Ch. XV, p.3

. . .

Maria clambered up a steep incline and into the daylight, eyes cast down, a lone hand wavering ahead to block out the sun. Her feet seemed to be moving her forward of their own accord, her mind in a swirling daze. Overloaded.

It was all too much for her to process. She gazed ahead.

My hand… she thought, looking at the outstretched limb. She drew it nearer to her chest and examined it alongside the other. So pale… The nanofibers had retracted and clumped around her shoulders. Her eyes wandered in disbelief over her arms, like the moon. Her beautiful olive skin had bleached away.

She was out of balance. Sick to her stomach. The weight of Frank’s body had become almost familiar, and now… She grasped at her shoulders, feeling nothing more than her own garments and... something silky and smooth.

His cloak… she realized, tugging at the cloth; soft in places, coarse in others. She pulled it over her shoulder and saw that it had taken the shape and form of auburn leaves. Probably some time ago. She pulled it fully over her herself and drew the hood over her head. Running her fingers through her hair, she held a soft swathe of the strands out in front of her eyes. Black as the empty night sky…

Then, walking three or four steps towards a tree and a soft patch of grass, she collapsed in a heap, giving herself to the great empty.

. . .

Even a pitch black house, so long as everything in its right place, is navigable by the most timid of people. But remove a chair or a jostle a table and all that fear, held barely at bay, comes crashing down. This is how Dominic felt as he swallowed, his breath shallow, body standing starkly still.

Berin wouldn’t have opened that door… He couldn’t have. Detroit, maybe… no, it doesn’t make sense… He swallowed again. His eyes were watering from being wide open for so long. I can’t stand here.

Instinct kicked in. He didn’t argue with it, pressing forward stealthily, his naysaying thoughts held stiffly at bay. A familiar room opened through the doorway: circular and tall, it held the appearance of space and endlessness. A faint glow of light seeping through his clasped hands threatened to give him away, but a subtle iridescence to the approaching room itself seemed great enough to keep any possible attention off of him. If anyone was in there, they shouldn’t be able to see him coming.

Sidling up to the doorway, he poked his head in slightly and took a look around. The place was falling apart; ceiling tiles smashed upon the floor, dirty patches and smears of black on the walls, and what looked like a body, slumped in the center overtop a metal spire of some sort…

Careful to note his points of exit, he slowly approached to examine the deceased. N7-OH body armor, an old pair of NVGs… Non neural-integration equipment… He touched the dead man’s head and felt it loll away from his fingers. He moved his hand slowly back. Shit… is he Apex or SATE?

Either way made sense. If he was SATE though, then the ancient equipment meant that everybody’s gear was disabled, not just his own. But there must be more to it than that…

A booming tremor shook the room, interrupting his thought. Off balance, he fell to his side, shocked by the intense noise that crumbled at the walls and ceiling. As the tremor dissipated, he struggled to stand, but managed only to make it halfway up before a hand clasped his mouth, another behind his head, and he felt himself being dragged roughly across the room, his feet swinging ineffectually in his wake.

“Mmph!!” he grunted, struggling to open his mouth against overpowering fingers.

“Quiet,” a deep voice demanded.

The hand slipped away from his lips for a moment.

“Ow, motherfu—agh!” The hands dragged him sideways and pressed him into the floor, his neck bending to the curvature of the wall as jagged bits of rock embedded themselves in his face. He struggled to get free, something smooth and cold pressing into his neck, and a sharp, stinging pain snapping at the base of his skull.

“Hngh…” he groaned.

“You hear me?” a voice asked in his mind.

He was woozy from the pain, but he understood immediately what had happened. A MentaLink… He nodded against the arms.

“I’d let you go,” the voice went on, “but, honest-to-God, right now I wouldn’t trust you to hold a door open for me.”

The words were scrambled, as if spoken through a whirring fan and then lowered a few decibels in case that weren’t enough to hide the speaker’s identity. But Dominic was sure he knew who the person was.

“Berin, let go,” he wheezed, his lungs feeling as if they might collapse under the weight of the other’s knee, pressed against them.

The heavy figure shifted and adjusted his grip before locking Dominic’s arms even more uncomfortably against the ground. At least, if it was Berin, he had responded somewhat favorably.

“I’m going to explain what is going on here, so just be cool and listen,” the voice said, “The civilians you sent here… They know me and they know I look out for them. So they’re safe. But I get the feeling that you,” he grunted, shifting his knee into Dominic’s side, “Well, you don’t care so much about them, do you?”

Dominic's muscles seized with pain. His suit should have resisted the force, but his aggressor appeared to be at least as well equipped. His nerves flared, punctuating the notion unpleasantly.

“I didn’t… I didn’t…” he gasped.

“However,” again, the figure pressed his knee downward, leaning an elbow heavily upon Dominic’s skull for good measure, “I understand you must have had your reasons for… using them as a distraction. And I respect that. But you see that guy there? Dead guy? I don’t want that to be me. Or Detroit. Or even you. So if we play nice together, we’ll all get out of this alive. And those civilians, too.”

Dominic tried his best to nod. Words were meaningless now.

The other man let up a little; even so, he was clearly in the position of control, and Dominic respected that power.

“Now, I don’t know what you and Detroit started here, but whatever it is that’s in those crates that you got him interested in must be pretty damn important, given the ruckus it’s caused. And if it were up to me, maybe we wouldn’t have decided to trouble with you. But Detroit’s got it in his head that he needs you alive and on our side, for whatever reason, so you have him to thank if we’re both still here tomorrow.”

At this point, he paused, letting up somewhat on the pressure. “But so help me God, I will fucking destroy you if I have to.”

And with that, he let go. And, coughing heavily, Dominic splayed out upon the cold floor, grateful for the air that he could breathe once more.

. . .

Frank stared down the dark creature approaching through the blinding light. He licked his lips, brain frantically searching for a solution to his dilemma.

“Hey,” he said nervously, “Hey. Hey! Hey!” The creature kept approaching. “What are you doing?” he shouted to the mysterious white being. “Help me!”

Something shifted in the air and the dark, winged creature stopped, taking a moment to lick its paws.

“Oh Frank,” said the bright figure, “You do make a wonderful plaything.”

Again the creature stared at him placidly before cawing and ruffling its black feathers in boredom. Padding restlessly away, it sat with a discontented harrumph. And although the creature was now curled harmlessly at a good distance, he was sure his heart was beating so fast it would soon have no choice but to stop entirely.

“You always were such a drama queen.”

“Where am I?” he demanded.

“I could tell you…” the figure said, a tone of femininity emerging in her voice, “but I think that would take some of the fun out of it… No, I’m going to let you figure it out for yourself.” She drew closer to him, the light dimming around her as she did. Then, her hands gently working with the straps at his chest, she said poutingly, “I didn’t think I’d get to see you again so soon. I’m glad.”

He stared at her in disbelief. “Calix... How in the world did you get here?”

To which she replied, “Why Frank, I’ve been here all along.”

Then she smiled and patted him twice on the chest, leaving him to figure out what the hell she meant by that.

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