X: Fortune & XI: Lust.Desire



Chapter X


Dominic answered without hesitation, “Nanomachines.” He had worked with men like Detroit and knew that he couldn’t afford to appear ambiguous, weak. “Unregistered and unlicensed. Two L-class crates full of them.”

Detroit’s eyes displayed his full attention; his face betrayed no emotion. “And in return?”

Dominic licked his lips apprehensively. Damn it. The smuggler was sure to have noticed that.

“I need an arm, sized for a male, approximately five foot ten, hundred fifty pounds.”

Detroit looked from Dominic’s dark eyes to his tense lips and twitching muscles. ‘Mind scan,’ he thought. If Dominic was hiding something he would—‘Scan Failed. Encryption level too high.’

I see… He couldn’t read the soldier’s thoughts. But there were other ways of finding out things that people didn’t want you to know.

“And that’s all?” he asked, “No specifications? Just an arm for a man, eh?”

“Nothing extravagant.”

“Well, Dominic,” he said, leaning forward and creasing his eyebrows together in mock contemplation, “I’d like to help, I really would, but I have a certain code that I do business by. And part of this code demands that I deal only with people who I can trust. So when someone approaches me with a trade like this—valuable nanomachines for a mere prosthetic—I begin to wonder about their true motivations.

“Now, part of me is saying that I should think of you as a good Samaritan. Someone who found a fellow man in need and is rising to the occasion as a champion of the better good, even sacrificing an opportunity for personal gain. But,” he continued, reclining, “that’s not you, is it?”

Dominic stared at him quizzically.

“No?” Detroit went on. “Well, that’s quite all right. There are few heroes and fewer saints. Of course, I have yet to see any evidence of either in this world.” A crooked smile drew at his lips. “But this begs the question… What are you, Dominic?”

“A fucking unicorn. What do I look like?”

“The answer is simple. It shows in the way you entered the room, the way you talk, the way you hold your rifle as if it were the lone tether tying you to life...”

Dominic stared at him gravely, demanding that he get to the point.

“You’re a soldier,” Detroit declared. “And with that identity comes some inexplicable sense of fraternity that causes you to place your ‘brothers’ even in front of yourself. Which means that you’re placing your brothers in front of me… so I must ask, which fellow of yours are you ‘picking up the pieces’ for? And why?”

“That’s a long story.”

“I imagine so. And if it’s convincing enough, then maybe we can do business…”

Dom’s eyes flashed to Berin, whose generally affable face was stern with a look that said he had better be careful. Had better tell the truth.

He nodded. “There was an accident. We encountered a creature… something from one of the rifts,” he lowered himself into a kneel, drawing level with the blonde haired man. “Whatever this thing was, it wasn’t natural. Shredded through my soldier’s BSE like it was paper. Same model as mine,” he said, indicating the tactical body armor covering himself.

“And so he lost his arm?”

“Yes, I… tried to reattach it, but it wouldn’t take.”

“It wouldn’t take?” Excitement stirred in Detroit’s chest; he could feel a wonderful mystery unfolding before him. “How is that possible?”

Dominic described the incidents to him. The medical reports; the strange liquid; the boy’s deteriorating state. And all the while, Detroit was completely absorbed.

“So you’re telling me,” Detroit said, leaning in close, “that whatever this stuff is… it destroys nanomachines? Outright? And as far as you know, amputation is the only way to stop it from spreading?”

“Seems that way.”

“Tell you what… I’ll take care of your friend. I have the best equipment and doctors available—you can’t risk trusting his health to anything less, not when he’s in such a ‘unique’ situation. And it won’t cost you a thing.”

Dominic considered the proposition. He didn’t like Detroit; in fact, he was afraid of him and what he might do with Sherrad and his nanomachine destroying ailment. But Berin trusted Detroit, and Dominic trusted Berin…

“That’s very kind of you,” he said, doing his best not to regret the decision. “What about the nanomachines?”

“What about them?”

“Don’t toy with me.”

Detroit tapped a finger on the floor, a wry smile drawing at his lips. “Or you’ll… what? Take your business elsewhere?”

“I’ve been straight with you.”

“You’re right. You deserve the same courtesy… Well, here’s ‘straight’ for you. Your nanomachines aren’t worth dick to me. Not unless you’ve somehow managed to smuggle them into the city, which I’m guessing isn’t the case…”

“They’re about an hour to the east, but in the quantities I’m offering them—”

“In the quantities you’re offering them, they pose a higher risk,” Detroit interjected. “Whomever they belong to is likely cause me problems, unless they really are yours. But I’m guessing that’s not the case.”

“They belonged to Apex. They were abandoned.”

Detroit startled at the name. “Apex?” he asked. “Are you sure?”

“Yes… But even if the nanos are only C-class, they are more than worth the risk.”

“I see… Give me the coordinates,” Detroit demanded, his eyes stern and unyielding.

“Fine. But I have a small favor to ask in return.”

“No favors. I’m not doing this for me—I have a civic duty to perform.”

Civic duty? What? Dom thought.

For the first time, Berin spoke. “Give him something in return, Detroit. At least hear him out.”

Detroit’s eyes met his, cold as steel. “Fine. What is it?”

Still trying to come to grips with what had just happened, Dom answered, “I have this data from a friend of mine… She disappeared yesterday and I can’t access it without her. I need the security hacked.”

“What kind of data is it?”

Inquisitive sonofabitch… “She accessed a mainframe and it did an automatic backup of her memory bank. I want to see if this information can lead me to her.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that…”

“This chick was from Genesys. All sorts of weird shit going on with those folk.”

“I see…” He seemed to buy it. Probably because it was close enough to the truth that Dom himself nearly believed it. “Go see my associate. Kairi Celine lives in the 18th district, sector seven, building alpha.”

“What room?”

“Building alpha,” he repeated.

An entire building? That was rare. Even Berin Grates shared the back half of the Dragon’s Breath with a variety of domiciles. Dominic turned to leave and said, “I’m sending you the coordinates. I trust you because I trust Berin. Keep that in mind.”

“He is the thread that ties us together, isn’t he? Now, if you’ll excuse us, he and I have a conversation to finish.”

Dominic was glad to be done with him. Raising a hand in acknowledgement to Berin he turned and left the room, heading back the way he came, the sound of low talk fading behind him.

Sliding doors opened into empty streets. What did he mean he had a civic duty to perform? he wondered. Apparently, Detroit had some grudge with Apex. But it wasn’t any of his concern; by some incredible stroke of luck, perhaps, he had gotten all that he came for.

But it’s not over til it’s over, he knew. Not until the data was decrypted; not until Sherrad was well again. And… he felt a heaviness—the dark has not yet arrived.

Oblivious to the pounding of his feet against the pavement, he pulled up a menu and thought‘Call Edwards.’ He imagined the doctor as clearly as he could, guiding the software in his gear to contact the appropriate party.

Moments later, a voice resounded in his brain, saying, “Yes? What is it?”

“Doc, what did you find out?”

“It’s not good. I didn’t see it at first, but the infection has somehow spread into his chest. Operating is going to require more sophisticated equipment than I have access to.”

Shit.
He needed to keep a level head. “It’s taken care of, I’ve found someone who can help. But I have to know—how valuable is that… ‘product’ I showed you?”

“I’nt worth anything to me, but it’ll fetch a high price around town. Shouldn’t be difficult to find a buyer.”

“I already did… It isn’t dangerous, is it?”

“Crisis of conscience, huh? Well, no need to worry,”
he said, “They’re harmless, mostly… I’ll run down the details when I see you.”

“I have a stop to make first… shouldn’t take more than a few hours. Will you be okay taking care of Sherrad?”

Edwards hesitated. “Yeah. He’ll be here when you get back.”

“Thanks.”


Dominic closed the call and breathed fully. He could handle this, he told himself. All it would take was a little luck.

. . .


Maria’s eyes pierced the darkness, searching for a light. Was she mad to think that there was anything here at all?

No, keep looking, she told herself, clutching at Frank’s dangling feet for comfort. I was guided here for a reason.

Kneeling, she paced her breathing, taking slow, gentle draws as her senses negotiated with the black. At first, more darkness, then… Blue… Lights…

She wasn’t sure what she was looking at. A swirling body of glowing specks? Or merely the effect of staring into the dark for too long?

Hello, ” they said. Or maybe she imagined it? It was really the oddest thing: as she watched the dots, she got the feeling of “new” and the feeling of herself and the dots overlapping. And then her mind translated the feelings as “hello,” or more precisely, “first hello,” as if she had known how to speak this way all along.

She hesitated to reply to the greeting. The emotions she had felt were no different from her own, so how could she tell she wasn’t making it all up?

Then, more images and feelings: comfort, plus an impression of the clearing. I’m safe here, she thought. Certainly, a foreign feeling… Then, a negative feeling and an image of her flashlight. She understood.

“My name’s Maria,” she whispered softly. But the luminescent specks disagreed. “You are…”they said, and a warm emotion flooded her chest; bright, if a little lost, a little hurt… and immediately familiar. More familiar than anything else she had ever known.

“Now you recognize your self,” she heard, either from herself or from the being. “More meaningful than any name.”

Then she felt what the being was. Something lonely; something weary; something with a caring soul, underneath it all. Maybe too caring… Somehow, she knew it had been human, once, and maybe still was.

“I see who you are,” she whispered, careful to focus more on her feelings than her words. “Youdo understand what I am saying, right?”

In response, the being helped her imagine that she was speaking her own language. But instead of comprehending the words, she heard them only as sounds, devoid of meaning.

“So how do you understand me?” she asked.

Again, she saw herself speaking unintelligibly, but this time, beneath the softly voiced syllables was an undercurrent of emotion, and much in the way that someone can say “I love you” with their words, but mean “don’t leave me, I’m afraid” with their heart, she saw that no matter the words, her feelings were an earnest request for understanding.

She sat with this for a moment. As she did, she felt a warmth in her body, seeming to come from somewhere else. She felt safe, as the being had said; safe to wait, safe to rest, safe to ask questions. She squinted, trying to see if the specks of light had arranged themselves into any shape she understood, but only saw more darkness. She had so many questions…

“Is this… telepathy?” she asked. Beneath her words, she wondered if all people were endowed with some sort of telepathic capacity.

“Yes,” was the reply. Then came an image of each person’s and each animal’s feelings being broadcast constantly, as if from a radio tower. Then she saw the being, capable of receiving and interpreting those thoughts. She saw herself… focused on a self-contained loop of her own concerns, unable to feel the feelings of others.

“But I understand you now…” she said. “I feel your thoughts”

“My emotions are strong enough to penetrate your psyche. You even mistake my thoughts for yours.”

“So is that why I don’t feel afraid?” she asked, “because you aren’t afraid?”

“I cannot tell you what to feel. I can only suggest a feeling for you to experience. It is your choice whether or not you submerge yourself in the sensation.”

The being’s voice sounded clearer now, as if coming through a properly tuned radio.

“Then, did you guide me here?” she asked. “I thought it was… something inside of me. But it was you, wasn’t it?”

The specks danced dreamily in front of her.“Yes, and I have a purpose for that. I needed to see you face to face… so that I can guide you home.”

“Home? You know how I can get home?” The words dribbled out of her mouth pleasantly. She was feeling more and more sedate…

“Your body remembers where home is,” the being answered, “even if your brain can’t describe it directly. All you need is a mechanism to help you cross over.”

“And where would I find something like that?”

“There is a village nearby… Do you know the one of which I speak?”

Something told her it knew the answer, and had asked only out of politeness. “Yes, I saw it from the mountain.”

The being shifted in the black. “A people live there. They are well versed in the laws of the universes. They can help you.”

“Will I need anything? As payment?”

“I do not know. I only know that I found a lost soul in these woods and that it is my duty to help it find its way home. Beyond that… Well, I have no right to speak for others.”

“Then what do you want?” she asked.

“It is as I said. My duty is to help those who enter these woods. I need nothing in return.”

So it’s some kind of guardian…

“Yes,”
it replied to her thought, “I am this dark forest’s keeper.”

A question lingered at the edge of her consciousness. Something about Frank and his death, but… She couldn’t commit to the thought, and it kept slipping away. Then, as she struggled to get a hold of her mind, she was sure she saw something—a faint outline of a face in the glowing specks.

Could it be…?

The specks dispersed, as if hiding their natural form. She felt a queasy surge of unrest spark up her neck and very nearly activated her flashlight in panic.

“Be easy…” said the being soothingly. “If it is so important to you, then…” the specks swarmed together, “here I am.”

She held her breath. A unique creature presented itself before her; she had never seen anything like it, its features curved and slender, yet powerful, with a kind of energy to them that could only come from light. In the darkness, she couldn’t make it out distinctly, but it felt human, no matter its looks.

“You’re not like me…” she said. “Physically.” Even so, she recognized its sentience, its presence of being, and felt more at ease. It had shown her what it was—there was no deception.

“We are alike where it is important,” it said, “And since it will help, I shall give you my name. Relax your jaw, and open your throat.”

She did as she was told and let feelings that were distinctly not her own guide her mouth. “Heh-cen-eh-deh,” she said slowly. Then she put it together, “Hecen Edeh?”

“When you go to the village, call me by that name. They will be relieved to hear of me.”

“Why?” she asked, “What happened?”

“My answer is intertwined with the fate of this forest and the fate of your friend. Come, we should make for the city. All will be made clear soon...”

. . .

Cold, dark cityscape had led to cold, dark cityscape, now with a more industrial appeal. Dominic’s eyes searched among squat, grimy buildings for the one labeled “Alpha.”

It didn’t take long to find. In bright, beautiful lettering across a wide placard, he saw the words “Alpha Magic” adorning a large warehouse. He gazed at the sign—a naked, winged woman, grinning mischievously, lay upon the word “magic,” her demon tail snaking and hooking around its end.

It was a charming frontispiece. But where was the entrance? The entire building was coloured the same shade of reddish gray. Completely solid.

He looked upwards, shouting, “Hello?”

At first, nothing happened. Then he saw movement overhead, from within the “A” of the sign.

“Ahoy, you down there!” a female voice yelled. “Stranger! Are you lost?”

He peered at the woman quizzically and said loudly, “I’m looking for Kairi Celine.”

“I am she.” The young woman leaned out of the window, her dark brown hair draped around her face. “You’re Dominic, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, well… Come on in then.”

He scrutinized the building again, making sure he hadn’t missed something.

She turned to leave.

“Wait!” he yelled, “Where’s the door?”

“Wherever you believe it to be… Say, what kind of tea do you like?”

“What?” he said, incredulous.

“Tea. I’m making you some tea.”

This is absurd. “Look, just tell me how to get inside.”

“Oh, but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it? I’ll make you something relaxing, you seem kind of stressed out.”

He shouted to her again as she disappeared into the building, but only the echo of his own voice sounded in reply. Enough of this. He grasped the building with his hands.

‘Grip.’ Millions of tiny claws protruded from his gloves and… slipped right off. “Urngh…” he groaned. An energy field… I guess I have to do this her way.

He ran his hand along the wall, feeling to see if it was different at any place, but it was all stiff, crumbling brick; an odd choice, he felt, considering the other materials available…

He stepped back, looking upward at the still empty window. For a moment, he thought of calling Detroit and demanding that he have his ‘associate’ open the door. Then a striking notion occurred to him—where’s my sense of wonder?

It was an odd question to ask. During the past few years, he had seen many things strange and wonderful; but, drenched in a living nightmare, he found them difficult to appreciate. And he had learned that people who seemed especially quirky or “out there” were actually either a.) on drugs or b.) insane.

But somewhere, deep down, he knew that wasn’t the case. And besides, wouldn’t it be more interesting to approach this situation with levity?

A sense of the playful unknown buoying his spirits, he leaned against the wall, searching for any details that seemed out of place. To his right, three oddly protruding bricks caught his attention. Closer examination revealed that they each stuck out at different degrees. Was there some kind of sequence? He pushed on the shortest one, then the tallest one, then the middle one, but they didn’t budge. Maybe they were only decoration?

Well… that’s all I had, he thought. Or… one more thing came to him. “Abracadabra?” he said, quietly and with a little bit of shame, pressing upon the bricks.

Nothing happened.

Then, moments later, the wall dissolved beneath his hands.

He jerked away in surprise as a door sized section of the wall folded aside like a set of drapes. A black space called him into its sable folds, and as he passed through, the modified brick wall returned to its original state.

The light escaping, he searched a nearby steel door for a handle of some sort, but nothing obvious presented itself.

“Dominic?” he heard, muffled.

An expanding column of light spilled into the dark vestibule, accompanied by the creaky opening of the antiquated metal door.

“Hi there,” said the young woman, bathed in gold. She waved a hand over her shoulder, “come on in.”

He nodded in bewildered thanks, following her into a well lit room.

“What was all that?” he asked.

Her eyes conveyed an unexpected depth. “It’s how I find out what kind of person you are.”

“What do you mean?”

She smiled brightly and placed a finger to her lips, motioning to him to follow.

Paintings and sculptures of an odd sort passed all around him in the wide open area, their disparate styles and forms creating an eye catching panorama upon earthen colored wall. As he took in his surroundings, she led him to the center of the room where a trio of stacked spheres sat; each was about the size of a small bedroom, their exteriors laden with intricate and imaginative designs.

“So, I hear you need some data extracted…” she said. “Where is it stored?”

He fumbled to extract a miniscule red cube from a waist pocket, saying, “Here,” and held out the device.

She gingerly picked it from his upturned palm. “I shouldn’t be more than a minute. Feel free to have a look around… just don’t break anything.”

He watched the tall, thin woman disappear into the stack of spheres, and found her understated movements to be strangely entrancing. But that wasn’t what he was here for.

Hopefully she won’t be interested in the data itself, he thought, his eyes meandering around the room. But there’s no point in worrying. Not much I can do about it now.

He took a closer look at his surroundings. Grand paintings created with obvious skill adorned the walls of the warehouse—landscapes, people, architecture… Astonishing talent had compelled these into existence, but between the sprawling, complex works of art were some very curious pieces that he found nearly as intriguing.

One in particular, though he couldn’t say why with any amount of certainty. The painting was little more than a golden circle, tinged with fluorescent blue and placed upon a white background. He perused it carefully for some time, unable to fathom his own fascination with it.

He heard footsteps.

“Admiring my work, I see,” said the woman, her eyes alight with interest.

“You painted these?”

“I did.”

He was impressed. “What do you call this one?” He motioned to the golden circle.

“Eternity and a single moment.”

“Hmm…” He usually didn’t appreciate these kind of abstract works, but… this was different. He relinquished his pensive gaze and smiled at her. “What inspired you to paint it?”

Without looking at him, she sidled up to the painting and pressed herself against it lovingly. “I was contemplating life… Death. I wondered why I couldn’t understand what happened when we died…” she paused, closing her eyes and caressing the canvas. “Wondered why I couldn’t evenimagine what it would be like if I and everything else suddenly ceased to be… and you know, they’re essentially the same thing… The closest I could get was to imagine a great, black empty nothing.

“Which was, you know, quite unappealing... But the alternative was no better—an eternity of existence? ‘My God, what would that be like,’ I wondered.” She sat down on a nearby block of wood and crossed her legs.

“So why gold and white?” he asked, sitting next to her.

She looked at him, deciding whether or not to finish her story. He looked genuinely interested, and she explained, “Because gold is the color of love… Over the past few months, I had begun to wonder why I felt this crushing sense of desperation around existence and eternity. I wondered if that was normal, or if everybody experienced things this way…

“But I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it with. Even since before the shift, I have lived alone. A few weeks ago though, I got it in my head that if I found love somewhere in the world, I might be able to feel okay about an eternity of living in one manner or another.”

“The way I see it, we all make our own realities. Which I guess was the point of your ‘believe in the door and you will find it’ thing, right?”

Her face lit up. “Well, aren’t you perceptive.”

He shrugged.

“So then, I was sitting there,” she said, pointing to a space by the wall, “when I found myself wondering again where to find love. I closed my eyes and, just as I asked the question, I saw this circle and I felt that gold, and I realized that I had been love all along… And you are the same,” she advised him, unheeded. “There isn’t anything out there. It’s all in here.” She jabbed a finger into his chest. “Not in someone else, waiting to be found.”

Her lips were screwed up, eyes fiery with passion. She clearly meant it.

He grasped her hand gently, lowering it from his chest. Solitude turns people strange. “How long will that decryption take?”

She seemed as if she had been visiting someplace far away and was just now returning to her body. “Right, well… You didn’t bring a lot of data, and it’s encrypted with a strange algorithm… very old. It shouldn’t take more than an hour… Where did you get this, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“Genesys,” he said plainly. He was growing to like this woman. “A friend recorded it before she disappeared, and I was hoping it might give me an idea of where she went.”

She watched his eyes, suddenly distant; listened to his words, hollow and unfeeling… “You don’t seem to remember her like a friend…”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s your eyes… I’ve seen that look before. The look of something lost…”

“Well, yeah, she’s gone…”

“No, it’s not that. And it’s not love, either...” she pursed her lips together, eyeing him sideways. Then she lit up with understanding. “She took something from you, didn’t she? Something dear...”

He clenched his jaw. He didn’t want to trust her; things were easier if he didn’t. But he did, for whatever reason. And she deserved to know the truth.

After all… she was right.



Chapter XI



“Somehow, I think you know me better than I know myself.”

“Dominic… That is your name, right?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s difficult to see the world you live in from the center. Standing on the outside gives me perspective; it helps me to see you clearly.”

“I suppose…” He wondered how well she really ‘saw’ him.

“So, what did she do?”

“That’s complicated… Used to be she was just an entity—some faceless, probably egomaniacal researcher… Someone who abused her position for personal gain… That made things simple. When my… When my daughter died, I decided that someone needed to be held accountable. And that maybe they even deserved the same fate… For a while, it was the only thing that made sense to me…”

“What happened?”

“I met the doctor who was responsible. Face to face… After the shift.”

“You knew her before and after?”

“No. I knew of her. I knew her work.”

She eyed him curiously. “The chances of you meeting her like that are… astronomical. How can you be sure it’s the same person?”

“She isn’t. Whatever monster possessed that woman in her work is gone now…” He hoped his own words were true. “And it wasn’t chance that brought us together, I don’t think. It was fate, or Karma.”

“How do you figure that?”

“It’s like you say, the probability of me meeting her was incomprehensibly small. And the way it happened… I had been travelling with her for nearly a year before I realized the truth. There was no way I could hurt her then.”

“So… fate.”

“Yeah…”

“Then what is the data you brought me? Really?”

“I don’t know what I’m looking for on that cube. She left it in the facility and I… I thought I’d take it to her. But things began to fall apart and…”

“You’re talking about your friend. The one Detroit is treating, right?”

He nodded, surprised that she knew about it. “I believe she is connected to his injury.”

“But what could she possibly have had to do with it?”

“That’s what I am trying to find out.”


. . .


Following sedately, lost in a trance…

“Maria, I know it’s been hard—”

“You put me here!” she shouted, “I know I made the decision to follow through with it, but I trusted you!” She leaned towards him, whispering seethingly, “Fuck you, Frank. Maybe next time you decide to play God, you’ll do it with your own life. Then, when you fail you’ll be doing us all a favor.”


The dark surrounded her. All she had left of that world was this man, his legs draped over her shoulders and her memories of him playing through her mind. If only the memories made for better company.

He shouldn’t have followed my advice… Tears welled in her eyes. “How far?” she asked aloud.

Images of space and land washed over her, crossed with the notion of “compact.” She had lost sight of the being, but that wasn’t necessary for it to lead; the feeling of where to go was so strong she might as well have had a rope pulling her down the path.

Soft hills of dirt rolled in earthen waves beneath her feet, dark growths snagging at her as she went. Though the darkness pressed all around, her feet knew the path her eyes could not see, guided by Hecen’s intimate knowledge of the landscape.

Her eardrums throbbed in the soundlessness. “It’s so quiet,” she said, unsure of whether that was a good thing or not. A forest without animals was a disturbing thing, but… Frank’s mangled body was a grim testament to the fact that there was something in these woods. “What happened here? Has it always been like this?”

“It is because of them. The…”

She saw the dark creatures in her mind and felt her mouth open, her throat trembling, “Ah-rum.”

“The Arum. Some time ago, they made a dark home of this forest, chasing out life and light.”The being paused and its energy turned reminiscent. “The exact time is unclear. And I can sense that it is the same for you.”

“Yes it is… Do you know how they got here?”

“There is no clear answer to that, but it is tied into the shift that your world experienced as well. None of us alone could have brought about such change, and so all of us must have compelled it into existence, your people and mine.”

The words undulated as feeling through her body, as if pleasant waves upon which she buoyed herself, gathering knowledge. Certain subtleties that came from language were lost, but other aspects emerged that she had never before experienced so clearly. For one thing, she knew that Hecen wasn’t telling her the whole truth.

Why is he keeping something from me? The feeling sparked boldly in the dark of her mind. She tried to hide it, as if keeping her distrust a secret could somehow save her; but Hecen read her feelings like playing cards lain face-up upon a table.

“I didn’t mean to come across in such a way…” intoned the being. It’s thoughts also could have meant, ‘I didn’t mean for you to perceive me in such a way.’ “To me, the details are unimportant, but I understand that you must know. It is in your nature.”

“In my nature? What do you mean by that?” she whispered, growing conscious of her voice; it seemed to be the only thing tying her to this world.

“My people are not born to be inquisitive. I am one of the few, and I see that you share my need for depth and understanding. I have long felt that too much of our lives must be founded on faith; the faith that the sun will keep burning; the sky will be blue tomorrow; the earth will nurture life. I wanted to know the why behind the world, but seeing this drive so strongly in you has shown me why it was my downfall… Your pursuit of identifications for things has corrupted you and the way you see your existence and yourself.”

The images and feelings washed over her in the space of a moment. Some part of her knew that galaxies of information could have passed through her and into understanding in that same amount of time, but her brain lagged behind, struggling to keep up.

“In you I see an endless stream of vocalizations, transforming my feelings into words meant to categorize and deconstruct. You know your heart more as ventricles and vessels than as the bright entity from which you radiate. You know the world and its parts more intimately than I ever could, yet are so detached you hardly seem to realize it exists at all.”

For the first time, she became confused: who had said what? She knew that it was her voice, yet Hecen’s as well. So, then, it must have been a comprehension shared by the being and some part of herself, recognizing what had been lost. A kind of esoteric knowledge buried deep within.

“You still know more than you’re saying…” She closed her eyes. She didn’t realize she had stopped walking, her mind and body parsing out each of the beings feelings until she had located a heaviness, mixed with loss and confusion, centered around another being, much like herself, but different.

“Someone you know…” she saw an action occurring, “did something to...” she saw the holes opening, and felt something shift beneath the surface of existence; something nearly imperceptible, “Alter reality...”

A jolt of understanding sparked through her, and her eyes widened in excitement. Then she felt her own confusion. This conflicted with everything she already knew about the shift.

“Yes… But it is like I said, it couldn’t have been him alone…” They began moving again, almost unbeknownst to Maria, her mind lost in the being’s testimony. “And you seem to understand this as well. I see you have ideas of your own as to what happened, and it may be that the truth lies somewhere in between.”

“Tell me what you know.”

He conceded. “This male creature of my people was very close to me.” Hecen momentarily ceased the flow of information in hesitation, and Maria knew that he was opening up to her, maybe in a way that he had never had the chance to before. “His name was…”

“Ah-den-ay.” She could hear the name in her mind, but it didn’t make sense until her mouth had said it.

“Adenae. That city you saw… It is populated by a people of limited desires, wanting nothing more than to feel the life around them and share in the eternal dance of the present moment. Adenae shared my inquisitive nature, and in many ways pushed me to search for answers. But our people have a difference from yours… You have an emotion, this one…”

She felt her heart miss a beat, a weight bearing down upon her as the faces of people she had known or only imagined flashed through her mind, sodden with dark energy, creating distaste within her.

“Judgment…” she said.

“That is how you see people in your world… But to understand, you must see them as my people see each other…”

Again, her mind activated. The people and their visages stayed the same but she felt different about them—they were her. They all were... All the idiots. All the buffoons. All the lunatics. All the killers. They were all as she was, at their deepest essence; all equally human.

“You understand… We would do nothing to dissuade one of ours from being themselves...” He said it as if he had grown to doubt their ways. “Adenae found an artifact from a time before ours. It contained an energy that was unfamiliar to us; uninteresting to some and repulsive to others. He decided to explore it, sharing his experiences with me.

“We were aware of the danger—anything far enough removed from understanding contains a certain amount of… unpredictability. But no one would work to dissuade him, even though he was different—less able to manage his energy. Our people felt that it was his path to explore. The…”


“Dah-shi-en.”

“The Dashien was a stone, named only because it asked to be. He found it outside the city after a meteor shower, some of which fell nearby. When held, a series of incantations, to be said with the whole of a person’s body, mind, and spirit, would be intuitively picked up by them and recited. However, these were taught over a great span of time. Years passed before we found out anything more from it than that which lay within us…”

She got the feeling Hecen had been around for much longer than she had. Centuries, even, but it was hard to tell; this world’s sense of time was difficult to compare to her own, though the hours seemed to pass at the same rate.

“The Dashien revealed our curiosity about the universe and our desire to understand it on a different level than that of simple appreciation for its aesthetics and the energy that it shared with us. Adenae was effected most.” Remorse clouded his words. “He would spend days meditating on the energy of that stone, finding within himself a strange desire to open doors to other dimensions and to foreign thoughts that had been transmitted through the ethers.

“I watched him change, his sense of self corruptible and ever ready to receive from what lay beyond. I was more careful, consciously aware of the shifts occurring inside of myself and always feeling through them to the heart of who I really was.

“The Dashien’s unique perspective was like a drug to my curiosity. But as the years passed, I grew less interested in its knowledge, and more afraid, eventually abandoning it altogether. Soon after, Adenae came to me, excited. He said he had asked the stone to show him the other worlds of which it spoke, and it had replied that it would visit the contents of universes innumerable upon us, and that all he had to do was seek the heart of the forest and meditate on the stone, reciting the incantations that would come through him in the process.

“I knew the effect the Dashien was having on him. It had driven him beyond obsession. But I did nothing. I told him that if he wanted to listen, it was his business, but that I was done with the foul thing, and had gone as far as I was willing. I assumed that it could not deliver on its promises, and was merely some dark thing, trapped and powerless, toying with us for its own amusement.


The ground seemed to fall out beneath Maria, dropping her into Hecen’s world to feel what he had felt, see what he had seen. Her body kept on in the black, walking, steadying itself, careful not to trip… She could see it if she chose to, as if hovering behind herself, endowed with a sense of what lay in the darkness. But she was thoroughly engaged and didn’t question what was happening, assimilating what she could.

“Adenae left and months passed. I could feel his energy in the forest, growing darker by the day. The townspeople thought of him often, some feeling that we ought to remind him of where he was from. Ultimately though, it was determined that it was best not to intervene, staying in full recognition that whatever path he had chosen was the right way for him.

“Little by little, his energy grew until it became something other than him. He was subsumed by the beings from other dimensions, at first in energetic form and then…”


Hecen slowed his energy, doling out the ideals at a rate he was sure that Maria could understand without being overwhelmed. She felt this previously bright world shifting, much like hers had. And just as it started its downward decline… The memory stopped, replaced with a sense of nothingness intermingled with displacement and chaos. Then, like a gunshot on the starting line, everything was back and running again, the whole of the world and its people suddenly returned to existence.

All the world’s people came back… she thought, astonished. All at once...

For once, Hecen didn’t seem to notice her thought, instead adding the final piece to the ensemble—the world had returned whole, but with dark patches, blemishes upon its landscape, suffusing the land with energies both foreign and dangerous. And the people had taken it upon themselves to heal the earth.

“Of everyone, I was in the greatest position to set things right. Whatever Adenae had done, I knew that I had the perspective needed to reverse the effects... So while my kinsmen prayed in the town, I came into these woods, determined to chase away the darkness sapping at its bright heart.”

He had meditated, she saw, causing the darkness to focus upon him, imperturbable to its corrupting tendrils. However, there was one thing he could not contend with…

Her stomach seized and her muscles grew tight. She felt his death as he had; claws tearing open his throat; jaws flaying his soft belly. She fell to the ground, crying out and gasping.

“I am sorry. The memory is potent, and I have difficulty containing it within myself. Much like you and the memory of your friend’s death.”

My friend… Frank… I wanted to ask about… She realized something was ‘off’. “You’ve been…” the answer stirred in her chest, “suppressing my thoughts?”

“I had to… Your questions would have been too much all at once. You are now unburdened.”

As the being intoned its feelings, a dull sensation lifted from her brain, and she remembered that she wanted to know why Hecen had done nothing to help Frank. She would have felt betrayed, but she was off balance; unable to cling to learned emotions to interpret her current situation.

“The creatures that attacked him and me were abominations,” he replied. “Twisted meshes of nature and metal. I have no domain over such vile specimens. Yet, I am still to blame for his death.”

She sensed that it was the truth. Or at least that Hecen felt it was the truth.

“I caused him to have the same dream you did, and I believe it brought him to leave your safe haven. That cave you slept in was once used by—” (and here, Hecen indicated something that caught her off guard, her closest word for it confusing her immensely) “a goddess as she pursued the sense of connection and self knowledge upon which our world was founded.”

A goddess… A woman of immense, unrestrained power, she could sense; yet still equally as human as she was. Paradox in form.

She relaxed a little, asking, “A goddess? Is this a legend?”

“No. She left a very distinct energy in that cave, intimately detailing her experiences there to those who are aware. If you went back, I’m sure you would be able to see that now… But we haven’t the time. The city is drawing near, and we must press onward.”


. . .


“I don’t know why, but I feel like I remember you from somewhere. Another time, perhaps… Here,” Kairi said, handing him the small red cube, “I’ve uploaded the decryption to your neural network along with key segments of data in case the you lose that.”

“I appreciate you doing this…” His eyes glazed over for a moment as he toyed with the graphiq, wondering what secrets he would uncover within its plastic walls. His eyes raised to meet Kairi’s, gently gleaming. He smiled. “Thanks.”

She nodded.

“So, how do I get out?”

“Same way you came in,” she said, pointing. “You sure you don’t want to stay for a bit? We could have that tea I promised you… and then promptly forgot about.”

“I have to go, sorry,” he said, sincerely regretting the fact. “There is one thing though—you wouldn’t happen to know anything about this communications blackout, would you?”

“What do you mean?”

“My comms are down. I’ve been trying to get in touch with the doctor who is looking after my friend. Do you know if there is a way around that?”

“I’m not sure,” she said, closing her eyes and concentrating on a remote system. “Someone is definitely interfering with communications… fairly normal around here, really, with all the fighting and smuggling… But I’m surprised that it’s effecting government channels. Usually your encryption algorithms are sophisticated enough to work around the effects of the jamming. Want me to look into it for you?”

“Yeah. That information could be useful…” he said, walking side by side with the woman as she headed for the exit. “If anything, it will give me something to report in order to make it look like I’m doing my job.”

“Well, good luck, soldier,” she said, smiling genuinely at him. Then, leaning forward, she kissed him on the cheek.

Soldier huh… He wondered if that was all anyone thought he was.

“Adios.” He raised a hand as he left through the steel entrance, darkness passing him into the low light of the outdoors. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the brick slide back into place and complete the wall once more.

The streets were empty, still, save for the occasional wanderers, heads hung low, kept to themselves. Oppressive clouds rolled with tumultuous brown-gray ardor, choking the horizon and the heavenly sphere overhead, a single point of sunlight breaking through their thick veil as if some celestial being watching the final hours of a doomed species.

Every pair of eyes seemed suspicious, anxious, damning, each blaming the others for the stirring of an uncertain future. Dominic tried to shake the feeling; paranoia crept out at him, a dark creature from the shadows, dogging his every footstep, each echoing far too loud.

If only he could get in touch with Edwards, he was sure he would feel better. Sure he could shake the feeling that things had fallen out of order the moment he had stepped out of Kairi’s home…

There’s something wrong with me, he thought, eyes searching past de-activated automobiles and into shadowy alleyways, convinced that something must be waiting for him. Why else would I feel so scared all of a sudden?

He considered taking another dose of diazepam to steady his nerves, based upon the recommendation of his neural-integrated nanosystems.

No, I should be able to handle this myself. My emotions are here to help me live in this world… If I hide from them, I cannot grow. Cannot change. He repeated the idea to himself.

‘Recommend independent method,’ he requested.

“Breathe.”

It was a simple command, accompanied by adjustments in his suit that caused him to inhale deep into his gut, then into his lungs, in a slow, full manner. The world seemed to relax as he did; the grays suddenly less harsh, the shadows less dark.

He continued through winding, unfamiliar alleyways; once overgrown with lush vines and hanging plants, they now were choked with refuse, their walls discolored by grime and soot. A visual overlay guided him along the shortest known path, a fluorescent blue line upon the earth detailing the route.

Emerging onto a larger walkway and passing a stately, arched doorway, he heard someone shouting. He turned to greet a familiar face.

“Berin?” he said. “What’s going on?”

The burly redhead looked worried as he approached. “God I’ve been looking all over for you. I’m glad I got to you in time.”

“What happened?”

“All I know is you stirred up some shit with the wrong people. And you gotta’ come with me. Now.”

Dread sank down his spine. “What about Sherrad, is he okay?”

“I don’t know about your friend. But if you have any idea where he is, you better get to him fast or forget about him.”

Dominic jammed a heel into the ground and broke into a dash.

“Dominic!” he heard from behind, “Meet me at our old rendezvous in thirty minutes! If you aren’t there there’ll be nothing I can do for you!”

“I’ll be there!” he shouted back over his shoulder.

There’ll be nothing he can do for me…? Jesus, what the hell could have happened?

His heart palpitated nervously, taut, black strands urging his feet onward at a superhuman rate. People who saw him coming ducked out of the way, or stared nervously, afraid of what he might do. But his awareness extended no further than the need to label each of them “possible threat/not a threat”.

Rounding a dismal corner he halted, immediately dropping into a crouch. In the distance, he saw a green, covered truck, parked sideways in the middle of a wide, cobblestone walkway.

‘Scan,’ he thought. Infrared sensors indicated that the vehicle had been running recently, residual heat still radiating from its engine. As well, bullet holes patterned its wood siding and army green cab, mirror hanging askance from having smashed into something.

He needed to go in for a closer look. Staying low, he checked his equipment to make sure that he was hidden from any olfactory or audio sensors that might be lying around, and a visual distortion field activated around him. He would be using power like crazy, but considering the dire state of things, it might save his life.

I should go in around back, he thought. He wanted to enter the doctor’s building as close to the operation room as possible.

Ducking down another alleyway, he noticed a surge of activity in the street behind him. Skittering, animal-like robots were emerging from an underground tunnel system that had been completely out of use in recent years.

Animi… He had only seen these metallic critters one time after the shift, since transformed from helpful refuse gatherers into ‘cleaners,’ adept at removing sensitive evidence from the scene of an incident. And usually, the incidents that preceded them were of the foulest nature.

He hurried onward—past a series of windows, under a crumbling, brick archway, and down an elaborate set of stairs; laid out in a wide semicircle, the stairs had once ferried a trickling fall of water in the most elegant fashion, but most beauty had long since dried up in this part of the world.

He hurried down until he reached a pair of thick, transparent doors. Or what had once been—somebody had forced an entrance since he was last here, shards of glass now scattered wildly upon the grimy floor.

He passed through the entrance and into a cramped space; and though it was darkened by a persistent energy-shutdown field originating, curiously, beneath the ground, he was easily able to find his way, his aura coaxing a sepia glow out of his surroundings.

Emerging from the storage area, he quietly made his way to the operations chamber. A mostly disintegrated portal had opened within the white door, no longer able to obstruct entrance to the room, and he stepped through, grimly viewing what was left of Doctor Edwards’ equipment.

In fact, ‘Doctor’ was a term applied quite loosely in recent years, and Edwards was a keen example of why. In the center of the room was a reconstructor, its black, glassy door wrenched from its hinges, leaving the dark, cylindrical space within exposed. Attached was a thick vine of cables, leading to a small, black box, developed by Edwards himself.

Dominic was familiar with the device. To his knowledge, it was meant to enhance the process of analyzing a subject by breaking a government code, generated within the reconstructor, that would encrypt certain data about a patient’s body. As well, the device could rewrite code to alter the functions of someone’s nanomachines, a process that Dominic had capitalized on once before during his time with the doctor. In this way, Edwards more of a programmer and data analyst than medical expert.

Whoever had come before didn’t seem to recognize the significance of the box. Or had left in a hurry. Even so, they had managed to tear the place apart before they left. Dragging aside overturned tables and wading through scattered drugs and medical supplies, he made his way to the black device.

It doesn’t seem they weren’t looking for anything, he noticed. As if they had been breaking things just for the hell of it. Or to intimidate someone…

Traces of blood were spattered upon the floor. He knelt and ran a gloved finger through the sticky, dark substance. The blood cells absorbed into his suit to be tested.

“No identifiable match in personal database,” appeared over the mess. Can’t be Sherrad’s then…

Standing, he patted around the side of the box, mounted high on the wall. He didn’t need the thing itself—though it would be good to have, he knew it would be difficult to remove while preserving its usefulness. More important was the data.

There it is, he thought, his searching fingers identifying a circular port at its side. The data would be heavily encrypted; nearly unbreakable, if he knew Edwards. But, assuming the doctor was still alive, he might be grateful to have it.

Dominic did a final check of the small room. Useless junk. He climbed back out and made his way towards the front of the building. The cleaners still hadn’t found their way inside yet, and he came into the lobby undisturbed.

Be careful… he advised himself.

Senses flaring, he pulled up a command list for his nanomachines and checked to make sure everything was in working order. He left his gun shouldered—chances were, any humans wanting to mess with him would be well enough prepared that bullets would be ineffective in a fight, unless he were able to find other, better equipment to back them up.

Another hole in the front wall of the building presented itself, larger than the last. Scanners informed him that the metal had been disintegrated by an immense blast from a local-fusion detonation, but that he would be safe from any of the fallout present. Lifting himself through, he stalked carefully towards a decorative concrete block, placed near the building, and perched upon it in a crouch. Small animals skittering near his feet, he thought, ‘Pulse map area.’

Bright blue waves erupted all around him, washing over the scene. Two blotches of thick liquid caught his interest, still undisturbed by the animi. Once the animals had dispersed enough for him to pass through unnoticed, he gingerly dropped down from the platform, noise cancelling equipment softening his steps, and collected samples of the blood. One was from an unknown person, different from the first and the second, accompanied by bits of bone and hair...

“I.D. Match.”

Sherrad… Fuck.


His chest seized, brain toying with all the ways that could have gotten there, when something else entirely caught his attention. Flying low in the distance, five black spots were rushing towards the city, revealed by an opening in the clouds.

He stood up, his arms limp, jaw slackening.

“Oh… No,” he breathed.

SATE...

He had never been more sure he wouldn't live to see the coming dawn.

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