Time Remaining: Zero minutes
On Friday, Jonas had returned from 1942 with scathed limbs and a throbbing headache - a parting gift he had yet to get used to - for it was his job as a Drifter. Harmonies of swooping grenades and the ricochet of golden bullets buzzed in his ears as he collapsed onto his seat, drowning beneath the luminous stare of white lights that padded the ceiling.
"Just rotated back?" Darius asked, tossing a cold pack across the table - a glare was what he'd received for the joking tone. He had stayed back for the fifth night in a row, solely waiting to berate his friend for overworking, but despite being exhausted by the same words, Jonas was still thankful for his annoying persistence.
"Are you still stealing assignments from AU?" Darius glanced the translucent screen, sifting through the upcoming rotations that were added to the list. Furious, would be a drastic understatement of his reaction when he'd discovered a few months ago that Jonas had returned from the 11th rotation in a single week. He was still bitter. "You know that if someone catches you, your license'll be terminated, right?"
"Trading and it's the only way for me to get more credits," said Jonas. It was the truth - the Division of Alternate Universes had the most complex assignments, only Drifters with exceptional qualifications even had the chance of being considered for the job.
"You mean, the fastest way for you to get more credits."
"It's just for a little longer - till Selections. I'll go back to Historical as soon as it's done, promise."
Darius shoved his shoulder in defeat before leaving the room; Jonas eyed the slight limp in his walk, remembering his friend's lively narration of an ice dragon that'd slashed his left leg on one of his first assignments - perks of working in Fantasy, he thought.
Jonas winced as he removed the military jacket, clutching the side of his arm while grabbing the EEG connected to the screen. Barely taking a second to secure the headset and initiate the transfer.
"Upload complete." said the division's AI, "1942 rotation memories will be sent to Writers in 2 minutes."
He gathered his belongings into his backpack, swinging it over the good shoulder as he walked towards the exit. The dimmed hallways illuminated at his presence, coating the silver walls with a pale blue. Though it was nearing midnight, he had passed a few people from other divisions in the main foyer before pausing at the large screens suspended in the middle of the entrance.
The neon glow of Kent, Alternate Universes frozen at the top of the leaderboard had been taunting him for an entire year. He scoffed at the credits, ignoring the Jonas, Historical Fiction that had settled at an even No. 20. Of course, Kent was a celebrated Drifter amongst all the divisions, yet the most agitating part was that he was outstanding at his job and deserved every bit of the praise.
But Selections were less than a week away, and he was losing faith as the hours flew by. Darius had once-reasoned that being a Drifter was an honour itself, a title one has to be worthy enough to bear. Despite all the reassurance, Jonas surrendered a piece of his dreams, a trail towards his life's wishes every year. He'd always longed to win Selections and become a Writer's apprentice - and one day, a Writer himself.
The next day, Jonas had forgotten the enthusiasm that had once-coursed through his mind all along. He'd woken up late, missed the 8 AM shuttle to work and entered the Division of Horror instead - an experience he'd like to obliterate from his subconscious. The AI had scanned his biometrics as he slumped into his seat, stating the same message he'd learned to tune out. Yet as Jonas began to register the screen in front of him, he was only met with the faint outline of his reflection upon its clear surface.
"What's going on? My assignments are - " he asked a woman nearby.
"They're cutting down divisions!"
Jonas felt his heart drop. That's why the upcoming rotations were deleted from my portal, he thought. His eyes remained fixed at the motionless device, witnessing the rushed movements behind him. He immediately reached into his desk and grabbed a piece of paper, its foreign texture tingled under his fingertips. He had stolen the artifact on an assignment to the 1700s, fascinated by its delicacy. He'd never seen anything like it in his entire life. The memory of wielding a pencil surfaced his mind as he traced over the child-like scrawl. They were his story ideas - ones hidden from intrusive glances - saved for the glorious moment when he'd become a Writer.
Although the chances of that happening now plummeted to the Earth's core.
"Jonas!" It was Darius who'd stormed through the uneased crowd, slamming his hand on the table. "I heard the Writers are cutting Biography, Folktales and Historical!"
No. I can't lose my job, he thought - No. Jonas stood from his seat, his senses muffled the cacophony stirring around him. A bubble that distorted any reason, even Darius' attempts of calling his name fell deaf to his ears. He pushed into the masses, feeling like his world had been playing in slow motion. The Drifters from other divisions had gathered around the main foyer, intently listening to the building's AI for the news - some sporting expressions of indifference and others mirrored the distress written across Jonas' face. And now, the answer was staring right at him.
The Writers' Room. A name that had intimidated him since he was little, plaguing his fantasies with its power, he had always desired to know what was on the other side. Though he was only a step away from the unknown, a jolt of hesitance ran down his spine. He had worked relentlessly for the past few years, risking his license for credits and all of it was mere inches away from leaving his grasp forever. But, this wasn't right. He'd craved to unravel its mysteries as a Writer. To have deserved this privilege, this status and prestige - like Kent did.
But Jonas had no other choice. He slammed through the doors, shattering the pristine glass that now decorated the floor like pebbles. Three sharp noises blasted through every single wall, alerting the entire system of his break-in. He didn't even flinch at the alarms. The Room was mainly empty except for a large glass desk so polished, it made the lights' reflections seem like the Sun's glare. Sitting in the middle was a relic Jonas had once observed in an assignment - a typewriter. Adorned not with alphabets, but rather, genres and time periods. It was the World Builder!
He reached over to trace along its edges, fingertips barely grazing the golden embellishments as if it would crumble under his touch. Though, his moment of awe was quickly replaced with panic as he heard voices emerging from the hallway.
Sparing no thoughts, he hit a few random buttons and all the rung in his ears was their protests until -
Time Remaining: Zero minutes.
* * *
"I must apologise, Jonas."
Another splitting headache surfaced from beneath, weighing down an unusual sensation of pain on his body - one he'd encountered after a rare night of intoxication. He opened his eyes, in search of the voice that had awakened him. A man clad in grays appeared into his line of sight. Jonas noticed the minute sheets of wrinkles and lines gracing his features.
"It wasn't my intention to harm you." He continued, though there was no trace of remorse of his face.
"I don't understand," said Jonas, slowly rising from the seat. The surroundings felt so familiar, yet he couldn't place exactly where he'd seen it before until he caught sight of it. "You're the Master Writer."
The Master Writer acknowledged his revelation, waiting as Jonas spotted the World Builder, "Unfortunately, when you were trading assignments," he paused as Jonas glanced down in embarrassment, "You received a world I had once discarded and when it came to my attention, I decided to let it unravel for a little longer."
Jonas furrowed his eyebrows in confusion, though, before he could speak his mind, the Master Writer held up his hand.
"I have not been upholding the Writers' rules for a while; it has been decades since I have last composed a story."
"I was in your world all this time?" How did I not know? he thought. His entire life and existence had been orchestrated by the Master Writer, he'd been living a lie - a fragment of nothing in a fictional world impersonating his own.
"Jonas, you were in that Alternate Universe for years, following a parallel Earth timeline like ours. The longest any Drifter has ever been in any assignment. Your rotation memories are valuable and I would like to offer you the role as my apprentice. We could use your knowledge of my world and create a story that could revolutionise writing."
"What about my license? Won't it be terminated?" Jonas was hesitant. It was the way the Master's words settled in his gut that irked him.
"Your service will be commemorated in Drifter history." Desperate was his tone, he leaned forward - clenching his impatience in his jaw.
"I respectfully reject your offer, Master Writer." Jonas concluded, exiting the room in a haste. He lingered a little longer in the foyer, knowing it would be the last time he'd ever step foot in the building. Stopping in front of the suspended screens, he smiled at the Jonas, Historical Fiction glowing next to a bright 20.