Uh, hello? You still there, Vax?”
I turned around. Vaxal was still there, glaring at me with such profound animosity that it chilled me to the core. He looked like he wanted to rip out my throat and strangle me with it. Christ, I wasn’t even trying to annoy him that time!
He exhaled a deep, burning breath through his nose—literally, charcoal black smoke poured out, like he was giving it his all to not blast me with fire breath. “I idly wonder,” he said. “Do any of your fingers hold particular cultural significance on Earth?”
“Well, I guess the left hand ring finger is pretty important,” I said, holding it up for display. “We use it for wedding rings if you’re married—although, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen anyone on Era yet with—”
Vaxal’s arm shot out at lightning speed. He grabbed my ring finger with his giant, gauntleted hand, and snapped it back with an audible crack. I screamed. The pain of the broken bone hit me instantly, a wall of red hot agony that drowned out every sense I had.
“You come from a powerless world, yet you think you know what it is to face power,” Vaxal hissed, more threatening than I had seen him since Gostrey. I hissed too, mainly because it was the only way I could get my screams under control. Vaxal continued. “If you want to learn anything, little scientist, learn that we have power over you. If you want to ask anything, ask the Exarch how you may earn a visit from our healer. Do you understand?”
The initial blast of pain had settled down to a still-not-tolerable throbbing. Tears burned in the corners of my eyes, but I gathered enough wherewithal to say “Yes.” God, I had never broken a bone before. That was painful as unlubricated fuck.
Apparently satisfied, Vaxal calmed down and turned me back around by forcefully pushing on my shoulder. “The Exarch awaits. Do not test her patience.”
So on we went, out of the Garden Wing and into the Sky Wing, with all my willpower focused on keeping my mouth shut in the face of indomitable pain. At least now I didn’t have to worry about having to manually redirect my thoughts to hide my secrets—shit, I mean, what secrets? Distraction. Insert lengthy mental monologue about some trivial harmless subject here.
… Why am I never able to get into a lengthy mental monologue tangent when I really need one?
After ten or so more minutes of me trying to force my brain to come up with some random Era observation that I could riff on to keep myself occupied, we arrived at our destination. “We’re here,” Vaxal announced. Aw man, and I had just come up with a really good one! It was about cross-referencing word etymologies.
Maybe I’ll tell you about it later.
We were standing beside a large, bluish-gray door in a curved hallway. Vaxal opened it with magic and demanded I go inside.
“You’re not coming with me?” I said. I immediately regretted asking such an unauthorized question, but Vaxal didn’t seem to notice the transgression.
“The Cloud Chamber is for the sole use of the Exarch Virulesse and her admitted guests,” Vaxal recited, none too thrilled. Whoa, did that count as answering one of my questions? Vaxal must have been really peeved that there was a space he couldn’t be the Exarch’s lap dog in.
I walked into the room, opting to get out of Vaxal’s sight before he realized his mistake and punished me for it. What I saw inside nearly took my breath away.
The Cloud Chamber was a gigantic rotunda—both in breadth and height—on the same level as some buildings in their own right. It was like someone had taken a church’s interior, doubled it, and then transplanted it into the middle of the castle. It was a wide open space, and perfectly circular—the curve of the hallway outside was all due to it wrapping around this one huge room. I looked up, following the walls as they curved closer together, to where they should have met in a dome on top of the chamber—but swirling white clouds blocked my view of the center of the ceiling.
Swirling clouds! Indoors! That was when I realized I felt a surprisingly strong breeze blowing from my left to the right. And judging by the rotation of the clouds at the top of the room, that wind must have been blowing around the entire perimeter of the chamber. Well, if you can make a whirlpool out of water by walking around a circular pool enough, there was no reason you couldn’t use magic to do the same thing with air.
Virulesse was seated on the floor in the center of the chamber. No throne, no chairs, no furniture whatsoever. She smiled when she saw me. “Over here,” she called out. Her voice echoed disturbingly well in the spacious chamber. “Before you disturb the currents.”
I hurried to the center of the chamber as gracefully as I could. On Earth, I was never the one to break the currents in a whirlpool if I could help it. I sat down a few feet in front of Virulesse, not quite sure if that’s what she wanted. I relaxed a little when she didn’t protest.
She was leaning back, her legs stretched out in front of her, basking in the stillness of the air. Here in the middle of the vortex, you could hardly tell there was any vortex at all. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked. “A perfect harmony of the atmospheric elements.” She pointed up at the puffy mass obscuring the ceiling. “There are scripts throughout the room that funnel its ambient energy into the eternal cyclone around us. Water gets pulled toward the center, as if drawn into a drain—and the Wind flows ever around.”
“It’s incredible,” I said.
“Once enough energy has been gathered—about once every five days or so—the cloud above us becomes a raging nimbus, and the final element is added: Lightning. Perhaps you can imagine, it’s a very unstable combination. That’s when the rest of the scripts activate. The excess energy is either vented into the sky, or stored in power wells for later use.” She closed her eyes and exhaled softly. “It’s not the most efficient way to charge Artifacts, but it sure beats having your Wizards standing around all day loading them up with Lightning.”
My mind was reeling trying to keep up. This was the most I had heard about Era’s magic system since I got here, and it was being info-dumped on me all at once. Elements, Artifacts, scripts—I tried to commit every detail of what Virulesse said to memory, knowing that I probably wouldn’t have time to think through the implications of it all until much later.
The moment strung along, spiraling down the drains of time just like all the water vapor in the room spiraled toward its center. Virulesse stared at me expectantly. “What, no sarcastic remarks? No shrewd followup questions?”
“What are we doing here?” I heard myself ask abruptly. My voice was steady, despite the continued throbbing in my hand. I had to remind myself I could handle it—I was a big girl; I could deal with a little pain until they let me see the healer. Virulesse wouldn’t let me suffer any permanent damage… Right?
The Exarch returned her gaze to the mists above us and smiled gently. “I often come to the Cloud Chamber to think—to meditate, if you will. Whenever I’m faced with a difficult problem and I need the serenity of nature’s balance to center myself. Whenever I need to adapt my methods in the face of an ever changing world.” She raised an arm, gesturing to nothing in particular. “Wind is the element of adaptation, after all. And when you stop being my little secret, the whole world is going to have to adapt to you.”
All thoughts of my swollen broken finger evaporated as the Exarch’s statement hit me like a metaphorical punch to the face. “What.”
Virulesse chuckled, and the echoes of her laughter rang out eerily in all directions. “Ashleigh, you’ve been on Era for four days now—surely by now you’ve realized your very existence here is going to shake the foundations of our world?”
“I’ve kind of had a lot on my mind recently,” I said. She was right; I was going to be a big deal when word got out about me—and I hadn’t given it an ounce of thought. Just daydreaming about System Sudoku and maybe finding a way to ascend to godhood. And on one night of comfortable weakness, about all the friends and family I had left behind.
“No doubt,” Virulesse said pompously. “Well, allow me to add to your plate.” She stood up, motioning for me to do the same and follow her. I didn’t have much choice but to obey—I was still a prisoner, here. I think.
As we walked toward the door, Virulesse continued to speak. “If you were in my position—one of the highest rulers in one of the most powerful kingdoms on the planet—and you found someone in your territory claiming to be from another world—a world where the laws of magic are either different or altogether nonexistent—what would you do with her?”
For once in my lives, I managed to think before I spoke. “I would lock her up as soon as possible, and not tell her anything at all about my world unless absolutely necessary. I wouldn’t know what kind of threat she would pose if she was able to combine her own world’s magic system with this one. But, that’s also exactly the knowledge I would want to gain from her. A path of power that no one else on my world would be able to combat.”
Virulesse smirked with a single corner of her mouth as we reached the edge of the room. “Is that what you think I’ve been doing?”
“If I asked anyone what you’ve been doing, would they be allowed to tell me?”
“Why don’t you ask and find out?” Virulesse said.
“… What have you been doing?”
Virulesse placed her hand on the door and opened it with a small thrust of energy. “Distracting you.” Vaxal stood on the other side of the door, menacingly tall in front of us, grinning with sadistic pleasure. Before I had time to comprehend what was going on, he reached for my throat—and latched a cold metal collar around my neck. As his hand fell back to his side, a crackling rope of red energy stretched down from my neck to his hand—a leash.
“What are you doing?!” I shrieked.
Vaxal flexed his hand and energy surged into me, filling my body with a brand new kind of agony. I fell to my knees, screaming. Vaxal jerked me back up.
“I’m doing what I wish I could have started days ago, if there weren’t so many prying eyes around,” Virulesse said, her voice overflowing with hungry passion. “It’s finally time for us to have our knowledge exchange.”