Aria sighed and drained her coffee. Architecture was definitely the most difficult thing she had ever attempted. It would have been easier to go into Medicine or something, but no. She had to choose the field that was graded on subjectivity. She stared at her project, willing it to reform itself into the vision depicted on the plans she had drawn, and sighed. It was no use. She'd have to make it all over again, from scratch.
Aria had always loved to draw, more than anything. There was nothing cozier to her than curling up under the great big oak in her backyard, sketchpad in hand on a warm, summer's day. Or in the winter, on the loveseat, with a piping mug of hot chocolate. Even though she was good at science and English and math, she just didn't enjoy them as much as she did Art class, and specifically structural designs. So when she was accepted into Cornell University's prestigious architecture school, she thought it would come naturally. She was wrong. Oh, how she was wrong.
The hardest part of it all was comparing herself and feeling inadequate. Everyone else's project seemed better than hers, better craft, better concept, better ideas. Well, all except Luciano, but that was mean because his ideas were good, he just was the only person worse than her when it came to craft. And although Aria had great imagination when it came to structure, her ability to execute her ideas weren't the best. She stared glumly at the glue-slathered chipboard. Models were not her strong point. She sighed. There was over 24 hours until it was due. Sitting here, half-asleep at three in the morning wasn't going to solve anything, although most students just brought a small futon and slept on the floor of the studio anyway. Rubbing her bleary eyes, she walked back to her dorm in Balch Hall, slid open the door to the sound of her snoring roommate and slipped silently into bed.
Perhaps if Aria had been more awake, she would have noticed the small glimmering of a tracker. Or perhaps not. It was minuscule, minute in form so that only the most perceptive person could have noticed it. In any case, she was being watched by another. More specifically, it was a tiny little Numerkind named Orb. The Numerkinds, belonging to the Benes of Araset, were a peculiar little species that all boasted of large, round eyes with terrible vision, so that all needed coke-bottle glasses to see. But while their eyesight may have been bad, they all had a gift for inner vision and for projecting that inner vision for others to see. They were the only bridge to the Real World.
In this moment, Orb was projecting several of Aria's concept drawings to another Bene, but this Bene was not a Numerkind. He was a Ningen named Aksei, a species that looked almost identical to humans, except for their constantly changing eye and hair color. This Ningen was a searcher, and it was his job to scour the Real World to find the Dreamer. Searchers always worked in pairs with Numerkinds, and Aksei and Orb had been working together for almost a hundred years. Time existed in Araset, oh yes. But there was no concept of aging beyond twenty-five. Once Maturity had been reached, time was boundless. That was why the Malos had been necessary from the beginning. Without them, the world would have become horribly overpopulated. For where there is life, there must also be death.
"Look here," said Orb, projecting one of Aria's concept drawings detailing a floating skyscraper held up with skyhooks to Aksei. Aksei looked at it, but his face betrayed no expression.
"When was the last time you saw innovation like this?" he whispered, hushed, as if he was scared the projection would vanish and it was all an act brought on by the Malos.
Aksei said nothing. He had spent so many years searching, countless years running and hiding in the granite that had replaced the loamy dirt, drilling countless caverns only to have to abandon them once more to the Malos. They were too far away from Tierra, the underground central nerve of the Benes, masked by Protectioner's constant illusions, to seek other refuge. Absentmindedly, he fingered the scar on his arm, a flesh-carving. The Malos didn't just kill now. No, they branded and tortured as well. Things had gotten out of control. The balance was disrupted.
Finally, he spoke.
"Are you sure?" His voice was dull. He was a shell of a Ningen, a shell of a man now, hollow like the granite he had carved to make their safehaven.
Orb was silent for a moment. Then, with a voice small and tired, he answered Aksei.
"She is the Dreamer."
Blackened glue smudges crusting on her fingertips, Aria sighed and rubbed her eyes blearily, allowing for a little smile. She had finished. Critique was in a couple of hours and she had finished. She let a little sigh of relief escape her lungs, and as the adrenaline and caffeine left her system entirely, she leaned on a desk to shift the weight off of her legs. She had been standing for at least nine hours. Stretching out her feet, she sighed again happily. Thank god for finishing. Such a nice feeling.
She walked amongst the other students still frantically working, some listening to the music being broadcasted from a macbook air on another desk, others with headphones or earbuds plugged in, blocking out the wall. They were cutting, slicing, gluing with frenzy with focus as sharp as the box cutters they utilized to cut through the chipboard.
All of a sudden, the indie-pop music blasting from the desk stopped, only to be replaced by what could only be described as a latin rhythm song, beats vibrating off of the concrete floor of the studio.
"DANCE PARTY!!!" yelled Shaun, a crazy-haired Canadian-Chinese kid whom others lovingly described as a fob, or fresh-off-the-boat. He had just finished his project moments before as well.
Aria laughed a little bit mentally as she watched stressed out architects in training flailing back and forth, an attempt at dancing to relieve a bit of the pressure. Not for me, she thought. I need sleep. More sleep. Or I won't last through crit at all.
Each step brought fiery pain up her arches and into her ankles as she limped slowly back to Balch Dormitory. Ankle problems brought on from collapsing arches, from running around Beebe Lake, miles and miles in an attempt to combat the freshman fifteen. A failed attempt, thought Aria miserably, pinching her stomach. She watched Lulu, the sorority slut walk hand in hand with a new boyfriend. High heels, no traces of cellulite or fat.
Aria shook her head. She's not a slut. She's just insecure. Like me. Maybe I should be happier the way I am. Curvy and single. Better this way anyway. No time for a boyfriend with the studio hours anyway. In reality, Aria's perception of weight was skewed. She had in fact, lost weight from eating improperly and skipping meals to spend extra time in the studio.
Shivering as snowflakes gently drifted down to kiss her hair, Aria, drew her hands in closer to her body in an attempt to conserve warmth. Ithaca was cold. Really cold. But gorgeous, she thought as she passed She slipped a little on the incline of the hill, trying to climb her way up to Balch. Would it kill them to keep the pathways salted? Aria thought, disgruntled as her feet took the brunt of the responsibility of keeping her uprighted. Slapping her keycard against the scanning system, Aria shook as she waited for the familiar beep and green light that would grant her access to warmth.
Running up the staircase and corridor, she collapsed onto her bed, slowly stripping down into pajamas. She pulled out her iPhone and set an alarm to go off in exactly ninety minutes and slowly drifted into sleep.
Had Aria been paying attention, she would have noticed a peculiar rip in the fabric of reality, a tiny tear in the corner of her mind that grew larger the sleepier she became. Perhaps she thought it was peculiar, perhaps she thought she was dreaming. In any case, as she drifted into sleep, Orb prepared to transport her mind into Araset, to prepare her for the necessary coming.
Aria definitely was dreaming now, but her mind was not replaying the recesses of its creviced memory, but instead traveling into the tiny cavern where Aksei and Orb lay, examining her.
"Aria. Welcome. We have expected you," said Orb calmly. Aria bent down and examined the tiny Numerkind, mouth open in shock. She pinched his chubby cheeks, unable to control her impulses.
"Ouch," said Orb, clearly not amused.
"Oh, did that hurt?" asked Aria, stupidly. "I'm so sorry. You're adorable! What are you?"
"I am a Numerkind. One of the last. And my name is Orb," he said, stiffly, clearly uncomfortable with Aria's touchy-feely ways.
Aksei stepped into the dim light of the cavern, coming from the iridescent and fluorescent glowworms crawling all over the ceiling.
"Don't mind him. We're not used to such...contact with Dreamers." His voice was like a whisper that grew into a rich barratone bass. Aria squinted, trying to make out the shapes and contours of his face in the darkness. If only there was a proper light, she thought, and instantly, the cavern was flooded with incandescent light as the tall lamp from the living room of Aria's childhood home appeared. Aria shrieked and jumped back, accidentally toppling over the lamp with a shattering crash.
Orb sighed glumly. Aksei's voice filled the cavern once more. "Try again. Imagine a ceiling light though, one that won't fall over." Aria closed her eyes and pictured the chandelier from the place she once called home. When she opened her eyes, she was greeted with nostalgia, and Aksei's staring face, studying her. Aria shrieked and jumped again.
"Don't do that! That's, well, that's weird," she sputtered and flushed red. "You scared me. This is a weird dream anyway. I can create anything I want." She closed her eyes again. "I'm pretty hungry." A plate of chicken wings appeared on a table with a lone chair. Aria practically drooled, and sat down, eating her first meal of the day. The cavern was filled with groaning and munching noises as she ate with gusto. Orb simply looked at Aksei disapprovingly. Clearly, the Dreamer was not living up to his expectations.
Aria paused eating to wipe her mouth with her sleeve. "Oh! I'm being rude!" She sprayed chicken across the table, talking with her mouth open and Orb shot a pained look at Aksei. Aksei simply looked quietly amused. Two more chairs materialized, with a banquet on the table. "Sit! Please eat," Aria said, somewhat ironically assuming the role of a hostess. Knives and forks materialized, along with napkins, and she dabbed at her mouth daintily with a napkin. It seems like she only forgot her manners out of sheer hunger, thought Aksei. His hair turned electric blue and his eyes turned violet, a special shade reserved for when he was happy. And Aksei hadn't found much happiness in at least several centuries.
"Aria." Aria stopped eating to listen, her eyes meeting his.
"Wait, weren't your eyes and hair just brown?" she asked, confused.
"Yes. I'm not a human, I'm a ningen, but that's not important-" He tried to recover his train of thought, but Aria interrupted again.
"Wait, how did you do that?" Her eyes widened in amazement, and then she remembered. "Oh, it's just a dream-" Now it was Aksei's turn to interrupt.
"Be quiet! This is not just a dream. This is a reality. We call this Araset. And Araset needs your help, Aria. You are a Dreamer. A creator. And we will come for you soon. When we come for you, you must be ready to create, for this world needs much hope." Aksei's words and the cavern faded as the alarm on Aria's phone blared, destroying her dream.
Rubbing her eyes again, Aria sat up. What a strange dream, she thought. She rubbed the corners of her mouth. It still tasted like chicken. How odd. Again, Aria ignored the tiny rip in the fabric of reality, just visible in her peripheral vision, dismissing it as being tired. She dressed for the critique in uncomfortable business casual, grumbling slightly about wanting to sleep longer, and made the slow, bitterly cold walk back to the architecture studio.