THE ATLAS SIX: Deleted Scenes
I was approached by one of my wonderful readers, Elaine, about celebrating her best friend's birthday. Kidaan, thank you so much for loving my work, and I hope you have a fantastic day! Because your favorite character is Callum, here are some Callum-heavy excerpts of "deleted" scenes from THE ATLAS SIX. Thank you for your enthusiasm, your support, and your thoughtful insight into a very controversial character. (In a second post, you will also find an excerpt from the forthcoming sequel, THE ATLAS PARADOX, in further celebration.) Edited to add: and also, happy birthday to zabbini!!
The first of these scenes, had it been in the book, would have taken place after the installation at some point between Part III and Part IV. The second is from my initial draft of the final scene in Part VII, which was then cut and reconfigured. (I assume it goes without saying that these excerpts will not make ANY sense to anyone who hasn't read the book.)
Scene 1: Callum and Tristan have an evening chat.
“Are you alright?” Libby asked, wide-eyed and docile while fidgeting cloyingly with her hair.
She’d been fussy ever since Callum had finished with the wards, having decided to linger obtrusively and watch him. He could tell her concern was mostly flimsy, like costume jewelry that looked right from the outset but was ultimately filled with something else.
“Fine,” he said in a voice he felt certain her father had taken with her often. “Peachy.”
She winced, which Callum felt was incredibly tiresome and also quite unnecessary, considering she’d only been following through on some reflexive programming about tending to those in need. In reality all she’d done was toss him an empty gesture, adding something new to his pile of irritants. In terms of social mechanisms, it was now on Callum to be grateful, which was incredibly burdensome as far as emotions went.
“Do you feel better now?” he asked her, and she looked away, nearly uncomfortable enough to leave but still willing to make an effort. “Lovely jumper,” he added as a final attempt, knowing she’d be plagued by what he meant, and he was right.
She tugged self-consciously at the material. “If you need anything,” she began, and he stopped her with half a smile.
“There’s really no reason for this, Rhodes,” he said, and with that, she finally made the courageous decision to leave him to his evening in peace.
Intellectually, Callum knew that rejecting Libby's efforts was in poor taste if he wanted to maintain some veneer of acceptability, but at some point they’d have to stop rewarding her for insincerity. If she had any intention to matter even remotely in the grand scheme of things, she’d have to start valuing herself beyond the limitations of her praise kink.
Callum shifted in his chair, leaning his head against the upholstery of something ostentatiously Victorian.
“She’s right, you know,” came from somewhere at his elbow, and Callum managed with some effort to turn his head. “You do look tired.”
“Do I?” Callum mused, purposefully allowing a warp in the air to signal the markers of his illusory charms. “Seems unlikely.”
Tristan warily took a seat at Callum’s left, still only half in his periphery.
“What is it you can do? And I don’t mean theoretically,” Tristan said, which Callum felt was a rather frivolous addition. For one thing, Callum knew perfectly well what he meant, and for another, that alone was proof that Tristan could not even grasp it in theory. So what could be shared in terms of actuality was already distinctly less.
“You want to know the limits of my magic, I take it?” Callum replied. He was doing Tristan the favor of getting directly to the point, which was a courtesy no one seemed to care to afford to him. “How very sporting of you, old chap.”
Tristan said nothing.
In his silence, Callum could feel the pieces of Tristan at war with himself and he sighed, feeling the impulsivity of his magic start to turn. How very disconcerting for both of them.
Callum understood in a deeply disinterested way that the others did not think much of his capabilities, believing him limited when it came to physical magic. But of course everything was at least partially physical, was it not? They were physical beings, not amorphous blobs. To be beholden to the demands of a body or to the laws of physics themselves was a matter of transcendence, and to transcend implied some baseline ability to understand. It was all very simple, really, that one could not create something out of nothing, and likewise, one could not create nothing out of something. In order to build the vacuum necessary to protect the house’s magic, Callum had been the one to offset the cost.
It was Callum who was in pieces, not that anyone else would ever know or care. To create the fluid membrane within the Society’s wards had meant absorbing everything that had occupied it beforehand. Terror, anguish, craving, isolation, envy, pride. It radiated through his ribs into the bars of his container, and whatever else Callum Nova was or wasn’t, he could only regenerate at a mortal rate. He could only repair himself slowly over time.
“Do you know what it really means to love?” Callum mused aloud to Tristan. “It isn’t the simple joy of fondness. In fact it’s violent, destructive. It means to cut the heart out of your chest and give it to someone else.” He slid a sidelong glance to Tristan, who didn’t look up. “To care at all means inevitably to suffer, and the bar for suffering alone is hideously low. After all, what is compassion?” he said, as if it were a joke, which it was in some capacity. “To feel the feelings of someone else is to exhaust yourself with double the costs of living,” he finished blithely, raising an imaginary glass like a garden party toast.
There wasn’t a chance that it would end there, so unsurprisingly, it didn’t.
“Costs,” Tristan echoed.
“The usual ones,” Callum assured him. “The regular pains of ordinariness and existence. Wanting things you can never have, assigning yourself a destiny you’ll never fulfill, et cetera et cetera. It’s all obedience to our collective mindset, some atavistic pattern in our blood. Like whale migration,” he mused, “or that silly compulsion we have from time to time to mate.”
“I see being this full of shit doesn’t seem to tax you overmuch,” Tristan commented blandly.
“Not as such,” Callum agreed. He flexed his fingers outwards, adjusting himself within the discomfort of their cramping. As with any chronic condition, his survival was a matter of becoming more comfortable, not some elusive unreality of being wholly pain-free. The trick was managing it until it no longer bit so angrily or stung.
Tristan shifted in his seat, thankfully nearing the central purpose of his visit. “How did you learn to use it?”
“Use what?” Callum asked, manufacturing a safe degree of ignorance. He was long accustomed to employing a bit of pretense for the normies.
“Your magic,” Tristan said. “Your… empath abilities.”
“Empathy is widely taught,” Callum said. “Sharing is caring and what-have-you.”
“No, I meant—”
“I know what you meant.” As delightful as it was to toy with Tristan—and it was, truly, given so little else to entertain him—Callum decided that a point would have to be made eventually.
“I always know what you mean,” Callum clarified, closing his eyes. “Just as Parisa always knows what every man is thinking when he looks at her, regardless of what lie he chooses to tell. You know, I really quite admire her,” he added with a bit of genuine adamancy. “To know what people really are and not habitually try to destroy them is savagely remarkable. Exceptional restraint.” Though, by that standard, he probably ought to celebrate Reina just as equally. Of the five of them, she alone seemed capable of blatant disregard.
“But you seem to know what people are,” Tristan observed. “Don’t you?”
Well, at least he’d been paying attention. “To think as another person thinks and to feel as another person feels are disparate activities. Recreationally speaking, it’s a different sort of challenge.”
“Because feeling is less powerful than thinking?” asked Tristan carefully. He was trying not to indulge his curiosity, it seemed, in an effort toward self-preservation. His efforts were largely failing, but Callum was far too polite to mention that.
“Because feeling is more human than thinking,” Callum corrected him. “And the more human something is, the weaker it is.” His eyes fluttered open, finding Tristan’s gaze on his and deciding to see just how much further he could push him.
“I take it you want to know my constraints? They’re very simple,” Callum said. “They’re the same as the constraints on a computer, overloading any system with too many applications to run. Too much and the whole thing crashes, it fails, it dies.” He waited to see how Tristan’s feelings on having an answer would resolve themselves, but they didn’t. “The limits on my magic are the same as the limits on my body,” Callum said, once again making a rather unusual effort at explaining himself. “It’s a matter of choosing between feeling power and staying alive.”
“But at some point you must have tried to really use it,” Tristan pressed, but then fell silent. Doubtless he felt he was prying, which he unquestionably was, and not even in a very different way from Atlas Blakely.
Perhaps you forget that beneath your natural talent lies someone very, very uninspired.
Callum looked down at his knuckles again, contemplating the soreness to come. Occasionally he became arthritic in the aftermath of such an output, though more often he developed an immune deficiency. The clever thing to do would be to isolate for at least a few days, possibly a week or two.
Funnily enough, Rhodes (and presumably Varona if he could sit still long enough) would understand better than the rest of them what Callum would face over the course of the next week. Rhodes would grasp the nature of exertion required for that degree of order. The amount of entropy reversed by Callum in order to create a vacancy within the wards was physical enough—it was energy sent outward, chaos accepted in. Still, to claim the sophistication of a human battering ram at this stage in their initiation process was not exactly elegantly handled.
Ultimately, Tristan was asking (or rather, spectacularly failing to ask) a very simple question. “If I could tell you how to discover your specific reason for existing, I think I might actually do it,” Callum said whimsically. “Which you really ought to take as a compliment.”
He rose carefully to his feet, determining that he ought to begin the process of sanitizing his living space. “Don’t worry about being nothing,” Callum advised, glancing down at Tristan, whose brow had furrowed in thought. “When you’re actually no longer anything,” Callum remarked, a joint cracking ironically somewhere in his neck, “you’ll probably be the first to know.”
Callum had already taken a step toward the door when Tristan’s hand shot out, pausing him.
“Are you alright?” Tristan asked, seemingly against his will. “Really.”
It was the same thing Libby had asked, but also entirely different. Within Tristan’s request was guilt, inadequacy, and a curious little outpouring of something that Callum might have called longing if not for knowing that was easily misinterpreted. A result of being alone, presumably. How exquisitely self-destructive.
“Thank you,” Callum said, because to assuage Tristan’s feelings—to acknowledge and ease his guilt—was to make him more comfortable, and people who were comfortable were less prone to acts of violent reprisal. If there were other reasons to do so, they were unimportant. Possibly even irrelevant. “I’ll live,” Callum added, which he’d learned by then was something only Tristan would properly grasp for the paltriness that it was.
“Right,” said Tristan, returning to a manageable frequency of caution as they parted ways for bed.
Scene 2: The six are beset by an unexpected interruption.
Reina Mori heard the scream from the garden. It was soon joined by a chorus of voices, all various shades of outcry: rage, sorrow, fear, treachery and deception. She had not understood for many years what she was hearing in her head when she heard voices. Children, after all, generally made the assumption that all experiences were like their own. For a time they had been friends, coaxing and comforting, until they became needy, pushy, insistent. It was a gift! Oh yes, a gift, the gift of sacrifice; what honor, what nobility. Life was calling out for her, clinging to her for safety, and like she had learned to do for so many years, Reina turned her head away.
Nico de Varona heard it from inside a dream, groggy and half-awake, slipping soundlessly between realms. When his eyes fluttered he clung to it, what Gideon had said just before he left, trying to remember the reason for it; “You’re not safe here. You’re unprepared.” For what? Dimensions, Nicolás, dimensions. Don’t just think big, think shapeless. Think infinite. Gideon basta, infinity is false, it’s a false conception, even grains of sand and atoms could be counted, listen to me Nicky you have a hole, a big one, watch this. A touch against his cheek, impossible through the wards, only it wasn’t. It’s a memory, Gideon explained, fading into the feel of the earth beneath him shaking, the smell of fire, the sound of the scream.
Parisa Kamali was in bed, albeit not her own. You’re avoiding me, no I’m not, fine then prove it. Lovers have their own dimension, a suspension of space and time in favor of sensation. Secrets carry weight, they rustle in the sheets. “He chose you because you know how to starve.” Who did? But no answers, not yet, because someone, somewhere, even before the scream, something is already forming. A knife is plunged, sightless. This is the death of purity, of trust. This is funereal and distinct. This is something Parisa knows, because she is a woman and she knows what it is to be betrayed. By her body, which bleeds, by her heart, which breaks. Someone has been lied to and now they are the anger that is more than anger, because it is anguish. It is misery of a rare kind: justified. This is treachery which has been earned.
Callum Nova did not hear the scream so much as feel it radiating through his ribs, wiring shut his jaw. He gritted his teeth around the feel of it, enough pressure to grind through stone. These were new feelings, new colors, intensity unmatched. They hit him like a revelation, eureka, and he shuddered with it, the pressure mounting behind his temples, in his sinuses, offsetting his inner ear. Over time people are taught to feel less, to become duller. Survival mechanisms, because the human body cannot handle every emotion in concert. Systems crash, programs fail. Feel too much and chance destruction, and this was close. This was everything all at once.
Tristan Caine was bracing himself when he heard it, surprised to find the sound wasn’t him. He looked up to find Callum frozen, paralyzed, his hand still tight around a knife meant for Tristan’s chest, maybe his throat. He wondered for a moment how Callum would do it and felt himself relieved that it was that much easier to picture. It is so much easier to be betrayed than to be the one betraying, he thought, and the moment the thought was planted, he knew something true about himself that he had not understood before. He didn’t have a killer’s instinct, he had a victim’s sensibilities; the quiet dignity of weakness, the wisdom to know when to end. How serene he was, how tranquil, and truly, that must mean that he alone did not belong. He had not come here because he possessed value intrinsically, some light that shone from within him. He had come here because he was persuaded. Because he had value to someone else.
Dalton Ellery did not hear the scream. He was sleeping, something else occupying his head. Parisa Kamali, pretty girl, his knight in shining armor, whispered to the contours of his fractured mind: I will get you out, because this cage is not for you.
Libby Rhodes did not hear the scream, either.
Not until after she realized it was her own.