VIII: Adjustment & IX: The Hermit



Chapter VIII



There comes a moment, as you approach death, whereupon you realize that there is no more life left to live—no more frolicking on the sun bathed hills outside the city; no more puppies; no more hugs. Only that looming spectre of the interminable unknown; always with you, but now rather more apparent.

This moment occurred for Frank Marrus as dark hands joined the eyes and teeth below him, gripping at his feet and fists like six tiny vices. He fought at them, kicking and swinging, struggling to cling to the tree and what was left of his existence. But on some level, he knew this was it. In fact, it made sense—if he was honest with himself, he understood that he had only survived the previous day by a combination of sheer luck and happenstance. And really, death probably wouldn’t let itself be cheated twice in one day.

But there was no room for lament or reminiscence. Abruptly, his body was seized by the fall and gravity’s siren sound surged through his veins, leaving him quite unable to contemplate anything at all. He turned upside down, his eyes quivered, and his head plumbed the hard earth, snapping and smashing his neck into a purpled trunk and tossing his body to where it rested, a few feet away, trembling with the last sparks of life.

Soon after the world had passed away, the dark creatures gathered around his flesh, snapping and growling at each other, flicking their thick, fox-like tails side to side and licking their chops. They took hurried bites between snaps at each other, growling as they contested the succulent meal. But before an accord could be reached between them, the woman came dashing out of the cave, shining her light every which way, face contorted with panic.

They tried to move the body, and even put up a reasonable effort to fight her when she flung herself swinging and crashing into their midst; but she was a force greater than they could contend with, and her whip-like lashes, thrusting and twirling from her fingertips; and her steel blue electric cosh; and her pulse-stopping, nerve flaring, body breaking nanomachines, soon left the forest floor misty with blood, lashed from their bodies, and marked with white chunks of bone, redly glistening, beaten from their skulls.

Its two brethren defeated, the third attempted an escape; but her wrath pulled it back in, black cords lassoing at its metallic legs. Her eyes streaming, her breath fiery with agonizing chest, she put aside her toys, slipped off her gloves and slammed her fist into its monstrous face over and over, blood flecking her body as it burbled and spurted from the monster’s puny, caved in nose, its sunken eyes blackened and bulging with fluid, its skin redly tearing beneath her breaking fingernails…

Metal legs hissing and clicking with hydraulic shudders over useless, scrambling paws, its body seized beneath her pummeling. And then she could do no more. She broke down, sobbing over the desecrated dark animal, her hands dripping and shaking as her eyes. She crawled to Frank’s body and lifted him into her arms, her tears and the creature’s blood soaking his hair as she stroked at his wet face, his mask torn away the beings and the fall. If there were any more creatures in those trees, they now held the fear of God at the sight of that woman, rocking silently back and forth, impaired by utter disbelief.

In her mind, she saw his eyes open, resplendent with life, and she turned his face to hers, hoping it was some sort of premonition—She recoiled at the sight, and then pulled him even closer to her body, not willing to look again. But the image was firmly planted in her mind—of the flesh, ragged and torn by blood thirsty claws; of an eye, snatched out by hungry jaws. She cried and hunched closer, as broken and battered in ways as the dead she held.

. . .

Morning sun shone bright overhead, casting the darkness from the earth as it infused the world with hues of sky blue and emerald green. Idest was no more than four hours away, and it was with a certain amount of apprehension that Sherrad led the way to the city.

‘Recording…’

It wasn’t the wound, no no, I told myself. He rotated his shoulder gently, his severed limb still held stiffly in place by hardened fibers. Had to be something else…

Drawing a troubled breath, he tried to make sense of the medical diagnostic sheet lingering in front of his eyes. The only thing he really understood was that if he didn’t get his arm taken care of, the infection would spread and he would die.

Just like I predicted... God that’s a morbid thought. He reached into his breast pocket and retrieved a cigarette and a lighter emblazoned with a raven sitting atop a cross. Must be that Romani blood, he reflected, lighting up. Grandma knew when she was going to die… Said she could feel the spirit world’s call on the wind…

But she always knew more than the rest of us did... Which means I’m probably just being dramatic.

He took a stiff drag, glowing orange tip wagging just beyond his lips. “Ahh… nice.” As he said it, smoke billowed in silky curls up from his mouth, dissipating in a gray cloud.

“Hold up,” he heard. He stopped, catching Dom’s dark eyes questioningly.

“Thought I saw something…” The middle aged soldier squinted into the trees. “Looks like it was just my imagination.”

“You worried?”

“Cautious. If we didn’t need these nanomachines for bargaining, I would have left ‘em where we found ‘em. Even people who don’t want their things don’t often take kindly to them disappearing.”

“We’d know if we were being followed by now… How do you think we’re going to get into the city?”

“I was planning on shooting everyone.”

“Oh I see.”

“You telling me you don’t have a plan?”

He grinned. Of course he did; this sort of thing was his specialty. “Don’t worry, I’ve got it covered… actually, we should—agh…” He pressed a hand to his forehead, wincing with pain.

Dominic helped him steady himself; he had been experiencing these headaches with disturbing frequency over the last couple of hours.

“Ahh... Man...” he said, shaking his head. “I’m okay… What was I saying?”

Dominic shrugged.

“Oh, right, yeah,” he waved his hand downward, and sat. Dominic knelt on one knee, listening intently as he explained: “False induction… I program these nanos to quarantine themselves in our muscle tissue, staying deactivated…”

“Checkpoint won’t pick that up?”

“No. Like I said, these are unmarked and unregistered. With no identifiable structure, they’ll appear to be anomalous collections of metal. If anything, we can get them to take us to Edwards directly, saying they are part of a medical situation.”

“Then we get the good doctor to extract them and see if they’re worth anything. He fixes you up, we give him the coordinates, and we’re on our way.”

“Assuming nothing goes wrong, anyways.”

“Yeah, well, I’m counting on you.”

“And your trust couldn’t be better placed,” he said jovially. But he wasn’t so confident behind closed doors. Our lives in my hands… Crap. This can’t end well.

. . .

She had sat cradling him amongst the trees for some time before she stood, gripping at the nape of his shirt, and dragged him back into the cave, unsure that anything was happening at all.

As she entered, light emanated ominously all around her, the walls glowing dimly with energy gathered from some unseen source. She shut her eyes tight and sat with her back to the rock, holding his body against hers.

Once or twice, she checked his pulse, jamming her fingers against his throat harder than was necessary, as if it might get his heart started again.

“God damn it, Frank…” she muttered quietly, wiping her eyes, her voice cracked and weary. She had seen death overtake many people, some of whom she knew quite well, but she had never before held death in her arms.

Hours passed as she sat quietly, her mind drawing a blank. She kept watch on the field outside, searching for more of those creatures, when a dull and sickening notion presented itself to her:

What if this isn’t Frank Marrus… What if this is one of Calix’ sick experiments, the real man long dead… A cold chill seized her spine and her muscles tensed. It was all too great a possibility.

She recoiled at the feeling, wishing she could somehow slide away without having to touch the body. Maybe it was the coldness of their suits, guarding them from the world and from each other, or maybe she saw her own death in him; but something broke inside of her, and, unfeeling, she lifted the dead flesh away from herself and let it roll onto its side.

Skin quivering, she slowly pushed herself backwards until she bumped up against a wall, where she sat staring at him, knees tucked against her chest. That’s not Frank… It can’t be.

Her tongue tasted coppery, and there was an acute pain in her lip. Catching her breath, she pressed a hand to her mouth, red with blood. Her mind had lost itself, but something about biting open her lip brought her back into her body. This is real. Frank is dead. And I have no idea where the hell I am…

She was no stranger to contending with the grim realities of life and death. And though this was more difficult in ways, the same speech she had given herself countless times still applied. “And if I don’t get it together NOW,” she whispered harshly, “I am going to die, too.”

She stood and shook away her debilitating fear of the world around her. She was going to need a clear and directed mind to be able to handle this. First things first… she demanded of herself, preserve the body.

Walking across the cave, she rolled the dead man’s… Frank’s… body over, and gazed into his smashed and broken face. She grimaced and put a hand to her mouth, but didn’t look away. She would have to grow accustomed to seeing it if she was going to be able to take him with her.

So now I have to face the truth, she thought, accessing his suit’s biological maintenance systems. I have to be honest with myself… I didn’t come here for the man. I came here for his body and his memories…

And it was such an ugly truth.

‘Preservation routines enacted,’ slid into existence, overlaying the dead. ‘Body will begin to decompose in twenty one days.’

Leaning over him, she pressed a small black cube to his neck. With a light ‘ka-ck,’ a set of diagnostic nanomachines entered his blood. Soon, she would know who, or what, he really was.

Okay… she thought. The hard part was done. She sat down and took a deep breath, shaking uncontrollably. For the second time in three years, she found herself completely and utterly abandoned by the world.

. . .

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…”

“LOWER THE SUPPRESSION FIELD,” demanded Dominic.

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.”

. . .

“You’re Doctor Marrus.”

She had been gazing at him from across the room for some time.

“I am.”

“Mind if I join you?”

A hint of a smile played upon his lips and he motioned to the curved, stainless steel seat next to him, stylishly embedded in the wall.

She clicked across the room, her high heeled shoes echoing in the large chamber; empty, other than a bespectacled receptionist. Slipping into the red-cushioned chair, she leaned towards him determinedly and extended her hand, saying, “Maria Arcelli.”

His grip was firm, but forgiving. “I know. Interesting case you’re working on.”

Her heart startled at the response. She had expected that he knew of her work, but his reply was so direct…

“What do you suggest?” She asked calmly.

He didn’t break his simplistic gaze from her eyes. Then he grinned, self-satisfied. “Kill them.”

She was taken aback. “Surely you don’t mean that?” Was he really as eccentric as everyone said?

“Yes, I do. I have something I’ve been working on. It’s a good match for your case, I think you’ll like it.”

Bewildered, she began to reply, but…

“Doctor Marrus?” A voice from nearby. It was the receptionist. “The director is ready to see you now.”

“Thanks,” he said, getting up. And to Maria: “I’ll have my secretary get you up to speed. I look forward to working with you...”


She opened her eyes, staring at what had become of the doctor. A dark, empty shell, sucked of life… There was a time when she had thought he was invulnerable. Maybe the most powerful man alive. And to see someone like that fall from his place on high was… unsettling.

And there were complications. Her feelings about him weren’t simple, having ranged from admiration to intense loathing and back again. But her admiration, once she knew him, was different; genuine. Understanding led her to respect the human, flaws and all, rather than the legend.

‘Scan Complete,’ displayed in her mind, overlaying the rock walls.

She sat up in attention, reading through the details of the medical report. Death by blunt trauma… collapsed spine… Obviously… DNA analysis… She checked and double checked the results. And then checked them again, to make sure.

He was human. He was Frank Marrus.

She swallowed hard, tears filling her eyes. But she was relieved, too. She had nearly convinced herself that he was a replicant, or a clone. But he wasn’t. He was just a man… Which is what got him killed.

She ambled dazedly over to his dead body and knelt, gathering him in her arms. All the feelings of coldness and disgust had vanished, knowing that he really was who she thought. And all that was left was love.

“But I can’t bury you yet, Frank…” she said tenderly. “We still have one more thing left to do.”




Chapter IX



Maria looked at Frank and scrunched up her face, sniffing. Tears had been trickling down her cheeks, but her heart was set on finding stillness. She brushed a hand under her nose, sweeping away the excess moisture.

I know there’s a solution here… she thought, tugging on the dead man’s clothes, propping him up this way and that. There’s always a solution. She felt like a nine year old again, playing with her dolls. Except this doll couldn’t be returned to the store when it broke.

“What about…” she said quietly, pressing her back against his dead chest and wrapping his legs around her waist, pulling his arms over her shoulders. She stood straight and jumped up and down, testing the comfort of it.

“No, that’s not right,” she breathed. He was too tall, and his legs got in the way, his head bumping against hers.

She put him down and gazed over his face, brushing away a bit of dirt to check his wounds. Earlier, she had sewn pieces of his black mask to the missing sections of skin. He reminded her something of a patchwork quilt now, though in truth, she was quite impressed with her own work—he looked like a designer A.I. who might model at a party; fashionable, rather than dead.

She glanced outside. It was getting brighter every time she looked; still too dim to see well though. She switched on her aura again. Encouragingly, it was working better. Upon solving her man-backpack conundrum, she felt confident that she could leave.

As she stared at the dead man, her mind working to soften her feelings of despair, a thought came to her. She couldn’t drag him—no, that would be too cumbersome. But what if she wore him with his back to hers, body upside-down so his knees locked over her shoulders?

Suddenly, she burst out laughing, a hearty bellow like one might hear during the peak of a comedy show, and fell back onto the floor. Her eyes opened to the ceiling, glistening with bemused tears brought on by the absurdity of it all. She giggled to herself, one hand upon her breast, until her mind returned to normal consciousness.

I actually have to do this, she thought, letting out the last of her trembling laughter. I really do.

Lifting herself up from the ground, she felt as if she were an observer, the events she took part in being no more than scenes from some macabre play. She rolled the body over, face up, feet towards her. Then she turned around, her back to the body, and lifted the legs until the backside of the knees rested on her shoulders.

Again, she did her dance of adjustment—it worked; she could manage.

Setting him down and kneeling, she thought ‘Manipulate. ’ She flitted through a swarm of windows and options until she alighted upon a command that would allow her to meld her suit with his, something that wouldn’t have worked without his permission were he alive.

She pressed his chin into his chest, connecting them; that way his head wouldn’t bump against her knees as she walked. Then she again lifted his legs over her shoulders and joined their clothes together, marveling slightly at her own resilience: she was afraid, yes. Terrified even. But she knew it was exactly what needed to be done.

“Okay,” she said to herself, shifting her weight and dusting out her joints with a small dance. Before she could fully comprehend what she was doing, she strutted out into the clearing, retrieved her energy tent, and headed into the woods.

Head held high, she took in the light around her. It was the most curious thing; rather than adhering to any physics model she understood, the golden particles ‘stuck’ to trees and rocks and grass, almost like a gel of some sort. She activated her aura, relieved to find that it worked again, and carefully searched the forest for any signs of life.

The forest felt calm to her, as if imperturbable to the strange events that had occurred within it. And the queerest sense of peace massaged at her chest, pressing away the tension and anger in her muscles, even the kind she didn’t realize was there. She loosened up, breathing easier, and checked her compass—still headed for the city.

She walked for what felt like hours without seeming to make any progress. Grassy hillocks rose and fell all around her and the trees grew brighter, their branches relieved of the weight of the black. Birds even sang nearby.

She went on, shifting uncomfortably beneath the weight of the body, when she recognized something. A stump and a dirt path. Where have I seen that? She stopped, staring at it, when she realized, In a dream…

The night Frank died, she had dreamt of a dark forest in which she followed a strange light to find her way. Looking over her shoulder and all around, she decided that it was safe and headed down the path. It wasn’t out of her way, so there was no reason not to... but she couldn’t help but feel that something strange and inexplicable awaited her.

As she went, the tree branches began to droop again and the forest became more overgrown. But she kept seeing the signs—a large branch, broken. Another stump. A single plume of a red flower on an otherwise skeletal tree.

The forest called her deeper and deeper, until her Aura once more ceased to work. What’s the deal? she wondered, deactivating it. It was far too early to be nighttime, yet the world had once more turned to black.

She spun around. Back the way she had come, she could detect a faint light. Again she looked forward and… The darkness was moving unmistakably towards her, lifelike in its manner.

. . .

“Nanomachines?”

“Yes.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t see how I can make this work… from a business standpoint. It simply isn’t worth the risk.”

“Scan the one’s he’s carrying,” Dom said, nodding at the boy. “These were worth killing over, to someone.”

“But it doesn’t matter what they are. Ain’t worth getting mixed up with Apex over. Ain’t worth dying for.”

“Scan them then. Just tell us what they are, and I’ll find a buyer somewhere.”

Dr. Edwards rubbed the bridge of his nose, eyes closed. Then he said reluctantly, “Alright. I suppose I owe you that much. Come with me.”

Dominic patted the boy on the shoulder, and nodded down the hallway for him to follow.

Sherrad was barely able to hold himself up, burdened with spiking pains all over his body. Dominic had insisted on finding a way for him to keep his arm, which meant that amputation would have to wait until they were sure that a synthetic construct was the way to go, rather than through the development of an antidote.

He felt hands guiding him along, watching in a daze as dismal potted plants and grimy unkempt wall passed. Flashes of an old world—maintained by skittering maintenance animals, shining with perfection—passed through his mind. He would have trusted those impeccably maintained corridors and glowing doctors far more than this gruff, disagreeable man and his ailing facility.

But what other choice was there?

“In here,” said the doctor.

A matte white door slid open, guiding them inside. Dom stopped upon the threshold, saying, “Tell me what you find. I’ll be back later.”

“What should I do with him?” Edwards said, indignantly.

“Keep him comfortable. I won’t be long… And I’ll make it worth your while.”

*

Dominic stepped out the front door of the clinic, a small building located on the eastern-most side of the city. It was a strange place for a hospital, but much Idest of had been destroyed by earthquakes, fighting, chemical spillage... three quarters of the city was closed off to residence and even travel, causing any businesses and homesteads to be bunched unceremoniously together in what was once a section dedicated to warehouses, factories, and A.I. storage and repair facilities.

But the area had, of late, attained an undeniably human aesthetic—ramshackle huts sat atop ancient storage units, painted mud brown by dirt and thick, choking rain. And since commerce and goods were tightly controlled in a three way standoff between the government, Apex, and local smuggling operations, decorations and new constructions generally had a very primitive feel to them; at the same time, they struck Dom as ragged banners of a burgeoning artistic movement that maybe didn’t even know it was occurring.

A thick wind blew through the street, heavy with ash and dirt from buildings, burned to the ground in distant parts of the city. Whoever was in charge hadn’t gotten around to closing off a good deal of the wasted areas, and their remains still spread upon the homes and countryside.

Dominic slowed his pace, breathing only as much as was necessary. Even at a stroll, he felt winded by the poor quality of the air. But he wouldn’t wear his mask. He refused to look like some unsympathetic trooper of death, distancing himself from the more ill-equipped denizens of the city.

Truth was, it wasn’t always like this. Some days, the sun did shine. Some days, the air was fresh and clean. Some days… he could almost remember what things had been like before. But today was a heavy day. Most people were inside, drinking themselves to death and fucking to keep the race alive. Most people were…

He stopped.

A young girl, no older than ten or eleven, her hair golden like the sun and her smile radiant like its light, came strutting triumphantly out of an alley, shouting and snapping her fingers, “Here Kamün, heel!”

She looked like she was carrying something beneath her jacket, an oversized leather coat that obviously didn’t belong to her in the first place. Whatever it was had an odd shape, its angles and edges pressing sternly outward.

“Kamün, heel!” she shouted again. A white husky trotted out of the alleyway and slowly licked her hand, his eyes patient and docile. She smiled, patting him affectionately. “Good boy.”

Dom felt as if he had been pulled from a trance. If a girl like that could exist in a world like this, maybe there was more than grim misery awaiting them all. On a whim, he very nearly followed her, just to see what magical place a child like that might have been going. And he smiled, remembering his own daughter, who had been about that girl’s age when she had died.

Elise… he thought, toying with a braided cloth that he always carried. He frequently wondered about what his daughter would have been like if she were still with him. Strong, I bet. On some level, he felt like she had never left his side, her presence stronger by the day. He kissed the braid, replacing it in his pocket.

Coming out of his reminiscing, he realized the little girl was gone now, probably having ducked down another alleyway. He earnestly hoped he would see her again, if only to prove that she hadn’t been part of some hallucination.

“Hey man.”

He startled at the sound. Where had it come from?

“Hey man. Hey.”

A ragged pile of fallen cloth shifted near his feet and he stepped away, afraid for a moment that he had trodden upon… whatever it was.

“Hey… wazzup?”

A worn face stared up at him amidst trash and ripped clothing, piled on in incongruous layers, and black-marked rows of teeth grinned euphorically up at him.

“Beautiful day, eh?”

Dominic turned away in disgust and walked on.

“Aw, come on man. Come have a sit with me, it’s fucking wonderful down here.”

The junkie’s voice devolved into random sound utterances, indistinguishable beneath the crunching gravel scattered upon cracked and winding cobblestone pathway. Dominic’s destination wasn’t far away, located in “District 17,” in a popular bar. Which meant he needed to quickly figure out a strategy so he could approach his situation with secrecy and deference. And he was fully aware that a difficult choice could present itself before him, and he wasn’t sure which way he would go when the time came to decide.

Barren trees lined the buildings, passing him by as he mulled over his situation. There was no way out, he figured, other than to hope that he could bargain for everything he wanted. But he would be asking a lot, he knew, coming to a large, domed building.

Dragon’s Breath. He shuffled to a stop in front of the darkly windowed establishment. This is the place…

. . .

Maria stared into the lifelike shadows, watching as an unbelievable scene unfolded—the shadows were moving of their own accord. At first, towards her. Then away. Then a little to the right, the trees seeming to grow tense as the darkness came over them.

And then it struck her—the shadows were following something deep in the woods. Or someone.

That doesn’t make any sense, flashed through her mind. But what did, lately? Even more inexplicably, she felt drawn deeper into the forest, into the heart of the darkness. Lana… her mother… had taught her to trust, all those years ago… had taught her how to listen to that little voice at the back of her mind, guiding her where she needed to be by some method her brain couldn’t comprehend. And she hadn’t forgotten how.

Even still, fear lingered all around her heart. The unknown lay in any direction that she might travel, but this way, it was coupled with the unsettling recognition that she was ignoring her equipment, heading away from the city.

Again, she recalled the dream. At this point in her nocturnal wandering, a glowing ball of light had drifted out from her chest and begun to guide her along the proper path. She didn’t see anything of the sort, but had a flashlight on her shoulder, and used that instead.

Much to her amazement, a kind of glowing material appeared on the leaves and undergrowth, creating a distinct stream of light. She followed the iridescent path, again conscious of the body weighing on her back; and of the oppressive silence all around her, breaking only under the sound of her feet against the earth.

For some time, her brain was absorbed in the scrambling motion of her eyes and the careful way that she treaded onward. Somewhere nearby, a stream trickled in the black. The sound grew louder as she followed the path.

I’m almost there, she thought.

Pressing through a great, leafy plant, she came upon the stream’s burbling waters. On the other side, she saw that the path continued. But before she could go on, scientific instinct demanded that she take a sample, as this was the first body of water she had come across in this world.

Outstretched fingers, covered black, dipped into the stream, and nanofibers transported samples into a reservoir where they would be tested for compatibility with her body. She enjoyed the cool comfort of the place for a moment before she continued, water sloshing at her ankles as she crossed the stream.

She was so close now. It was the last thing she had seen in her dream and...

A steep hill…

And…

Trees… Obscuring what lay ahead…

She broke through the dark branches, compelled almost by a will not her own, and came into a clearing, instantly familiar.

My god… The implications of this find were startling. But… There’s nothing here.

She wheeled around, flashing her light from one end to the other. She felt like she had arrived home, only to find her house and everything in it burned to the ground.

It can’t be… There’s got to be something…

But she didn’t know what to look for. The dream had ended just after she reached the clearing, interrupted by Frank Marrus’ body crashing to the ground outside the energy field, causing her scanners to cry out, thrusting her from her sleep.

Looking down, her flashlight sank into trampled grass and scattered leaves, leading to the left. She followed them carefully until they disappeared near a pile of rocks.

She stood, wondering what to do, when a thought came to her, saying, ‘It sometimes takes the greatest darkness to help us find even the smallest light. But that is the world in which we live.’

Taking a deep breath, she turned off her light, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the black.

. . .

Dominic pressed his hand against a glass panel outside the Dragon’s Breath. DNA gathering components matched his prints and genetic makeup against a database that told whether he was wanted for any crime or barred from the establishment for some other reason. He was clean, and the door swung open, allowing him into a vestibular chamber closed off on either side. Once a set of scanners had determined that no unwanted guests had come in with him, a second set of doors slid quietly open.

He walked in, gazing upwards to where a massive, domed ceiling stretched broadly and indigo-lit décor with an origin in Chinese aesthetics presented itself. On either side of him, lavish stairways curved up and around the room, reaching towards the darkly colored ceiling that brewed black and purple with clouds, shape shifting into snake-like dragons and blazing phoenixes, their mythical play spanning the width of the entire ceiling.

Dominic walked close to the wall, hand on the railing as he went up the stairs. In the center of the room was a black mass of faces and figures lying around a large column, ensconced in a cloud of smoke that billowed up from pipes and tubes in their mouths. Hashish was much preferred to liquor by many, as its users seldom turned to violence, and the Dragon’s Breath was well regarded in smoking circles.

The stylish metal stairs turned to hard, lustrous flooring sided by smooth wall and glass paneling. Following a wide arc, the path emptied into a large circular space populated by a few steel tables and kneeling chairs arranged upon a marble floor. Well kempt patrons were scattered amongst the seats, engaged in private conversations or, as with a pair of young men, playing a game of chess on a simple board carved of wood.

Dom headed for the back, a beautiful young woman catching his eyes along the way. He smiled inwardly, enjoying her radiance, all the while knowing that anything past that would cost money. Presently, he arrived at the bar.

“Hello.” A smiling woman, silver hair and golden eyes, greeted him from behind a semi-circular counter of glass and polished mahogany.

“I’m looking for Berin Grates,” said Dom.

“The Dragon’s not seeing anyone,” she replied immediately.

“Tell me where he is.”

The heavily robed bartender cocked an eyebrow, leaning her face in to examine him. “You’re not a buyer, are you…”

“No.”

She nodded. “He’s in back—down the hall, third door on your right.” She pointed beyond a shimmering curtain of water that appeared to run down from the ceiling, saying, “I hope it’s important…”

“Thanks.” Dom rapped on the counter twice and walked towards the watery hallway entrance. As he passed through the clear fall, a refreshing breath of life washed over him, the holographic water seeming to spill through his veins.

And then it was gone, replaced by simply decorated hallway and dim wall panels. He stopped in front of an unlabeled door, matte white, and pressed his hand against its surface.

“Not Receiving Visitors,” appeared on a graphical overlay.

‘Force Entry,’ he thought.

“Government I.D. confirmed. Force entry?”

“Affirmative.”

The door slid open and he barged into the small space. Two men looked up at him from their place on the floor, bearing the appearance of a conversation interrupted.

“Berin, I need to see your contact,” he growled.

A muscle bound, red haired man smiled widely at him and motioned to the floor, his thick, curly locks flowing over broad shoulders onto a keenly maintained suit.

“Long time no see, big D. Have a sit brother.”

Dominic shook his head. “I’m short on time.”

“Later, then,” he said, nodding in understanding. “It’s a demanding world… Well, it looks like you’re in luck. This is my guy.”

Next to him sat a slick, blonde haired man, dark eyes and cold, steely expression. Underneath the man’s silky white sports jacket, Dominic could see the bulge of a pistol for a single moment. The man smiled at him coolly, saying nothing.

“Name of Detroit,” Berin finished.

“What can I do for you?” asked Detroit, his voice like knives dancing in the sun. “And, more importantly,” he said slowly, his tone unchanging, “what can you do for me?”

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