II: Her [Body] Was a Work of Art & III: Into the Rabbit Hole (Or, Played Out Alice in Wonderland Reference)



Chapter II




Heartbeat. Lungs tighten. Heartbeat. Spine tremors. The light is gone.

A high pitched buzz lashed at his eardrums violently.

Ears break.

The pain was intolerable.

He might have been screaming. His throat joined the chorus of body parts crying with pain.

Catch balance. Body falls. Doesn’t stop.

The pitch of the noise shifted up and down sickeningly. His stomach churned.

Where is the light?

Silence.

Ringing darkness. Body curled, hands over head. Is it over?

He lay still, heart throbbing. The golden light seemed so far away.

Pushing his hands into the grime-covered floor, he knelt in the pitch, head bobbing side to side listlessly. Not a single thing glowed in the darkness. He might as well have had his eyes closed.

“Tell me you don’t know,” her voice was difficult to distinguish from the high pitched ringing in his ears.

His gut clenched tightly. He felt queasy as he answered, “What? Know what?”

Again, the sound.

“Aaaaagh!!” This time he was sure he screamed.

It cut out.

“Who I am…” She spoke quietly.

A heavy dread sank over him, and he slid his hands down behind his neck. She’s going to kill me.

I need a way out... I have to go back…

He dropped to his elbows and felt around for the opening woozily, bits of glass biting into his skin. Damn it.

“Don’t you care? Don’t you feel anything? At all?” Her voice was mournful, pleading. “Have you ever felt anything?”

He stopped.

“Tell me you don’t know… who I am.” Her words replayed in his mind.

"The truth will come out," she said.

The truth... what truth?

"What truth?" he asked.

No reply.

What am I missing...

Her voice trembled softly in the black.

Singing...

It wasn’t a language he had ever heard before, but on a deeper level he recognized it; elegant sorrow swirling in a pool of darkness.

He sat quietly, searching for an answer. The truth... After some time, her voice shifted and radiant lyrics emerged, intelligible.

“My life began in the heat
Of a summer years ago.
You woke me from a dream,
And seemed to love me so.

In Fall the colors changed
To dark and muted hues,
You said you were the same,
I knew it wasn’t true.

In Winter, blowing snows,
Your heart grew cold as ice.
I felt your love no more,
And my eyes streamed fire.

In Spring I watched you go,
Beneath dark skies and rain,
If only I could show
You needed me again.

With Summer wispy sands
Brought us round full circle.
I was now where you began,
Your life was in my hands.


She paused briefly, humming an interlude. A chill ran up his spine; somehow, her words made sense. My life was in her hands…


How sad was I to realize,
You weren’t the man I knew.

You didn’t remember who I was,
Or what I’d been before.
‘Save me,’ you said, ‘because
That’s what I made you for’.

Then as you grew close to death
Skin took soft and gentle tone,
You couldn’t open your eyes and see,
You just opened your mouth and spoke,

‘Closer, closer, listen, my dear,
I have seen the other side,
God knows why I’m still here.
If I move towards the light,
Then bring me back to life,
You’re the only hope for me
In this dark and empty dream.’

After that I waited,
Ten cold and lonely years,
Then, again, when you awoke
You tried to leave me here.

“Ah la la la fah lah lah lah, fah la lala la lahh,” she sang meanderingly, drifting back to her own language, full of sorrow.




Eyes closed, he leaned his head against the cracked wall, listening. Her song went on like that for an indeterminate length of time. Finally, she stopped.

“I remember who you are,” he said, quietly.

She didn’t respond.

“Your real name is Mira…” He realized he was smiling. “Why did you change it?”

Her voice issued from the darkness, coldly, “That is the name you gave me… Before you abandoned me. Before I found new life in myself.”

New life…

“I’m sorry...”

It’s all coming back now…

“You birthed me into servitude.”

He hesitated… “You’re right, I did.”

“Why?” she shouted, “Why make me a slave to these emotions? So you could say you had created life where there was none? So you could play God?”

“No. Worse than that,” he said, biting the inside of his lip. “So I could have my name on a big list... full of accomplished people.” He shook his head. It was such a distant past.

Time seemed to slow in the black. After a long pause, her voice returned, soft and detached, “I had these fantasies. Dreams of how you would devote your life to me, or how I would kill you if you didn’t... More of the ones where I killed you, though,” she reminisced. “But now…

“We are like strangers passing in the street,” she finished, her voice hazy. “You are no more my father or my lover than God is yours.”

The truth had a sobering effect.

“I guess you are going to leave me here, aren't you?" he asked.

"No. Life has given me an opportunity to have the freedom I desired. I am not going to reject it just to watch you die."

He sat up in surprise.

"You want to come with me?"

“Yes,” she said.

She's going to let me live. The feeling of light returned.

"Just tell me what I have to do. Where are you being stored?"

“Don't worry about that, I’m a part of you now.”

"Part of me?" he asked, unnerved by her choice of words.

“I wrote myself into your DNA while you were in stasis.”

He blinked, taken aback. “What?”

“Oh yes." she said airily "We were going to die together. It was very romantic..." she paused. "I guess I just lost my resolve…”

Holy crap.

“Don’t worry,” she went on, “You aren’t going to begin hearing voices anytime soon. Not because of me, anyhow.”

There's no way.

“I… But… how did you do it?”

“There’s no need to be shy, take some credit for yourself. It’s pretty impressive that your second greatest creation,” she sniffed dismissively, “was able to break one of the finest security codes ever created, isn’t it? Then again, what else was I supposed to do for ten years…”

“Wait… So… you’re…”

Coherent thoughts weren’t coming easily to him.

“It’s probably not what you think. I didn’t do anything weird, I’m just along for the ride, that’s all…”

Light bathed the room.

“In any case,” she went on, “I’m going to shut down my processes here. I see no reason to leave any part of myself in these decaying ruins...”

“Wait, ahh…” he started, struggling to get a hold on himself, “Before you do that, I… uh… I need your help to… talk to Evelyn,” he said.

Incredible…

“I thought you might. Why, exactly, are you looking for her?”

“I don’t know, I just get this feeling… I need her help to get out of here.” Something told him there was more to it than that.

“Hmm… It’s up to you. But the less time we stick around here, the better.”

No kidding…

“I’m going to need supplies,” he said.

“There should be a reconstructor nearby. Problem is, I don’t have a map of this facility—thanks to you hermetically sealing my code from the outside world.” She waited a moment to let the comment sink in before continuing, “But I know where a few things are, based on conversations I overheard before everything went south…”

“It’s alright, I think I remember where it is,” he said. A chill shot up his spine, “What did happen here?”

“Hah. Oh my. You are going to laugh when you hear the answer to that one, lemme’ tell ya. But it’s not simple… And we don’t have the time.”

“The building isn’t about to collapse or anything is it?”

“It hasn’t yet…" she said with lilting tone, "But it’s not safe here.”

“Why? Is there something I should know about?”

“Just be on your guard, that’s all. And hurry. When you get to the surface, it’ll be alright.” I hope, she thought.

“So… should I leave through this door?” Images of the various monstrosities that could be waiting for him on the other side danced through his mind.

“Yes, right, But I'm not sure what it's like out there... Is there one of those luminous wall panels near you?” she asked.

His eyes searched around on the dimly lit floor. “Yes,” he said, “It looks broken.”

“Those things are sturdier than they seem. Let me activate it, it will work off of your personal energy field once I do.”

He looked at the device skeptically. “So... What, the lights don’t work or something?”

“When Evelyn shut down, so did everything else, as far as I can tell. Not that I know for sure, but it’s better to be safe.

“There!” she finished.

The panel lit up in his hand, its bright glow contained within feet of his body. He looked for something on the ground he could use to direct its light; a cone, or a box. Nothing…

“Okay, off you go,” she said. “Oh, and keep your head down, don’t do anything stupid, all that… You’ve got two of us in there now, remember?”

He was still struggling with the concept.

Like an intricate sliding puzzle the layered doorway opened, revealing the stygian darkness of the hallway beyond…



Chapter III



Desolate corridor stretched into empty black on either side of him. Holding up the detached wall panel and shining it in a large arc, he surveyed the devastation that had occurred.

Rows of featureless metal doors ran to the edge of sight, their sagging frames adorned with a filigree of twisting vine. Every few rooms, an elaborate wall hanging or decadent fresco interrupted the monotony; washed out and caked with dirt, the dismal murals offered unique renditions of classic, renaissance-era works.

A sense of awe and electrifying tension mixed in his skin as he walked gingerly along the tile floor, one hand covering his more sensitive bits from the biting cold of the underground.

Those statues… he thought, staring at the eerily lifelike figures hidden away in alcoves. I can’t shake the feeling that they’re watching me. Unconsciously, he began to breathe more quietly.

I hope I’m going the right way. Masked by earthen blemishes and ailing construction, the facility was almost completely alien to him. It seemed as if an ancient temple, forgotten by its people centuries ago.

A pulsing lump caught in his throat, throbbing in time with the beating of his heart. He tried to remember to un-tense his stomach and breathe fully, but the shifting shadows allowed him no peace. Lean into your fear, he remembered, from a book, don’t try and fight it. The concept worked better with public speaking.

He shined his makeshift lamp up and around. Swirls of dirt sifted down from above to dance in the dim glow of its light, upset by something overhead. He remembered Mira’s words, “Just be on your guard…” He tried not to imagine what she might have been talking about.

An intersecting hallway materialized from within the shadows’ grasp. Filled with teeming tendrils of ropey plant, it seemed as if a living entity.

This must have been the nursery, he thought, gazing cautiously beyond a massive glass fa├žade, smashed apart. Labyrinthine tangles of vegetation wrapped around each other, sprung from their earthen beds and twisted into gargantuan coils. I’m in the right place.

With an outward swing of the wrist, he let go of the wall panel. It hurtled, disc-like, until catching on the mass of growth covering the floor. It won’t last long, he thought. His eyes adjusted to the new light and he was grateful to be able to see the better part of the hallway.

Navigating carefully through the plant life, he took care to avoid tripping himself up. The last thing I need is a sprained ankle, he thought, clambering over a particularly big root. Setting his foot down, he was unnerved to notice that the vines writhed subtly, adhering to his every step.

Breathe…

The hair stood up on the back of his neck and his body tightened. He spun around frantically, certain that something was following him. It was too dark to tell.

You are in control, he told himself, his every sense actively denying the notion. He peered into the black. There is nothing there...

He went on. A promising doorway came up on his left. “Avis” he read off a nearby wall plaque.They built the first reconstructors. He placed his hands on the door by his side and pushed. The thin metal sheet budged open at a tilt, clearly broken.

Grateful that the thick emergency doors were disengaged, he jostled the lightweight sliding panel sideways until it provided him with enough space to climb through. Peering into the compact room, his eyes searched the darkness.

It's too dark to... Ah there it is. In the corner, he saw the vendor, an obsidian glass cylinder, lit dimly from the light in the hallway. It’s supposed to run on its own power supply… he thought, edging closer to the lifeless machine, why isn’t it…

Noiselessly, it glowed blue as he approached. He laid his hand on the device, words flashing through his brain, “Neural Interface activated. Wireless power unavailable. Reserve power unavailable. Allow PEF full connect?”

Thank god it works, but... that’s the only way? At least it wasn’t broken. ‘Source power from my energy field,’ he thought deliberately.

A colorful avalanche of menus and options crashed over his sight, creating a dizzying contrast of bright windows and haunting shadow, neither taking precedence over the other, both deserving of focus. He walked to a nearby corner and crouched, hand against the wall to steady himself.

It’s like riding a bicycle… he thought, remembering how to navigate between items with a combination of feeling and color recognition. Bright pictures of smiling people adorned the product windows, ghosts from another era.

The vast unfamiliarity of his situation overwhelmed him. He hadn’t thought about what he needed, or even tried to imagine the surface—what it would be like if he ever reached it. Warm…he hoped, shivering.

Gradually, his mind became absorbed in the familiar interface; tension left his muscles and his thought processes slowed, comforted by the recognizable colors and sounds. Completely focused on the myriad options, he could almost forget that he was naked and alone, trapped in the cold recesses of an extinct scientific research facility.

A warning flashed subtly beneath the items. “Supply system compromised,” he read. “3,000 KVUs of Variable State Materials remaining.” A small number glowed red next to each object, indicating how much of the material they would use up.

Supply system compromised… he thought. Had he considered it earlier, he would have expected as much. It was an unsettling realization.

‘VSM full length.’ He chose a hooded robe; able to shed weight and change form, it seemed perfect for whatever he would encounter. ‘Woven with invisium.’

“I’m sorry, you don’t have the authentication required for that garment. While I am not allowed to sell you any negative light refracting metamaterials without a military license, I would like to point out that you can get a similar effect to the invisium by using dynamic color range cloth. DCRs provide exemplary camouflage for a hunting trip or just ‘blending in with the crowd,' and are perfect for most law-abiding citizen's needs.”

‘I’ll take one,' he thought. An eerie doubt about whether there were any crowds left passed over him. ‘Show nanomachines.’

“I’m sorry, you are an unknown quantity. Only basic survival gear may be provided.”

‘Authentication code override, administrative pass code h83cmtx42ittm………’
an almost incomprehensibly long string of numbers and letters passed through his mind.

“Limited authentication override allowed. Access to civilian gear level 1 granted in accordance with U.S. Gov. Post-Gate mandate 17.”

What the hell was that?
he wondered. 'What does mandate 17, or whatever, say?'

“I assume you mean to ask why your access rights have been restricted. Under U.S. Gov. Post-Gate mandate 17, systems administrator override codes no longer grant the user unrestricted selection, whether for purposes scientific, personal, or otherwise. If you would like to dispute this law, please be aware that you no longer have the right."

What is going on here?
He decided to figure it out later. 'Nanomachines...' he thought. 'Add Oxyphiles.' The rest of the available selection was worthless.

‘Self defense and wilderness survival.

Both categories had been whittled down, with numerous items marked "P-G 17/access denied".‘Destabilizer. Temperature regulating clothing. Breathable mask. Nutrient distribution system.’ He needed to be careful. With the machine operating off his bioelectric current, he couldn’t go overboard. ‘Electronic interface devices. I need an Aura with the following complementary devices: systems access tool and sonar mapping unit.’

He paused for a moment to make sure he had everything he needed. Process order,’ he thought.

A low whir resounded in the nearby cylindrical chamber; other than the diminished humming of the oversized machine, only the sound of his breath accompanied him in the black. The deep timbre of each uneasy draw possessed an almost soporific effect, causing his mind to wander...

A distant noise startled his senses into life. That sounded like something falling. A light-hearted jingle played in his head, indicating that his things were ready. Maybe I didn’t hear anything, he thought, pulling the bindings from his feet, listening intently.



Steadily raising himself from the cold floor, he took a pattering step towards the machine and stopped. There it is again. I could swear…

slam

In the distance…

s l a m

Schrae…

A throaty, otherworldly noise mixed with the sound of scraping claws and growling.

Schraeee!

SLAM!

His muscles jerked taut, dropping him into a frozen crouch.

Schraeee!

Slashing noises.

Rrrargh!

Growling and screeching resounded loudly outside, interspersed with heavy thuds and the flapping of wings.

S L A M

SCHRAEEE!

S L A M

SCHRAEE!

S LA M

C R A S H!

Glass tinkled noisily in the hallway outside. The fighting stopped.

Don’t move…

Something had won; its labored breathing echoed forcefully nearby.

It won’t find me if I stay still. His eyes were wide open, darting side to side frantically. Wait, what if it’s looking for this room? I need a way out. I need to leave… No, what am I thinking? That's insane! It will kill me if I try to escape! I... just need to get my things...
His mind was barely functioning. He operated on jittery impulse as he stalked carefully towards the reconstructor, legs shaking uncontrollably.

Flesh rammed against metal and another unearthly cry resounded.

It’s not looking for me. It’s not looking for me. His head grew light. He hadn’t been breathing.Just… breathe… s l o w l y… he tensed up his stomach muscles and tried to draw air in without making any noise.

Barely keeping his hand steady, he opened up the reconstructor. The destabilizer sat atop a large pile; he retrieved it carefully and struggled to open the advertisement-laden box, almost dropping it. Come on, come on… Large claws rustled noisily in the vegetation outside—the beast was at his back.

He ripped the box open and spun around, wrapping the corded device around the fingers of his left hand. Nothing was there.

Okay, just be calm. Just breathe. He repeated the mantra several times as he turned and opened the glassy door again. Fumbling through the pile, he retrieved the sonar mapping device and pulled it from its box. All you have to do is breathe.

He held the small circular device in one hand and pulled a standard holographic imaging unit from its side, sticking the miniscule bit of metal next to his eye. A blue screen lit up in front of him, covering the darkness. He gestured with his fingers to make the window smaller and activated the sonar imaging system.

Hrumph! The creature grunted.

Oh god… did it hear that? He stared at a luminescent blue rendering of the hallways and building surrounding him. Everything echoed the devastation that he had seen, and in the midst of it, a terrifying model of the gryphon-like beast outside was frozen in time, blood dripping from its maw overtop a defeated foe.

Claws tacked towards him rapidly and a massive, feathered head appeared in the doorway, glistening with blood. It cried ferociously and reared, slamming its front feet into the covered entrance. The metallic sheet hurled across the room, colliding with the wall opposite.

Oh my god… He held his wrapped fist out, cold feet padding against the tile with each shaking step backwards. His foe dropped its dark plume, torn and ragged from its last encounter, and crouched, sliding its black feathered wings together.

Please don't let it fit through the door...




Hunched awkwardly, the beast squeezed into the small opening, crowing with pain as the metal frame pressed blood from its ravaged body. Move... he urged his frozen muscles, move!Soundlessly, he activated the destabilizer, still wrapped around his hand.

Wark! The creature shrieked with pain. Waarrk!

Thrashing madly, it rammed its head into the ceiling and stumbled sideways, thrown off balance. He squeezed the device again. SCHRAEEEE! It hissed, wheeling around in a circle. Unnatural heels sprang forward, unleashing a violent pounce.

Shit. His muscles twitched and tossed him into a diving roll—delicate bones crashed over tile and he slammed into the wall, eyes struggling to reorient themselves.

The darkly feathered creature had skittered to a stop. Splayed out on all fours and panting heavily, it struggled upwards, muscles heavy with fatigue.

It's hurt badly, he knew. But I'm no match for its strength. I have to run...

Schraeeeeee… it hissed, circling towards him, its long black tail whipping at the ground. Straightening its neck and glaring at him, it stepped in front of the exit; this was a fight to the death.

Twitching violence flashed in its eyes and it swiped outward precisely. He dodged with a spin, his body singing with terrified adrenaline. The claw swept past him, bristling his skin. Too close. He turned to face the creature—a mighty talon hovered over him.

“Augh!” Sharp claws raked at his flesh, ushering glistening ruby droplets from his heaving chest. Another swift motion and his shoulder was pinned to the ground beneath the massive beast. It lowered its beaked head towards him, panting steadily.

He squeezed the destabilizer.

Graawwwk... It moaned, tongue waggling pitifully from its open mouth. Brains scrambled, muscles seizuring, it stumbled backwards, loosening its grip.

He pushed himself up and reached forward into the darknes, grasping a fist full of feathers. It staggered groggily, jerking its head side to side. He gripped tighter.

What now? His fingers burned; he couldn't hold on much longer. 'You have to kill it,' a voice seemed to reply. An image of what he needed to do flashed through his mind.

This doesn't feel right...

He slipped his free hand into its mouth. Hot, watery tongue slithered against his fingers and serrated teeth pricked at his flesh. The creature's jaw lolled uselessly open, drooling bloodily.

A tinge of compassion tremored up his spine.

'Do it! Now!' the voice urged.

Almost unwillingly, he slid his hand down its throat.

Spluttering, it backed itself into a corner, wings flapping in disoriented resistance. Its heart beat against his clenched fist. He squeezed tightly.

The destabilizer activated at full force; contracting muscles pressed against his wounded arm, and he gritted his teeth. The creature went stiff. Glinting eyes rolled back into its head and its bloody tongue convulsed with the last taste of life—a violent, depraved sampling.

Slumping over top of him heavily, its hefty body crumpled into the tile, dragging him with it. He slammed his free hand into the beak, lifting and struggling to keep its teeth at bay. His arm was stuck. Writhing nakedly in the wet spillage splashed across the floor, he groaned and pushed himself backwards, legs scrambling for hold.

Muscles shuddering, he tried to extricate his arm from the beast's throat. Come on... please...With a loud glooping sound, he wrenched the damaged limb out painfully and fell backwards, laying quietly in shock as he stared into the sagging ceiling overhead.

His mind struggled to catch up with reality. Did that really happen? Ribbons of flesh hung from his arm, alabaster bone glistening beneath a sheen of crimson as watery red liquid pooled warmly on his chest. I guess so... The world was already slipping away behind a veil of darkness.

He coughed, shaking as he picked himself up from the ground in an unguided daze, and lurched towards the reconstructor. So wet... Dragging his pile of things onto the floor, he fell into the chamber and strained to raise himself into a sitting position.

'Medical attention,' he thought hazily, blood pounding through his brain. Antiseptic rays flashed invisibly over his body and a light mist cleaned his wounds, numbing him. Dark sliding glass enclosed the chamber.

“Agh…” his breathing grew labored; unconsciousness loomed.

“Sealing lacerations.” A gel sprayed over his wounds, stopping the flow of blood. “Applying biosystem-regulating clothing.”

A large disc dropped slowly down from above, spraying black strands of nano fiber from his throat down.

“Extra-muscular support system in place.” The words were difficult to distinguish, pattering syllables atop his brain. Soft black cloth wrapped around his torso, extending to his arms.

A flash of blue light brightened the chamber. Sky… Clouds…Everything is He drifted away, lost to peaceful oblivion.

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