VI: Exposition & VII: Apparently They Do, Phillip

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Chapter VI



Dominic trudged along. The same mountainside crushed and crumbled beneath his feet, slowly taking him back the way he had come.

He looked down. The young man in his arms was still unconscious; Sherrad had awoken earlier, but only had time to say “Morphine,” and give a ‘thumbs up’ sign before slipping into a drugged up coma. Dom didn’t say a word.

Climbing over the ridge and back down the way he came, he would occasionally look over his shoulder and scan the valley. Ever darker desert greeted him each time, soundlessly demonstrating that it was still devoid of life. He checked the time. 21:22… Four hours since he had seen Maria dashing up the stairs and out of sight; and soon after, her personal signal had just disappeared. He had waited for her as long as he could, searching the immediate area thoroughly, but he eventually had no choice but to leave.

Dom looked down at Sherrad, checking his wound. He had gone back and gotten the boy’s arm, wretched and bent in the bloody hallway, but it may have been a wasted effort. For some reason, the arm wouldn’t take—nanofiber strands were the only thing holding it to Sherrad’s body, locked in place by hardened armor. His internal medical systems should have taken over and begun to reattach the limb hours ago, but nothing happened.

Even more disconcerting were the details, outlined in a medical report shared between them—cell scans conducted within Sherrad’s suit indicated that the muscles were slowly disintegrating due to an unknown substance, introduced into his system at the time of his dismemberment. And as nano machines approached to reattach the limb, they were instantly dissolved by the strange liquid. There was nothing he could do.

Closing the diagnostic, he surveyed the mountainside for a place to stop and gather his thoughts. Nearby was a small plateau, formed of granite; it would do for now. Bathed in the light of the moon, he slid and thudded heavily down the mountainside, Maria once more on his mind. I’ll have to come back for her… he realized.

As if on cue, a message notice alit upon his heads-up display. He ground to a halt in surprise, struggling to steady himself.

“Dom, can you hear me? Dom?”

“Maria, where are you? I’ve been trying to reach your for hours,” he spoke aloud, voice reverberating with bewilderment.

“If… Message… Camp…” It was just a recording, and it was dropping words, cutting in and out. He strained to listen, but nothing useful came through.

Time stamped… Four hours ago. Same as the time she left.

He ran a source scan, trying to determine her position. The location wasn’t far from him, he should be able to see it, he knew. After laying down his burden, he ran swiftly back up the mountainside and scanned the valley once more. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the origin of the call, and a miniscule camera attached over his shoulder zoomed in, detailing the spot with a shimmering hologram.

How in hell… he wondered. Just off the end of a distant walkway, a ghostly play of colors swirled in a dark sphere, suspended over the desert floor, barely visible. And according to his equipment, Maria was right there, somehow suspended in mid air.

But he knew better than to think it was anything useful. He shook his head, muttering, “Damn it, just another damn anomaly,” and shuffled back down the hill, convinced that he was back at square one.


. . .


They had been walking for hours, the sun dropping gently towards the horizon as they crossed lush terrain, flattened and trampled by unknown traffic into winding paths. Maria kept the hope that they would suddenly find themselves back in their own world, back where she could finish her task; but another part of her mind stirred with excitement, cautiously hopeful about what they might find hidden beyond this unending forest.

“Does it seem darker to you than it should?” he asked.

She hadn’t noticed it before. The sun hadn’t set, but its light seemed to diffuse upon the leafy canopy of branches overhead, scattered before it could reach the forest floor. “Yeah, it’s like there’s a shroud over us…”’

“And I can’t hear birds anymore.”

“Because there aren’t any,” she said, “Scans come up empty… We’re all alone.”

“Feels weird.”

“I’m sure it’s nothing. There’re all sorts of anomalies in these places, light distortion being one of the more common ones… The animals probably just prefer the sun.” He’s right though… there’s definitely something strange about these woods… something I’m not seeing yet.

“We’re still heading south west,” she said, “The city can’t be more than a day’s walk from here.”

“Any idea what we’ll find when we get there?”

“I don’t know. This is completely new to me… Probably another civilization.” She heard the words coming out of her mouth, but it was hard to comprehend them. “It’s pretty terrifying, when you think about it. Could be anything.”

“What about humans?”

“Well, yeah, it’s more than likely.” She turned around and waited; he was lagging behind. “Or something humanoid. Maybe their civilization died off too. It looked so empty.”

“It was eerie,” he said, steadying himself against a broad tree trunk, “but who knows… maybe we’ll find ourselves.” Steadying himself, he leapt over a large bush and trundled to her side, almost falling.

She reached out and helped him stand up. He still seemed a little disoriented. “How you feeling?”

“Fine,” he said, panting. “Thanks. Still getting the hang of everything.” He stood up and nodded at her to go on. I was her guide and teacher. Now I’m lost.

“How long have things been this way?” he asked.

“I don’t know. We all lost a lot of time… years, even.” They jogged onto a level path, ducking beneath branches and dodging around rocks, talking when they could. “I’ve been trying to piece it together, based on what other people remember, but so much of what they say is unreliable.”

“You lost a lot of time? What do you mean?”

“It’s hard to explain… The last thing I remember was packing.” A reminiscent smile snuck onto her lips. “For a trip. I don’t even remember where, but I’m pretty sure it must have been New York, because then… God it still sounds strange… one day, there I am, all alone in the middle of Manhattan.”

“What? Are you serious?” he laughed at the absurdity of her words.

“Yeah, well, imagine what it’s like to be in that situation… And in between there were these muddled faces and sounds, mucked up into a gray mess that didn’t seem to mean anything, one way or the other. I thought I’d died and gone to hell.”

“And you’re sure you didn’t? Die, I mean?”

“How could you ever be sure of something like that? But I was sure it had to be hell… Death has always been a part of life… for three years though it’s been a part of every day.” She spoke almost casually, as if she were describing an unremarkable meal, or bemoaning the weather of a slightly-too-cool day. “You never get used to it. You just get better at moving on.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to laugh… It’s difficult to get my head around all this...”

“It’s okay,” she said, showing little emotion, “It’s all in the past.”

They continued in silence, navigating down a tangled slope. When they reached level ground again, he asked, “So what happened next?”

“I wandered the city for weeks without ever seeing a soul,” her skin crawled at the memory. “I remember the sky… it was solid gray the whole time, and there wasn’t any rain or any wind. But it wasn’t hot either. I don’t remember eating or sleeping… I must have though. But it might have been a dream, I don’t really know…” I only know
    this
,
    right now
, she thought, determined not to be sucked into the past again. “Then, one day, people started to appear. Sometimes alone and sometimes in packs—”

“What? Out of thin air or something?”

“Just listen, would you? I’m getting there… But, yes, something like that. We call them drop-ins. We still get a few, even now—people who just appear in a city, or wandering in the woods or something, who don’t remember a thing since around 2036. It’s the last year I remember, too, before the shift…”

They came to a steep incline and she paused in her story to navigate upwards carefully, tugging on stiff brown roots in an effort not to slide on the dark, crumbly soil. Coming to a plateau, she reached a hand down and helped him up.

“So, anyways,” she said, grunting as she dragged him up, “I spent the next seven or eight months drifting from one group of survivors to the next. Teachers, farmers, doctors, politicians, whoever… it doesn’t really matter what they used to call themselves. Everybody is a survivor or a fighter or dead.”

“How did you stay alive? Whoa—” he slipped backwards, struggling to keep a hold on her hand. She gripped a tangle of roots jutting from the earth below and pulled him upright steadily, placing a hand on his back and guiding him away from the edge.

“How you feeling?” she asked again, “Alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

She nodded at him. He looked far more fatigued than he was letting on. “Okay,” she said, motioning to him to follow.

She continued speaking. “The strange thing is, I don’t really have an answer for you. I just took things one day at a time and tried not to think about it all too much… There is plenty of food and water… power… most of our resource gathering infrastructure intact… But people are people, and the shift brought out the ‘fucked up’ in a lot of them. They wanted control, dominion over each other, and they cut off food supplies, hijacked A.I. systems, raided farms, warehouses, whatever… There was a lot of killing, especially with fresh drop-ins.”

“Is that where the term drop-in comes from?”

“Yeah, actually. It does have something of a transient quality to it, doesn’t it?” As she spoke, she turned on her Aura. The creeping shadows were thick and heavy. “Anyways, one thing led to another and eventually I…” she stopped. Suddenly, she couldn’t see much past the tips of her fingers. “Say, it’s getting awfully dark. Does your Aura work?”

“No, I was just noticing that. Everything looks really dull with it on, but I still can’t see.”

She scanned the surrounding area again. Nothing. “We’re alone still… So that’s good.” She switched on a bright flashlight attached to her shoulder. It was meant for blinding an opponent, but still served its original purpose well. “It’s these woods… We need to find a camp ground and wait until sunrise. Someplace more open than this.”

They pressed forward into the encompassing darkness, trees packed tightly all around them. The black was so dense it weighed upon their eyes themselves, unyielding to the bright call of her flashlight. They talked quieter now, saying less. They could feel an unmentionable presence in their air, lingering all around them; but speaking about it would make it become real, and neither mentioned it.

It’s just my fear of the dark, that’s all, she thought.

Just keep going. You’ll be fine, there’s nothing here, he reassured himself.

More than once, the stygian black tripped them up; snagging at their feet; forcing them to stumble; forcing them to crawl. The forest seemed to grow more chaotic as they went, swathed with an impenetrable thickness. But they went on, a lingering sense of fear kept barely at bay.

After a long while, he said, “So…” Even whispering, his voice sounded far too loud, and he went quiet again. Eventually, he continued, “What were you doing out here? We’re a long way from New York.”

She took a moment to respond, conscious of the same loudness in their voices. “I told you about Discovery, the reconnaissance group I joined.” She stopped, listening intently. But there was nothing. What am I so afraid of?

“And?”

“It’s a governmental entity, tasked with exploring the New Frontier; or, re-exploring the west and mid-west. But none of us really cared about that… We… I… just needed something to keep me going, and I thought doing this would help. And at some point I realized I could use them to find you. That’s what really kept me going all this time.”

She sounded like she meant it. He peered at her face, ghostlike in the bright white of her flash light, and caught a glimmer of a smile, drawn with sincerity. How did she know I would be there? he wondered. But another question caught his tongue. “You said you work for the government… In Genesys, I couldn’t buy certain things from the reconstructor; weapons mostly… because of a Government Mandate called ‘Post-Gate 17.’ ”

“Ah, yes,” she stopped casting her light over the area. “They’re sometimes called ‘Post-Shift’ mandates. It’s a common theory that there actually is no human run government anymore. Most of us believe that an A.I. structure replaced the human organizations once in power; it’s the only way to really explain how the thing still exists.”

“We should keep going,” he said, leery of being immobile for too long.

She nodded in agreement and continued heading south east. “From the first moment I can remember after the shift, there were these mandates, remarkable in their thoroughness. Which is a large part of the reason that most of us believe it’s an A.I. run government; there simply wasn’t time for any person to organize something like that.”

“But how would you know?”

“Because, I was one of the first drops… some call us firsties or ‘special drops, and—”

“Special drops?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad to see people have retained their sense of humor.”

“Right... Well, my point is, we were the first in, but somehow, there was already this extensive rule set imposed by some unseen entity, manipulating and limiting the amount of freedom at our disposal. It simply couldn’t have been done by a human; not to mention the psychological impact this all has on a person.”

“Has anyone tried to find the A.I. foundation?”

“Of course. Subversion groups are formed all over the place. Some more organized than others… and one so well organized you’d think they’d been waiting for this to happen. That second group calls themselves ‘Apex.’ ”

“Why Apex?”

“I don’t know. Hubris, maybe. I didn’t spend enough time with them to find out. They’re a little frightening… Gave off a pretty heavy fundamentalist-religious kind of vibe.”

He had never been a fan of ‘fundamentalists’. “Pretence and rigid belief have always been comfortable bedfellows,” he said, feigning a haughty air.

“Well, I’m glad to see you still have your sense of humor, too. Just keep it to yourself around them because they’d probably kill you.”

“Okay.”

“I’m serious!”

“Alright, alright…” He was growing used to their voices again. The darkness didn’t feel so oppressive. “So why ‘Post-Gate’?” he asked. “What ‘gate’ are they referring to?”

“The Akasani Cross. It’s this massive structure orbiting Earth. You can see it sometimes at night… though I guess you’d need to be back in our world for that.”

“That’s—”

“Sh!” She quieted him, whispering raspily. “Do you hear that…”

He did. Rustling in the bushes.

They stood completely still, on edge. Whatever it was, their sensors should have caught it long ago. She felt naked in the glow of her flashlight, its rays caught on the eyes of the forest’s inhabitants.

“They can’t hurt us,” she said, trying not to let her fear show.

“What about your friend…” he mouthed slowly.

“Quiet. Cover up.”

He did as he was told. Mask, he thought. Trickling strands of black crawled up his face, light and rubbery against his skin. He looked over at her—fully covered. She was more worried than she let on, he felt, standing close to her.

But she still knows what’s going on better than I do, he thought. ‘Are you sure? Can you really trust her?’ a second voice responded from the back of his mind. I have to... I don’t have any other choice.

“Let’s go,” she said.

He trailed close behind her, the forest quietly following their every step.


. . .


Dom couldn’t sleep, but he couldn’t go on, either. It wasn’t that he was tired, or needed the rest physically. But mentally, it had been a difficult day. He peered at Sherrad, sleeping peacefully beneath the light of the moon. We couldn’t have seen that coming.

He reached into his gear and pulled out a small notebook, its pages ruffled with use. Unclipping a pen, he flipped it open near the back. He was beginning to run out of pages.

“There is a garden in my soul,” he wrote. “Tending to it has become difficult; Powdered black. Fed with blood. Beneath it all the seeds are the same. Only the world has changed.” Inky lines danced across the pages, only slightly muddled by his unsteady hand. He flexed his fingers, stiff from stress.

Life has this way, he thought, gazing deep into the night, imperturbable, unalterable, unyielding... And it comes with a softness, a guiding hand. Our problem is that we don’t know how to listen, and we like to fight. He groaned and fell backwards into the dirt, arms spread out. I need to listen better… He smiled at the thought and closed his eyes. Aside from a few things, it had really been a pretty good day.

. . .


Branches cracked and leaves rustled beneath skittering paws, deafeningly loud in the otherwise silent forest. The creatures merely watched, ducking below the bright beams of flashlights and perking up at the sound of talk.

“We’re completely exposed,” said one of the humans, his voice crying with doubt.

“I know,” the other replied. “Not much farther now.” She sounded sick of her charge. So much responsibility, keeping him alive. It shouldn’t have been hers to bear.

The words didn’t mean much to the creatures, but they listened anyways, remembering every inflection. They cackled beneath their breath, jaws mucky with saliva, ‘I know, I know… Exposed… Not much farther now… Completely exposed.’ The sounds were so new and so fun, whispered with hushed reverence for their mysterious origin.

“How do you know?” Asked the one with the deep voice.

The female replied, “I don’t, alright? But we better hope I’m right.”

“What are we looking for?” He was perturbed. They could feel him, could feel his disappointment. And they could feel his darkness; something he didn’t know was there; only suspected.

“A clearing. Where I can prop an energy tent.”

A heavy pall of despair hung over the male. He tried not to show it. But they could smell it. He reeked of it. “I don’t know…” he said, “I think we should just go on.”

‘Just go on,’ they cackled at each other, tongues lolling from their mouths, ‘Heheheheh, just go on.’

The male turned every which way, startled. “Did you hear that?”

They cackled again, darting limberly through the brush and overgrowth. These humans were slow. Slow and dumb. Dead on the spot if HE wanted.

She replied, “Keep going for now… we’ll find a place to stop soon. We can’t make much progress, stumbling around in this pitch.”

The pair came to a tract of bushes, falling and flailing, the man’s cape snagging on jutting twigs and thorns. He complains but she says it’s the right way. She seems to know what she’s doing.

The creatures climb swiftly into the obsidian canopy of dark tree branches swaying overhead. The humans’ spirit has been crushed; they are tired and weary. If only HE would signal them, if only HE would let them know… they would coo and purr and thank him, their hearts swelling; they would give him their love, and then they would drop from the branches, sweeping flashes of darkness, and they would tear the limbs from the humans’ bodies and suck the flesh from their bones. Oh pure joy! Oh rapture gifted from the Gods! Oh that sweet mortal ambrosia, unrivaled but in paradise on high! How had they ever lived without it…

They salivated as one being, their haunches twitching with anticipation. All it took was a push, and the thrill of the chase was theirs… but he was so quiet. Just waiting. Just watching. And so they followed his lead; They were his eyes and ears. If only they were his mouth, too, they just knew HE couldn’t have resisted…

The humans crashed through the bushes, nearly piling on top of each other in a grassy clearing. Clumsy. They gibbered excitedly to each other, pointing to a nearby cave, bored into a darkly decorated hill, overrun with gnarled trees. The woman knelt in the middle of the field and pressed a small rod into the soft earth.

“It’s ready,” she said, pushing down.

An invisible force knocked the creatures back, their skin crying with pain. They dropped to the ground and scattered, watching angrily from the bushes, their teeth bared and their fur raised. They wanted death for those humans, now that they had lost the chance… But they would wait. They were ever patient.

But not for this. The humans talked some more and then the most horrifying thing happened—they walked into the cave. That was the end of it. HE would have to do his own work now.

. . .

“Aura works,” he said, sepia casting aside the shadows. The rocky walls of the compact space glistened with moisture from an unseen source and dwarfish stalactites reached down towards his head. All around, he could feel a light draft, seeming to come from nowhere in particular. “It’s pretty well closed off in here. Shouldn’t be hard for one of us to keep an eye out front.”

“That’s not really necessary. I set up a perimeter; it should alert us if anything tries to cross through... But, you know, knock on wood, and all that.”

“That’s inspiring… I’ll keep watch. I feel pretty awake after being asleep for what was it…”

“Six years.”

“Jesus. And you’ve been awake, coherent, whatever for…”

“Three.”

He shook his head heavily. “Man… I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to this.”

“You will,” she said simply. “One day, you will wake up and wonder if things were ever any other way.” She sat and crossed her legs, eyeing him curiously. There was a remnant of herself in that man, wild eyed and wary. She didn’t miss the naivety, for the most part.

“We should take stock of our possessions,” she said, unstrapping a few things and laying the objects between them. “I have enough supplies for about two weeks; a week between the two of us.”

He eyed her up and down. Sleek, fitted armor covered her from the chest down, marked in intervals by straps and packets, interrupted by unnaturally curved sections. She didn’t appear fit for long term survival. Then again, neither did he.

“Well,” he said, laying out his cloak and digging through its folds, “Aura, SAT tool, SMD… Oxyphiles. I don’t have much else.”

“It’s okay, we’ll have to share my endess and nutrients… that’s really all we need.”

“What’s an endess?”

“Oh, sorry. That’s kind of a new word. Since the split, nutrient distribution systems have become a lot more common, so I guess we get slang for it now.”

“Oh, I have one of those,” he said, surprised at his own efficacy. Reaching behind himself he pressed a hand against his side and felt a small lump. “Yeah, it’s here. I got one at the vendor and… Oh I forgot to get food.”

“Well, I’m sure there’s some good foraging around here if we need it. In any case, that city can’t be more than a day or two away.”

“I’ll induct these oxyphiles tonight. We can cover more ground that way.”

“You haven’t used them yet?” she said in surprise.

“Nah, I haven’t had the chance.”

“I was wondering why you were so out of breath. I thought it was just from a half decade of inactivity.”

“That too, I’m sure…” He looked outside contemplatively. “So, what are we doing? Just waiting for daybreak?”

“Basically. It’ll be nice to get some sleep. I’ve been cycling my serotonin for a week now,” she said, eyes heavy with exhaustion. “I miss dreaming.” She threw back her head and sighed contentedly.

He had been so tense, but seeing her relax had a calming effect on him… She had always had that kind of steadying presence about her. He smiled blithely, “Remember when we did that working on Eden? I don’t think either of us slept for a month.”

She warmed and brightened at his words. “Now there’s something I wouldn’t care to go through again. I was like a zombie by the end of it, ‘Yes sir, No sir’… But it was worth it, eh?” she said, leaning forward and hitting him on the shoulder, “Ended up saving your life.”

“It did, didn’t it… I just… I don’t remember…”

“Why you were there?”

He nodded.

“I wish I could tell you… But I only ever saw the symptoms. Someone else made all the decisions”

“Symptoms? Of what?”

“Well…” She paused, unsure of how much to tell him. You almost died... she was careful to maintain eye contact, smile, and breathe steadily. If not for Calix and me… “I can’t really say… I wasn’t involved too heavily. I just saw some reports and gave the occasional piece of advice.”

“So you don’t know anything?”

“Only that Genesys ordered toxicological reports on you almost immediately.”

“They thought I’d been poisoned?”

“Oh, they were sure of it.” Damn it… she shouldn’t have let that slip. He didn’t need that hanging over him. “But they never found anything,” she added hurriedly.

I can’t remember… Except… In memory, glass shattered on a concrete floor, scattering. He felt his heart stop, knees crashing to the ground. Ghosts of the event wrenched at his chest and he caught his breath.

“You okay? You look pale.”

“I’m fine, just a little light headed…”

He merely nodded, saying, “That makes sense, actually…”

I wonder what he means, ‘That makes sense’… What does he know?

“Get some rest, okay?” he went on. “I’ll go watch the front.”

“Looks like the field is holding…” she said. “Should wake me up if anything passes through, but… well, thanks.” She leaned forward and wrapped her arms around him tightly for a moment. In all their gear, she had the distinct impression that they were two mannequins locked in plastic embrace.

“Sure. See you in the morning, then.”

Maria reclined on the floor of the cave and ran a series of protection routines. Her armor hardened, her mask reseated itself, and slowly vibrating fibers warmed her skin. She felt her lungs relax and closed her eyes. Then a series of drugs flowed into her system, freeing her of the day’s terrifying memories, and she was loosed upon dream.


. . .


Dom startled awake. He didn’t realize that he had nodded off. He shouldn’t have been so careless.

“Sherrad!” he shouted, sitting up. The darkness swarmed confusingly all around him, dark shapes dancing in front of his eyes. And in the distance, he saw a bright column of light.

“She’s gone, isn’t she…” A voice said, not too far away.

Dom’s mind pieced the black together, everything falling into place. He got up and walked over to the shadowy figure, dark against the waning moon. “Yeah,” he said, placing a hand on the other man’s shoulder and sitting next to him.

“Ah well… I guess it had to happen sometime,” Sherrad moaned airily, “Perfect love cannot be forever.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Alright. It’s a little weird, you know? Every day of your life, you wake up and you have two of everything, two legs, two arms, two eyes. And then one of those stops working and… it’s just the strangest feeling, you know? Not really good or bad, just… strange.”

“Yeah? It doesn’t hurt or anything? You don’t feel nauseous?”

“I’m fine,” he lied. Thinking about it made his stomach churn.

“Sorry I couldn’t do more for you.”

“It’s okay. Edwards can handle it. We just have to head that way,” he said, lifting his severed arm and using it to point into the distance.

“Gross.”

“Hah, isn’t it? Sorry, I know you know which way to go. I just wanted an excuse to do that.”

“We’ll get you home.”

“We should find out what that light is,” he said, nodding towards the white column up ahead.

“Yeah? Okay.” Dom stood and offered his hand. He pulled the boy up and together they continued down the hill, silently breathing in the night.





Chapter VII



Frank Marrus sat in the entrance of the cave, mulling over the events of the day. Slowly, carefully, so as not to overburden himself with too many thoughts all at once. Even then, his stomach felt queasy and tight. He tried to loosen up, and then set to pondering.

Okay… I woke up in Genesys, which used to be my home, really, he started, images of people he knew and places he went accompanying the words. It was destroyed. All of it. And right there, he stopped. He didn’t know it, but he was grinding his teeth together, as if it would help him to comprehend the gravity of his situation. Everything was destroyed… Everything I’ve ever known…

He felt as if his body was suspended, floating in an empty chasm. But nothing clicked; he believed just as strongly that everything was the same as he had left it as he did that everything was inextricably altered. Or maybe it’s both, he thought, looking over his shoulder at Maria. He did it slowly, allowing ample space between his thoughts and actions. She is the same, I can tell… But also completely different. Experience had changed her in ways he could only begin to comprehend.

But what about me… Have I changed too? His hands still buzzed with the memory of killing a vicious animal. His heart, too; the repulsion he felt, dealing death to that creature. And the voice in the back of his mind, urging him to do it—it seemed almost like a separate part of him… and he remembered his callous comment to Maria, when he said that the creatures must have been created by an artist. The same creatures that had possibly killed her friend. So now I’m a sadist, too. He put his head in his hands and shut his eyes tight.

He couldn’t deal with this new ‘self,’ and so he decided not to, letting his mind wander as it would. He thought of home—Genesys, the way it used to be. He thought of Maria and the first time he met her… and her absolute fascination with him.

But everyone had that. He was a fascinating person.

Or had been, he reminded himself. Being “Mister Mystery,” as many of his coworkers had referred to him, didn’t mean a whole lot right now… in fact, it might have been nice to remember where he was born, who his family was, why his mind worked the way it did, and that sort of thing—maybe it would have brought him more of that cold comfort he was so desperately seeking in his past.

Still, their congratulating words and hushed speculation about who or what he really was came flooding back into his mind. He couldn’t help it—there was something intoxicating about reliving his glory days while firmly planted on the doorstep of an unfamiliar cave on an unfamiliar world. And while he wouldn’t apply much serious thought to the subject in the moment, it had crossed his mind that he was possibly billions of light years from home; or maybe only inches, if he was merely in a separate, overlapping universe…

He smiled wryly. This was what he had been working towards for so many years. He and… Doctor Kerry.

He blinked twice, sitting up straight. “Doctor Kerry!” he whispered excitedly under his breath. He had hardly thought about his task since conversing with Eve in the security room eight hours earlier. Immediately, he felt a surge of direction, like a bright light piercing his meandering thoughts.

Tumbling questions about where this was all going poured into existence: What file am I carrying? A message? A program? What has Doctor Kerry been doing all this time I’ve been asleep? If she’s really alive? I have to find her.

Right then, he knew what Maria had meant when she said that deciding to find him was what had kept her going. It wasn’t that he was particularly special to Maria; or, probably not, anyways. It was that she had an objective, something concrete to hold on to when the darkness was at its blackest.

But, he realized, discouraged, there was nothing he could do about it right now. No matter the result of finding Doctor Kerry, he was worlds away from her. He sighed and closed his eyes, rather done with thinking for the day… night... whatever it was.

It doesn’t really matter, he finished, his mind giving itself to gentle oblivion.

. . .

The dark night and its vast multitude of twinkling stars grew hazy beyond the growing light of an early morning sun. Dominic looked skyward and saw a gleaming object, bigger than the stars but much smaller than the moon, slowly beginning to disappear. “They must be doing work on the gate,” he said. “You can see it again.”

Sherrad followed his gaze to the object, hovering in the distance. “I wonder how they keep it up there. I heard that it’s not in Earth’s orbit…” he paused, licking his dry lips. “Kind of like it’s almost not there at all, but we can just see it. Like a mirage, or a hologram.”

“Who knows… Just one of those mysteries, I guess.” Dom turned around and looked far into the distance, back they way they came.

Sherrad knew immediately what he was thinking about. “Think we should go back and look for her?”

He took a moment to reply. “We will.”

They continued forward into a sparsely populated forest. There was no use talking it out—Sherrad would inevitably want to go look for Maria immediately; some ancient sense of chivalry no doubt demanded it. But the young man’s wound wasn’t getting any better. In fact, Dom realized, checking a fresh set of scans, it was quite a lot worse—whatever was on that creature’s claws, it wasn’t natural.

Their feet padded through the duff created by fallen pine needles and dirt softened by growing plants and scurrying animals. It wasn’t far now to the column of light they had seen, bright white and radiant in the empty night sky.

They had seen this kind of light before; usually, it was employed as a distress signal. Sometimes, smugglers would flash it briefly, allowing a manually driven airplane to pinpoint their location for a drop. Dom thought it was likely the second thing—hours earlier, while he was sleeping, his gear had detected a propeller driven vehicle in the sky, as well as the thud of objects crashing into the earth in the distance. It made sense, then, that it was smugglers. But why would they have left the light on?

“Could be their operation was cut short. Maybe government agents got to them, or scavengers, ” Sherrad had suggested earlier. “Maybe they left something good behind… You know, whatever wasn’t confiscated or stolen.”

He had agreed at the time, but now, as they grew closer to the abandoned light, he began to feel a sense that something twisted had occurred. Just my imagination, he thought, treading on.

Presently, they were emerging over the top of a soft hill, a gentle rise in an otherwise flat area. The white light played skyward, just on the other side and… Oh…

“Definitely smugglers,” Sherrad said, eyeing the clearing in the trees not too far below. Two large metal boxes lay in the center of the clearing, still glistening with a heat-deactivating gel.

“Impact Dispersion Systems…” Dom said, noting the ends of the boxes, fanned out like open satellite dishes where a bursts of heat had been released to redirect the force of the impact. “Not your common criminals.”

They proceeded carefully towards the site. From the looks of it, nothing had been taken. The lids on the boxes had been disengaged, but, even from a distance, it was plain to see that the contents were still intact, filling the containers up to their silver brims. That, coupled with the light, still on, was troubling.

“Wait… this could be an ambush,” Sherrad said, stopping him with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“It’s something else.” He pointed, “Look.”

Sherrad did. And suddenly, things made even less sense. Not too far away from the boxes were four bodies, lying nearly in a row. Dom raised his rifle and went to examine them, leaving Sherrad with the smuggled goods.

From what he could tell, all four of them were men, facedown and half-naked in the dirt. And all wore the same type of jacket—bright red with a gold band encircling the upper arm. It seemed familiar, but he couldn’t remember where he had seen something like that before.

He crouched down next to one of the bodies and examined it carefully: Bullet wound to the back of the head… Large caliber… He lifted the dead man’s arm, which covered something black and metallic looking; M7-A, pulse-acceleration rifle… Looks like it was put down intentionally. He craned his neck to look at the other dead—they all had the same rifle, lain parallel to their bodies. He lifted the body to roll it over, grimacing as he noted how the back of the head was mushy and caved-in beneath the man’s dark hair, soaked in blood.

And there’s the exit wound… he thought, greeted with an indistinguishable face. What used to be a face, anyways.

He unzipped the man’s red jacket and examined his bare chest. Fitted for Astreya... He paused, examining a series of attachment-points, indicated by circular arrangements of black dots, X701 body armor... That’s better than what I’m wearing. Behind him, he heard footsteps approaching.

“Scavengers?” asked Sherrad.

“No,” he replied grimly. “Scavengers wouldn’t have been able to handle a force like this. We’re lucky we didn’t find them alive.”

“Looks like they gave up without much of a fight.”

“Looks that way... But this fellow here was shot twice—once in the gut, once in the back of the head. It’s strange though, he wasn’t wearing the jacket when he took the first bullet. See?” he said, pointing to the wound in the man’s gut and then displaying the overlapping section of jacket.

“There’s no hole.” Sherrad crouched to get a better look.

“Which means they were dressed to be executed.”

“Or undressed, depending on how you look at it.”

“Yeah. Plus, whoever did this took their body armor, but left their rifles.”

“Why would they do that?”

“It was high quality armor… Superior rifles, too… The only thing I can think of is that they left the rifles as a show of respect.” On a hunch, he lifted the man’s arm and rolled back the sleeve. Tattooed just above the wrist, on the inside, was a capital “A,” a sun suspended in the triangle. Suddenly, he remembered where he had seen those jackets before. “Apex… Sherrad, what was in those crates?”

“Nano Machines and…”His face lit up with understanding. “Apex members aren’t allowed to use high-technology. These men were killed as an example…”

“Agreed.”

“And there was a fifth, too. Over there,” said Sherrad, pointing near a cluster of bushes back the way he had come. “He didn’t have a jacket or a rifle.”

“Must have been their leader. Probably the one who ordered the drop.”

“Yeah. His eyes and tongue were cut out. Knife wounds all over the upper body.”

“He bleed to death?

“Bludgeoned. With a rock. His face was still in better condition than these guy’s. Maybe we can get an I.D. on him in Idest.”

“Worth a shot.” Dom stood and looked around the clearing again. “We should go. We can make it back to the city by nightfall if we hurry.”

“What about the goods? The nanomachines are unmarked and unregistered.”

And he had thought things couldn’t get any stranger. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, completely. These have got to be custom manufactures.”

Nanomachines were rare. Unmarked, unregistered nanomachines with any level of value were unheard of. But if anybody found out… they were as good as dead.

“We’ll take as many stacks as we can carry,” he said, “leave the guns, and dump the coordinates in Idest. We’re going to need this to barter with the doctor.”

It was a reckless decision and he knew it—there was no way they would pull this off clean. But his body was shaking with excitement. He had missed the rush.

. . .


In dream…

A gray road extends in either direction. To his left, he sees a gray-lit forest, dark trees hanging over the cold asphalt. To his right is a city, illuminated brilliantly with strafing spotlights and garish neon signs climbing high up the tall clusters of buildings. Cold steel and dark windows cast an imposing visage, and he can detect a faint aura of electric blue, emanating from an unknown source.

He looks forward and back—interminable darkness shrouds the land, rising into towering mountains far in the distance. There are only two ways he can go, and the next thing he knows he is headed for the forest. Its ashen trees provide some small comfort that the city cannot.

The road passes by quickly, sided by a mélange of images: more trees, ashen grass, rocks, a dully sparkling ocean, flowing into a great, crescent shaped dip in the cliff side. But the country landscape is uninteresting; color has been drained from the world. Or maybe it was never there in the first place, merely imagined because he was told that it existed.

Seagulls caw and a salty wind blows through his hair. He stops and folds his arm over a wooden fence, watching a flock of sheep graze unhurriedly, flitting their stubby, puffed up tails side to side, and occasionally raising their heads to take a look around with a drowsy eyed air of indifference.

A quaint home adjoins the pasture: two windows, a thatched roof, a crumbling step up to the door. It doesn’t look like anyone is home. Somehow, he doesn’t feel alone.

He continues along the road, soft dirt and pebbles shifting beneath his feet. Presently, and quite suddenly, to his mind, he finds himself arrived upon a split in the road. One path leads far into the distance. Inexplicably, he knows where it ends—in another city. The other path is dark… ‘Why is everything so dark?’ But there is a mysterious attraction about it, too. And he cannot resist.

He takes twenty one steps down this new path, the forest reclaiming more of its space the farther he travels, and turns to find that the world has disappeared behind him.

“That is what decisions are,” says a girl’s voice beside him. “If you haven’t made a choice, then a world of possibility exists. But when you do decide, you are as much choosing to eliminate other options as you are to engage in a specific action.”

“What choice did I just make?” he asks.

“To go forward without the distraction of any further free will.”

He looks down at the girl. She is no older than eighteen; she leans on one arm, legs tucked comfortably under her body. He feels ancient next to her.

“Here,” she says.

She holds out an apple. He realizes that she got it off the ground, and that it is fallen from a great tree that looms overhead, brimming with luscious fruits. It makes a strange sort of sense, that this girl—her skin, gray, her dress, ragged, and her hair hanging in dark, dirty knots around her eyes—would prefer the fallen apples; they are like her, outcast from a plentiful society.

He waves his hand in polite rejection of her offer, but sits nearby. She fascinates him; or maybe it is a show of solidarity—after all, he once lived on the fringes, too.

“Take it,” she says, thrusting the apple towards him vigorously.

Again, he declines. “Not to be rude, but you got that off the ground.” He smiles patronizingly, as if explaining a simple concept to a simple child.

“Where else would I get it from?” she asks, laughing at him.

He furrows his brow and looks upwards, again checking to make sure the apple tree is still there. It is, but he feels an unsettling truth in her remark. He shies away from understanding.

Again the girl laughs. “Oh, you don’t get it, do you?”

“Get what?”

“You’re just like me.”

He feels bad for the ragged child, but she is starting to get on his nerves. “You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about, do you?” he says brusquely. Immediately, he feels remorseful; it was an unwarranted response.

“Go ahead then,” she says, gesturing towards the tree. “See what happens.”

He looks up again. The tree seems farther away than it did before. He raises his hand an inch, and the branches, ever so subtly, recede the same distance.

“There’s no point. I’m not hungry anyways,” he says, unable to hide the anxiety in his voice. ‘I’m not like her.’

She tosses the apple to him and he catches it; a reluctant concession. Looking it over in his hand, he feels repulsed. It is waxen and insubstantial; a pale imitation of the real thing.

“Take a bite.”

“I’m okay.” He sets down the apple.

“It’s the best you’re going to get. But I know, eating it would be admitting it. And the moment of truth is never a soft moment.”

He gazes into her eyes, and senses something strange and familiar behind them. Instantly, he forgets about the apple, as if it had never existed.

“What is your name?” he asks.

She grins—she had been waiting for this—and presses aside her knotted strands of hair, throwing back her head. Crossing her legs and sitting up straight, she sways side to side, her mouth wide and her throat open to the dark sky. For a moment, no sound comes out as she sways gently and with increasing rapidity. Then, a timid warble emerges, softly, slowly, gently, bounding with hypnotic rhythm.

Her song swells and sways and rolls like waves breaking over a sandy beach, and her mouth is turned up in an enraptured smile. Time seems to have stopped to listen, as if it intends to replay the moment through eternity. Then it is all over—her melody reaches a crescendo and swiftly ebbs back into silence.

Somehow, the impracticality of such a title doesn’t even occur to him.

“And what do you call yourself?” she asks with a playful smile.

“Frank…” He pauses, feeling small and insignificant saying it. “Frank Marrus,” he finishes.

“Ah… I see. Your name belongs to the world of man. That’s why you feel that you do, too.”

A twinge of anger flares at the base of his skull, firing up his senses. “Where do you get off,” he demands irritably, “saying something like that? It doesn’t even make sense!” He has lost his temper; lost his calm and collected nature.

“You are like a dog, still desiring his master’s love, even through beatings and casual neglect. If only you could see yourself…”

He does. Frozen in time; legs crossed, elbows propping him up on his knees, hands supporting his chin. His face tells a tale: his expressions are built of learned responses rather than experience; obedient; docile; dripping unctuousness.

But there is a glow, deep in his chest. Something as mysterious as it is familiar. The home he forgot he had; sparking through his social façade occasionally, but mostly forgotten, ignored, denied. He feels that he must have misplaced it, long ago. And he feels deep regret.

A hand touches his forearm and he comes back into his body. Her fingers are clasped around his wrist; coolly colored cylinders appear through her skin, an electric pool dribbling down into his own hand, revealing the same structure. He wants to recoil. He wants to shout. He wants to dissolve into the soil and cease to be sentient.

Instead he looks again into her eyes and sees the truth. Interlocking slats rotate where the irises should be, sliding together and breaking apart in timed intervals. They shift in color between maroon and indigo, marked with gray indentations.

He can’t take his eyes off hers… Her gaze is simple. Relaxed. All that needed to be said and seen had passed. She slides her hand into his and raises him up. He follows her lead unquestioningly as she takes him deeper into the forest, the details of trees once more edging into view.

The path is long and winding; burned into her memory. She darts between towering sequoias and through thorny bushes, the world blurring past. Without her, he would be lost, and for a moment he fears she wishes to abandon him. But it is only fear, compelled by confrontation with the unknown, and nothing more.

Beyond a trickling stream and over a great rise in the land, she slows her pace, arriving upon a small clearing. A glimmering curtain of sunlight bathes the center through an opening in the leaves, and drenched in its rays is a brilliant, redly radiant flower.

He forgets about the girl and approaches, enthralled. It is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen… He doesn’t notice himself kneel, doesn’t notice his hand reach out… All he sees is the brilliant red, flowing with spectacular electric current. And his fingers, caressing its soft petals reverently, can feel his own heart beating against them.

“This is yours and yours alone. You are the bridge that will unite us all.”


Immediately he awoke. Darkness all around assaulted his eyes unintelligibly, but only for a moment. In a way, he wasn’t sure he had dreamed at all; but the feelings were still with him, impressed upon his memory with unyielding firmness.

‘Modify,’ he thought, pinching at the black material wrapped around his wrist. The fibers detached and he slipped off a glove, examining his hand in the light of a “sticky bulb” he had borrowed from Maria’s gear. He could see veins and lines and cracks. Beneath it all, he told himself, was bone. He pressed the hand against his exposed cheek; warm and fleshy, sanguine with blood.

He placed the hand overtop his beating heart, looking over at Maria. ‘She’s just like all the rest. She wants to take it from you.’ He felt a surge of loathing, but shook his head. This wasn’t like him. There’s that voice again… What if it means something? What if I really am different, something other than I believe?

I have to clear my head. He slipped his glove back on and picked himself up from the ground, walking out of the cave. Standing near the entrance, he took a deep breath and grimaced at the encompassing black. If only he could see the stars…

And then a thought struck him. Why not? What was stopping him from just climbing the nearest tree and having a look around? His heart seized at the thought. What about those noises he had heard earlier… the whispering and feet crunching along the forest? Again his eyes darted to Maria, and he considered waking her to see if she was interested in having a look around.

‘Be a man, Frank.’ He wasn’t sure if that was his own thought, or the ‘voice’ he thought he’d been hearing. Wherever that sentiment was coming from, it was right, he realized. If Maria was fearless enough to lead them here, he was fearless enough to simply climb the closest tree and take a look around.

Gathering a few lights and sticking them to his chest, he walked just beyond the energy field that had been protecting him, jumped and clung to a low branch on one of the many trees surrounding, and began to climb.

It was easier than he had anticipated. He could feel his lungs, flush with air from the Oxyphiles, and his arms, surging with renewed strength and control. He quickly got into the “find-a-branch, lift, steady” rhythm that would compel him to the top, only whacking himself in the face with a branch or two on the way. And as he went higher, the darkness began to evaporate, soon thrusting him into the fresh night air where he drank in the world, renewed by calming stillness.

The whole universe lay itself out before him, innumerable glittering stars dancing within the night’s obsidian cloak, unobscured by any grim horizon of city lights. Immediately, he recognized a variety of constellations and thrilled himself at the sight of the moon, hanging crescent shaped against the black.

So… he thought, his heart racing at the notion, this is still Earth…

He steadied himself and began climbing down, anxious to tell Maria about his discovery. But when he stopped to shine a light on his path, six eyes and gleaming teeth shined back at him, dreaming of his death.

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