Ch. IV, p.4

Gunfire… In the hallway. He held his breath. The three creatures outside the reconstructor had long since finished their meal and had been resting soundly. Immediately, they perked up, scrambling to jam their massive frames through the doorway in a hunt for the strange noise.

This was his chance; ‘unlock,’ he demanded. The glass panel slid open, and a putrid stench to wafted into his nostrils, hanging off the scrap laden bones of the dead. His body launched itself out the front of the machine, past the offal, and into the doorway, all before his mind had time to argue. Crouching, he activated his Aura.

The world was drowned in sepia tone and instinct turned his head left, then right down the hall. Two of those creatures and… More shots, from the hallway on his right. And the other hallway was blocked off. I don’t have a choice. He broke into a dash, vaulting over a mossy knob of plant, and tore headlong into the arboretum. He didn’t slow until he was well past its glassy threshold, bounding over fallen logs and strange looking vegetation.

He looked over his shoulder—no one was following. Dark brown dirt pattered softly beneath him and thick trees towered overhead, pressing against the glass in an indistinguishable mélange of leafy greens. He could detect subtle movement in the large canopy above, but whatever it was up there, it didn’t seem interested in him.

He bundled his cloak under his arm and kept on at a controlled jog, careful to stay aware of the surrounding area. Over tangles of plant and down beneath a great tree, he came into a long tunnel, its concrete floor writhing greenly. A great wall of glass arched up and overhead revealing an aquarium, emptied of life and substance. A few dark puddles of water were all that remained.

He slowed his pace, only for a split second. The sound of his breath echoed in the confined passage as memory conflicted with reality, reminding him of the beautiful creatures that had once lived in these tanks. But shaking adrenaline demanded that he keep going.

A circular opening at the other end of the tunnel loosed him upon more plant and gnarled trunk. The main arboretum exit was obstructed, but nearby a fallen tree had smashed apart one of the glass panels. A quick look told him that he could use it to escape and he navigated up its rough bark before taking a running jump off the edge. Assisted by his nano-fiber clothing, he found himself far more agile than before. He hardly even felt his feet crash to the ground, sending him into a roll and causing him to drop his bundle of gear.

Disoriented, he looked around, quickly trying to assess his situation. He was still safe, and there was still fighting down the hall. This is my best chance, he thought. If they had come from that direction, then he could probably use it to get to the surface. In a daze, he gathered up his things and ran towards the stairway, the loud reports of gunfire masking his steps.

His body trembled, heart beating heavily. He slowed as he approached the exit, pressing his side to the wall and taking a quick look around the corner. Two figures… They were facing away from him, shooting at a pair of the creatures, destabilizing them if they got close. But where’s the third beast?

He didn’t have time to worry about that. He had to run. Past the hallway and—

“Agh!” he tripped, slamming into the floor. He had to keep going; into the stairwell, up the stairs, as fast as he could climb. Behind him, glass smashed and he heard a bloodcurdling scream.

. . .

‘Recording…’

“Shit! Shit! Get it off me!”

Glass littered the floor, smashed apart from within the arboretum. The sound still rang in his ears and his body, pressed against the wall, writhed with pain, razor sharp from the talon jammed into its shoulder. Bullets pattered against the creature’s haunch and it dragged a claw downward, severing his arm.

“Auuuugh!” Blood spattered along the wall in a black arc, the limb swinging through the air. Cawing, the creature pressed its wings to its body and crouched. Then it sprang up, hurtling back through the window with a powerful leap.

His body pounded with blood, nostrils rankling at the smell of searing flesh.

Is this it? No… not yet.

. . .

Reaching the top of the stairs, he looked back down behind him. I’m alone. Better still, the door was jammed open at a strange angle—at the very least, it would give him some warning if one of those creatures decided to follow.

And those people… he tried to put it out of his mind. There was nothing he could have done. Maybe they were only androids… Crouching down, he crawled under the opening, watching for any signs of movement. Not too far away, he saw the entrance. I’m alive! And free, and… Eve… Damn it.

The message flashed through his mind again. ‘It is imperative that you make contact with me in security room A on level I; I will recognize you there. Everything depends on what you do now.’

Am I sure it was real? Maybe I’ll go outside and get my bearings… come back later. He thought he might throw up, anxiety sending tremors through his body, clenched tightly; this was the worst kind of decision. He desperately wanted to leave and began to head towards the front door, but changed his mind at the last second, turning towards the security room. Almost as he reached it, the heavy door slid open with a loud whirr.

Immediately he ducked, hiding behind a pile of debris. A black-clad figure jogged out of the room, not seeming to notice him; this one wasn’t armed. Soon it disappeared into the opening he had come from only moments earlier.

Now or never. He shook his head, unable to believe that he wasn’t just getting the hell out of there. “Don’t be stupid,” he pleaded with himself, under his breath. But all he needed to do was get in and out before those soldiers came back.

The security room glowed with light as he approached. It must have hooked up a generator. A quick glance confirmed his suspicions: a fist sized device was stuck to the wall by the door, a small meter indicating its remaining charge.

He swung around the wall quickly and jammed his hand into a green panel, sliding the heavy door shut. He was safe, but he didn’t have time to relax. Kneeling, he pulled the SAT tool from his bundled gear and activated it with a swipe of his thumb. Waves of color splashed over the drab chairs and empty walls of the room, and blue sky, white with clouds, enfolded his sense of reality. For a moment, it was just him and the air, but the next thing he knew, his hands were rested on the back of a couch and… he looked up… two women sat smiling in his direction, radiant with the light of the sun.

“Hello Frank. We’ve been waiting for you.”

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