Ch. XII, p.3

. . .

Rubbled concrete sank into Dom’s gloves as he climbed the face of a partially demolished building which, in addition to the obvious earthquakes, had probably been wasted away by bored teenagers or local gangs. The ground shrank below him as he went, growing threatening in its distance.

He slammed another palm into the rubble, pulling himself higher through a chute of debris. Fortunately, he could survive a fall from up here. His gear was relatively high quality, the same stuff orbital drop troops had worn for years, and quite capable when it came to dispersing the force of a descent.

Right now though, he didn’t have any plans to fall. With a heavy grunt, he pulled himself overtop an ancient, dirt sodden floor, and lay on his belly. Aging displays, once having housed intricate and soulful manifestations of local artists’ minds, now sat dismally freed of the elegant (and oftentimes questionable) works, holding instead the remains of a slumping ceiling and various indistinguishable leftovers from previous human visits.

Shadows stretched across the room, growing as the Earth turned ever more eastward. With a quick glance around, accompanied by a sonar scan, he determined that the room was free of any unwanted guests that he could detect, and set about his business.

Pressing his hands into the hard flooring to raise himself up, he stalked carefully away from the opening. Then he maneuvered his way through the shadows and into a solemn and empty hallway, arced ceiling obscured black above.

He needed to get to the east-facing side of the building, and, being short on time, decided that the best way was a straight line. Slipping a small, card-like device from his sleeve, he approached a thick, mahogany door, pressing his body against the wall and gently toying with the handle.

Locked… He had suspected as much. He carefully inserted the card into the space formed between the wall and the door and slid downward, feeling it snag on a metal bolt.

‘Sear,’ he thought. A smoky stream billowed up from the card, and in moments he was able to swing the door quietly open.

The world was darker from this side of the building. Curving in front of him in a wide arc was the remnant of a solid, steel frame, a barely detectable rim that was meant to house massive, glass panels in as seamless a manner possible. He made his way past an large and opulent desk of thick wood and stained, rumpled leather and gold lining, and laid at the edge of the window, which granted him an open view of the large, cracked dome housing the entrance to the arboretum.

The stranger hadn’t arrived yet. Dom had been fast getting here—less than ten minutes since he had last talked to the man—and it would likely be a while. He peered far away into the city, glowing outlines enhancing his view of things by distinguishing possible objects of interest; indicating heat sources, significant movement, noise, and the like. Right now, Idest was alive with motion, people hurrying this way and that, and even gunshots being fired. Chaos. But the SATE squad, had remained mostly in the same place. A fact that he found both disturbing and encouraging.

In all likelihood, he realized, retrieving the red cube with Maria’s data from his gear, SATE wanted whatever was in those boxes he had found, and they were trying to ferret out the people who had taken it by causing them to act rash in moments of fear. They must have assumed that he would be one of the first to break, seeing as how he was personally involved in a prior incident, and had seen what destruction they could levy upon a place if they so desired.

Not today… I’m not afraid of dying… he thought, unaware of his clenching jaw.

He settled in, crossing his arms and resting his chin in the nook, eyes waiting patiently to see what was going to happen. Since he probably had time, he might as well see what was on the graphiq, he figured, activating the red cube.

He devoted half of his attention to the device as he did, his mind regulated by his neural network. Only half, because he needed to keep an eye on the area below, sluggish as he felt, his focus divided. But if he paid attention to the world around him exclusively, anything gleaned from the cube by his subconscious would only be processed in dream; a wholly unreliable way of interpreting hard data.

Ideally, he would have liked to wait until he could absorb himself completely, but he didn’t know if that chance would ever come.

“Welcome Dominic,” displayed across his vision. “What would you like to do?”

‘Show recent file usage,’ he thought, ‘And display user access over last forty eight hours.’

“Displaying users…

“Systems accessed by… Mira Calix (A.I.)… Maria Arcelli… Frank Marrus…”

he thought, mind breaking down the list, here we go…

. . .

It really is beautiful here, Maria thought as she walked along, watching the morning sunlight call bright patches of green and swirling waves of red and blue flowers from the landscape. Somehow, she didn’t mind the dark forest she had left behind, looming gloomily above and back a fair distance. Maybe she was just glad to be rid of the place.

Poor Hecen though… she bit her lip, running her fingers along the rocky cliff face lining her path. For a weird glowy alien thing he really seemed pretty decent… if a little ‘off.’ But what else would I expect, really…

She shuddered, unbidden. She didn’t seem to be able to think about Hecen without thinking about Frank. All the same, she didn’t feel as bad as she thought she would. In fact she even felt hopeful…

About what though? She slowed her descent down the sloping pathway. Then she was stricken with the realization: she felt as if there was still a life in Frank’s body, a glowing token of his essential self… something she hadn’t thought of before but had subconsciously known was there at least since…

At least since I met Hecen… What if Frank was turning into a spirit, like Hecen had? Was that even possible? Why hadn’t she thought about it before?

She considered turning back and asking the being to tell her what was going on, but her heart and every strand of who she was recoiled in intense loathing and fear at the idea. And besides, she recognized, Hecen was apparently like the creatures she would soon be meeting in the city. Which meant that they probably knew at least as much as he did, if not more.

God I wish I just knew what the hell was going on sometimes. She kicked aside a small rock with a stiff swing of her leg. Not out of frustration, but out of numbness, and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

Hopefully, there would be answers once she reached the city. Though, looking at it realistically, she figured, she would only end up with more questions.

. . .


Light… golden light… Everywhere… Flowing through… Everything…

Am I…?

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