ch. VIII, p.4

. . .

Idest wasn’t much farther now. Dominic grimaced as he peered into the distance, a swirling cloud of somber gray obscuring the city’s sky scraping giants. Even on a sunny day like this, those clouds seemed to be inescapable to the weather ravaged monuments and collapsed domes that had once been the foundation of a metropolis of world renowned beauty.

I have to handle this carefully, he thought, glancing at Sherrad. There were things he had to do in the city that even the boy couldn’t know about. He strode on, glad that he had enough time to think things through.

Another hour of dirt paths connected them with paved road, ill-maintained and cracked with bullet holes and lines from earthquakes. Evergreens still sided the asphalt pathway, but now they were ashen and pale, bearing the remnants of a half-dead city and burned earth upon their branches.

They look as if they will turn to dust themselves on a stiff breeze, to spread their remains across the ghostly countryside and allow beauty to fade beyond memory.

The air grew cold and dense as they approached the city, lifeless roads dumping them into view of the dull steel spires in the center of everything. He could feel his breath growing stiff and his heart rate climbing as they neared the ground-level security checkpoint. And he found himself missing the days when a person could go where they pleased without having their personal effects rummaged through by scanning devices and security thugs.

But of course, he couldn’t show any signs of apprehension; that was certain to get them over-scrutinized. And any extra attention would probably result in their deaths. ‘Diazepam’, he thought.

‘Administer Diazepam,’ showed in a transparent window, and he chose a fairly high dosage, causing the drug to flow into his system. Within moments his anxiety had slipped away. He turned to Sherrad, saying, “You ready?”

The boy nodded confidently. They had both completed a false-induction of the nanomachines a couple of hours earlier and he had been going over their situation in his mind—there was no reason, as far as he could tell, that they would be stopped.

“Checkpoint coming up…” Dom said, nodding ahead.

Four twenty foot high metal posts approached, arranged in a square. And though they couldn’t see it, thirty more posts surrounded the city; spaced in mile long intervals, they projected a pair of circular walls, invisible to the naked eye, that prevented anyone from entering Idest undetected.

They stopped in front of the first set of posts, waiting for the go-ahead from an A.I. sentry. The humanoid approached them from nearby, his golden eyes with irises of interlocking slats searching them over. He ran a hand through his striking, silver hair and sighed, saying, “Been lots of commotion in the city lately. It’ll be good to have some trained soldiers around to help out.”

He smiled genuinely at them. Or, at least, as genuinely as he knew how. “I.D.’s?”

‘Transmit I.D.’ both Dom and Sherrad thought simultaneously.

“Ahh… You boys have seen a lot of action, haven’t you?” he said, continuing to grin, his white teeth showing. “I’m impressed… In the company of heroes. Okay, step on through. You first,” he nodded to Dominic.

He walked past the first set of barriers.

Nothing happened.

“Okay, go and wait on the other side please. Of course, I know you know that. But, hey, that’s protocol for you,” he laughed drippily.

At the sentry’s behest, Sherrad stepped through the first field. Immediately, both fields turned bright red and he felt a great lethargy seize at his chest, causing him to slump, gasping for breath.

“Okay, looks like we have a bit of a problem here,” said the sentry. “Your biological makeup has been altered since you last visited the city… and… oh my. Oh my my…”

“What? What is it?” shouted Dom.

“Well it appears that… Yes, oh my. This boy seems to be carrying a great deal of foreign material in his blood. I’m going to have to extract a sample and verify its origin before I can let you through… And… Oh, samples of metal as well. Interesting.”

“Wait…” Sherrad wheezed, “Lower the supp… supp…”


The A.I. looked him over, clearly ruffled.

“Fine,” he said, reluctantly. “The boy is in a state, I can see that, but it’s no reason to be gruff. We’re all on the same side here. Until we’re not, that is.”

The neural suppression field lifted and Sherrad took a heavy breath, sighing, and propped himself up against one of the redly glowing walls. “Wait… let me explain…”

The A.I. nodded, “Go on.”

“The metallic mass is unlicensed nanomachines. We both have them in our systems.”

Dominic’s jaw dropped slightly open. What the hell was he thinking?

“Nanomachines?” the A.I. said. “You do realize that under Post-Gate 12, the nanomachine acquisition ordinance, any nanomachines acquired from an unlicensed retailer are illegal, correct? And that having them on your person carries a penalty up to, and including, death?”

“Yes, of course we do. But you’re machine, you have to understand… I got this disease, see? I got attacked by this… this thing. Like an alien. And it had this poison… It’s destroying my nanomachines.”

“What?” The A.I. chortled caustically. “What is this nonsense you are talking about?”

“We found someone… said he could help us.” He shook his head with exhaustion. “He gave us these new nanomachines, see? Called ‘em an antidote… But they just got stuck; totally worthless, fake… And we knew the risk… Knew what would happen if anyone found out. But you can make things right!” he said, eyes pleading. “You can save my life!”

“I don’t believe you. That’s insane. You’re just a low-life smuggler.”

“No, I’m not… Look at my medical records, I’m sending them to you now.”

The A.I. stepped away from him, in shock. “Silicon Gods! This can’t be real! What are you playing at?”

“You’re right to be afraid of me,” Sherrad said dejectedly. “But look… It doesn’t seem to be a transmittable infection. We thought it might be, at first, but my system has it under control as long as I don’t remove my arm.”

The A.I. cringed. Was that some kind of threat? He let the boy go on.

“Please… it’s all up to you now. You can report this, but what if I get detained? And it spreads? Or what if you could cause a panic, and it’s really nothing. Maybe just some messed up sensors in my system...”

“What do you want,” he demanded sternly.

“There’s this doctor in town… Name of Holden Edwards. I came here because I think he can… I think he can… Agh—” He pressed a hand to his forehead, cringing. He waited a moment for the pain to subside before continuing, “Maybe he has a cure… And there’s nothing to lose. He scans me, sends you a report, and then you decide what happens.”

The A.I. wanted nothing to do with him. Whatever was going on in that boy’s body was like some kind of leprosy for machines. It sickened him.

“Fine. I’ll call the doctor. You’re all his, if he wants you. But if I hear anything about this that doesn’t come directly from him or from you, they will be burning your body before you can even think about running.”

Dominic’s heart was beating so fast he thought it might seize up entirely. He had known the boy was a good liar, but not that good.

“Doctor is on his way,” the A.I. said, a twinge of disquiet in his voice. “You best behave yourselves.”

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