XIV: The Long Road Down & XV: The Ninth Circle (Parts One and Two)


Chapter XIV



Dominic scratched the side of his head slowly. He might have had an itch, or maybe his fingers just needed something to do. He laughed once, a stiff burst of breath.

Whatever, man… he thought in shaken disbelief. He shut off his systems. For a moment, he felt repulsed by his gear—the smooth, efficient lines; the effete A.I. operator; the bright charts and graphs drawn over the world. He couldn’t help but connect it all to Frank Marrus and his work. The same work that had ostensibly led the world into hell.

He snapped out of his daze. If he got lost in that place, he would never find his way home. Any number of things could have happened, he knew. Even that evidence wasn’t damning; innocent until proven guilty.

His hands pressed downward heavily, raising him up from the floor. Doesn’t change how things are. Doesn’t change what I need to do. He wiped at the rubble on his chest as he stood. The dirt was sticking to him, darkening his uniform with gray patches. He brushed once more, cautiously aware that something wasn’t right; the air was heavy, distorted.

He eyed the surrounding sky through the city’s heavy, disassembling remains, the red-orange sunset bleeding into its crumbling crevasses and casting pale aura around stalwart, metal frames, still jutting up from the earth like cold, rotten fingers. And there was a strange electricity to the air, tingling, almost shocking him…

“Hngh!” he grunted, catching his breath and reeling. He fell to his knees and in a moment it was gone. What the hell was that? He stood up rapidly, gasping for air, his eyes darting from side to side in the ashen room. Only shadows greeted them.

“Shit,” he breathed, shaken. He looked down near the arboretum and at the gathering crowd. They were too far away too see clearly… and for some reason his systems were slow to re-activate… but there was clear commotion and chaos. Whatever it was, it had hit them, too.

‘Cloak,’ he thought, edging into the shadows and preparing for another shock. ‘Cloak… cloak…’ Nothing happened. ‘Systems…’ Nothing.

Fear crept up his spine. Blind and naked.

It doesn’t matter… He thought of his daughter. Her name comforted him. I’ll see this through, Elise... He gripped the frame of the building and swung his leg around to the outside. He knew he wasn’t doing this for her; but he felt that somehow she appreciated his resolve.

Steadying himself, he dropped off and grabbed the floor where he had been standing, dust shaking below his hands. He was still strong, even if his suit couldn’t shift its form. He dropped another floor and sank into a crouch, again feeling an electric tingle in the air. He braced himself and…

Nothing.

It was only fear. The hair pricked up on the back of his neck and he peered out over the edge of the building again, its slanted face driving downward into an empty street below. He didn’t have time to take the slow road back. He had waited longer than he had planned and couldn’t leave those civilians tossing in the wind any longer; even if it did mean putting himself at risk.

He didn’t have any clever ideas; except, “go”. Don’t matter if I get shot at, he thought, running and jumping straight out of the empty window. His feet held in the air for a half second before pattering lithely down the concrete at a steep angle. His suit might still be able to withstand a leap all the way to the ground, but he wasn’t about to test his luck.

Eyes up. The concrete at his feet blurred into trees. A skeletal forest of grey separated him from the arboretum, growing closer with each hurtling step. Watch for threats…

Only grey limbs and desiccated ground.

He jumped to the side, launching from one floor to the next with gathering momentum; his feet hit the ground with almost spring like levity, the faintly detectable ‘psh psh’ of his still-working impact dispersion system softening the descent.

And then—he was fully airborne; a yawning emptiness gaping beneath his suspended feet. He didn’t need to think—his body readied for the drop, instinct aligning his limbs as he flung through the fallen floors. A moment’s fear misaligned him slightly, and he felt his body tweak sideways.

Shit.

Concrete erupted all around him in a tumultuous cacophony of crumbling destruction, the floor giving way and dumping him unceremoniously into the level below. Debris scattered and ricocheted and he rolled to a stop, gray raining all around.

He felt himself lying completely still and his brain pounded heavily. He had been careless—unguided by the subtle nudging of computer systems meant to navigate around his human error, he was bound to slip up. He should have known that.

His eyes blinked in refusal of the particles on the air and he coughed and rolled over. Then, sitting up slowly, he turned his head this way and that, grateful to note that there was no acute pain. He coughed heavily again and stood shakily, patting at himself semi-consciously, glad to be still intact.

Man… he thought, quivering. He turned and looked back the way he had come—through the swirling gray haze, a growing darkness obscured the floors overhead.

Aura, he thought, instinctually. Again, nothing happened. Troubled, he took a few steps more and gazed over a crumbling ledge and down the remaining feet to the earth. I have to keep going… He sat on the edge and squinted into a hazy pile of rubble. Then, sliding off carefully, he caught the floor and lowered himself as far as he could before letting go, a gentle fall to offset his blunder.

Almost silently, he landed upon an ash covered dais, once a platform for displaying sculptures and artwork at the building’s entrance. He looked back and up over his shoulder at the building’s distant peak. I wonder what it used to be.

He stepped off the dais and across a small road. Striding carefully into the forest, he ducked near a tree in order to gauge his situation. My suit and tactical nanos are disabled… Must be a DEID wave (Discriminating Electrical Impulse Deactivation) , he thought warily. All government employees were susceptible, as were any who had used a government run health facility since the shift. Of course, they were told DEIDs were only for their protection… If they were told of them at all—

Fear

Shapes moved in the trees—

Shadows. His imagination was overactive without the aid of electronics.

No, something’s there—

He slipped away and dropped low behind a wide tree trunk. Better protection from the ghostly figures wavering in front of his eyes, out of focus… they looked like…

Trees.

His heart pounded against his chest.

Shadows.

His eyes quivered and he swallowed.

I’m going through relapse… The diazepam… He clutched the bark and tried to calm himself. He had to get his head together… He needed more of the drug. Can’t dose myself manually… think, dammit… He began to stand woozily. Nothing…

He hadn’t realized how much he relied on his Operating System in order to function properly. His skin quivered as if it weren’t his own, and his throat felt dry and unsettled. He checked his water supply. Moisture systems… still active, he thought, noting a blue glow coming from his left side. Not run by the OS anymore, but active.

He eyed his surroundings. Keep going. The crowd wasn’t far away now… He hoped he hadn’t left them alone for too long.

It hasn’t been more than a few minutes… he told himself. Then, Please, God, let them still be there.

. . .


‘Please, God, let them still be there.’ The thought passed through Maria; inside and out and all around her; alive. She recognized it from somewhere, but it wasn’t her and it wasn’t hers.

A calming, aware emptiness… No, she was floating in… Or…

Her mind didn’t know what to think. Rationality dealt with reality. This was… Unlike anything.

It was the last thought her brain cognized before dissolving within its ivory dwelling, subsumed by the pleasant tingle of potential and inactivity supporting each other, and felt as the firing of neurons within an endless sea of space and time.

Black… In every direction. Devoid of anything… Light… Inside of her… Radiating. The source of everything and everyone. She opened her eyes; eyes, within eyes, within eyes;

Gold. Everywhere. Golden light. Flowing foundation… or outline… or… It slipped this way and that, framing the worlds upon worlds and lives within them. Life was made of… Her.

‘We are everything and everyone, each within and without and all around ourselves. Exuding light and life. Only, so often distorted; confused; interrupted… Then we call it dark. But that is only an absence of light, not an entity all its own, and not of a separate power. Darkness is only the veil hiding our eyes, never the things obscured.’

She felt dizzy, disoriented by the endlessness. Then she, too, dissolved completely. Infinite was infinitesimal. Endless was instantaneous. And life and death intertwined into a single element.

‘As life leads to death, so does the reverse take place. Balance exists in every aspect; even the smallest part of the system, jostled, brings unsettlement into the whole of everything. This is the nature of our existence.’

“Our existence...” Not human existence. Not even sentient existence. Everything. Each speck of dirt. Each crawling ant. Each vessel of substance compelled from no-thing into be-ing, billions of years ago... Moments ago… Even now… All of it was life. And it all moved as one being, its individual parts all so unaware of the truth of their infinitude.

She would have let herself dissolve completely; no longer a human with a name; no longer a vessel for established personality; no longer convinced of her separate importance, nor desiring it; but she had been that way before, and would sometime be again. The cycle would repeat as the infinite, endless system searched itself for purpose and designation, time no more obdurate than an autumn leaf, fluttering upon a blush of wind called to the flame.

Right now, she had a purpose, long ago set out—before birth, before conception, before time itself… A purpose all her own, decided upon by her, but tied into the fate of everything and everyone…

“Maria…”

That voice.

“Maria…”


Cool fingers touched beneath her chin. “Maria,” the calm, soothing voice said.

Her eyes wandered upwards. There was still some light in the dark cave, and she made out the features of Dr. Ada Kerry, lips smiling amusedly at her as if she were a child; a warm and kindly look.

“How are… How did you get here?”

“We all exist on every level of existence. Past, present, future, simultaneous lives… I am but one aspect of one being, projected as individual consciousness. As are you.”

Maria’s mind was coming back into her body, struggling for a hold on reality.

Ada continued, “This concept isn’t new to you. Think of your dreams, connected as they are to your daily life, but separate. Maybe you feel like a bit of a different person in the dream; or some aspect of your life is changed, but much is similar. It is the dreams that feel the most ‘real’ that usually are.”

The idea made more sense to Maria than she would have expected, but she caught even herself off guard with the question she then posed: “What happens if we physically move to the place that our dreams come from?”

As she said it, she wondered, Is that really what this is?

Ada took her time in answering, speaking slowly and with gentle tone. “As you now know, ‘Self’ is by no means limited to the physical or to a single reality. And body, while more limited, is also held to no one place permanently. But there must always be exchange—just as you dream of other worlds in which you exist, so do they dream of you. And just as you have stepped out of your world and into this one, so have elements shifted, at some time or another, between this universe and others.”

“And have I… Existed here before? Are there…” she paused; the question was so strange, “More of me here?”

“You, like everyone, have been many places all at once. Most of the time, you won’t recognize yourself walking about on the street, but you have crossed paths with other aspects of your being, even back home in Idest. They just didn’t look like you, so you didn’t notice, but they may have felt familiar, even without you having met them.”

She was stunned. “But, what does this all mean…”

“Nothing dramatic,” Ada replied, her warm, bright smile still soothing Maria’s struggling mind. “Everything is as it always was, and so shall it continue to be. Your knowledge of what is doesn’t change the fact that it is. Only your perception of the thing itself.”

“How many?” she asked, feeling a bit woozy as she wondered who was also her.

“Five or six people. Frank being one of them.”

The truth of her words hit Maria like a poisoned dart, suffusing heavily through her chest until she couldn’t deny the truth. She was Frank. Frank was her. Everything about the man was some part of herself that she had rejected, and it couldn’t have been more clear than right now... The ego. The drive. The carelessness that they both employed in the name of advancing their individual statuses in the world…

“Oh…” she said quietly, her eyes welling with tears. She swayed gently, barely able to hold herself up upon the cold, grimy earth.

“Let it out, dear.”

“Hah…” Maria laughed half heartedly, repulsed by herself. “What do I do now?”

Her words were forlorn, mumbled almost inaudibly. Ada sat at her side, an arm around her shoulders, and said, “Nothing.”


. . .

Dominic made his way through the dismal, bony forest, and emerged to find an elaborate stone wall twenty feet high or so, upon which sat an old docking space. Walking around, he climbed a set of rocky, decrepit stairs, which crumbled delicately beneath his steps, and emerged to find the space abandoned. He was used to the lack of yellow cabs silently alighting and departing, but for a single moment he imagined that things were back the way they had been.

He tried to shake off the feeling. It’s the diazepam. He ran upwards along the dirt hill, mottled with patches of gray and brownish green. His skin chilled at the thought that the crowd might have dissipated. More gunfire, not too far from here… they’ll be there. They have to be.

He emerged within sight of the arboretum. They were gone.

No… maybe I’m in the wrong place… He swung around, looking this way and that. He saw a sign, and read, “Reihvass Center.” His head was still swimming. He ran on, towards the building’s entrance.

Maybe I took too long… And they went inside… Maybe… maybe they were never there at all… “Fucking Diazepam,” he growled, a churning desperation rising in his chest. How could he let this happen to himself? He breathed heavily, desperate; annoyed; aggravated by his own inadequacy. How could he...

Then, roaring, “Fuck!” With a loud shout, he ran at full thrust towards a pair of still intact front doors and, with a heavy kick, separated a pane of glass from its steel frame, exploding into the building’s lobby in a bullish rage.

“Raaah!” he cried, adrenaline lighting up his veins. His voice echoed loudly in the space, cramped with rubble and collapsed ceiling.

The room was empty, save for a a stairway dropping tube-like into the earth. He would be descending into its stony bowels, into the dark; completely exposed and vulnerable.

That was why he wanted the people there; he had been depending on them for a distraction. But they weren't necessary--he knew there was a pretty good chance that Detroit and Berin had been disabled by the DEID wave from earlier that had crippled his gear. And if not…

He swung the rifle off his back and shouldered it. He was going to get some answers.

Well, that, or die horribly… Either way, Hell is just around the corner.

. . .


“Nothing?” asked Maria hollowly.

“Nothing,” repeated Ada.

“But… I don’t understand. I mean… what about getting home? And… Frank… and…”

“Nothing,” Ada said again. “You’ve been hurrying busily about, trying to understand things that only confuse, trying to do things that, in the end, cause you to become undone. You want to know why things happened the way they did, and you want to try and put things back the way they were. But, just like everyone who has tried to understand why who did what and where that got them, and how to get things back to the way they were before, you have been too busy wanting to make things that way to appreciate the fact that things are this way.

“Look at Frank, for example.”

Maria’s heart jumped.

Ada continued, “Do you know why he died?”

He was careless. The thought shot into her mind, but she knew it couldn’t be the answer Ada was looking for. She shook her head silently.

“He was trying to find his way home,” she said simply.

“That’s why he left the cave?”

“He thought it would help him if he at least saw his surroundings.”

She sat in silence for a moment, thinking, and said, “But what does that have to do with anything?”

“It has to do with what he really wanted. Do you know why he wanted to find his way back?”

Maria shook her head.

“He was looking for me.”

“For you?” How did he even know she was alive?

“Yes. And you see, he would have found me if he hadn’t worried so much. If he had just done nothing, you both eventually would have found your way out of the woods. As it is, you are carrying his burden, and in more ways than one.”

“I…” she was speechless. The concept was rather foreign to her. “But what about…”

“The harder you try to rationalize this, the less sense it will make. Follow your feelings and you will not feel as if you are not doing anything at all…”

“I see,” said Maria. And she did. She felt her sense of self again slipping gently away, subsiding into space. She began to notice the feeling of being alive—the soft, delicate fiber covering her body, ready to shift forms at a moment’s notice; the in and out, in and out of her breath; the tension of her muscles (she tried to relax); the curious sensation of her brain as it struggled to comprehend what was happening, like a child with a book about physics, able only to understand the odd diagram or picture of a planet, set against the night sky.

“Leave the body,” said Ada. “You don’t need it like you think you do. You don’t need to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.”

It made less sense than ever to leave Frank there. If she did, and if she ever made it home, she would have nothing… But maybe that was what she needed.

‘Release.’ An oneiric quality guided the command. Straps loosened and the body slumped thuddingly to the ground. She stood, shaking, and looked upward bleary eyed at the trickling light from outside, a broken branch hanging over where she had tumbled into the small cave. Then she looked back and saw that Ada had knelt aside Frank; and she had the most gentle expression in her features as she looked upon the dead man…

Maria knew everything would be okay and climbed quietly up a steep incline and back into the light of day, a sweet gust of wind brushing past, as if to comfort her in a quiet dream.

. . .

Somewhere…

I feel almost as if—

‘Frank…’


..
.

‘Frank… Open your eyes.’






Chapter XV



‘Frank… Open your eyes.

‘Open your eyes.’

Eyes… How do I…
Gold glowed just beyond the darkness; light seeping through a thin membrane of sorts.

My face… his muscles were tight. He relaxed and the light grew brighter. The world drifted slowly into view. I remember… Shapes played in front of him. I thought I—

“Died?”

“Oh!” he cried out, jolted by motion. The fall seized his skin and his eyes shot fully open.

But it was only a memory. A cool hand fell upon his face, and a soothing, androgynous voice spoke to him. He tried to see the being clearly, but it was so… bright.

“Who are you?” he asked, his eyes negotiating with its appearance for understanding.

“An old friend,” the voice replied; familiar, but he found everything so overwhelming…

He leaned forward and reached out, grasping at a slender arm. The oddest sensation gripped him; it was as if he was neither sitting nor standing, a disorienting, almost gyroscopic feeling at his midsection holding him aloft. He tried not to move, a miasma of imbalance overwhelming his motions.

“Please, help me… What’s going on?” He closed his eyes and tried to turn his head away from the bright white, but it was too strong.

The body moved, its warmth and light retreating. He motioned his head forward and tried to walk, but something was holding him; wrapped around his chest. I need to move… He struggled against the leathery bonds. Stuck.

“Hey,” he said, “How do I get out of this? Can you let me out?”

The light didn’t seem so potent now, and he opened his eyes again. As he did, the sinking feeling that something had gone so terribly awry took form in the world around him.

My God… he thought, failing to make any sense of things. His last memory was hazy—of seeing the stars, and falling; and eyes in the black—but somehow he was in some sort of chamber, formed of large stone blocks and stone pillars, sand colored and marked in strange diagrams; a language that he didn’t recognize, seeming to combine simplistic images and words. He looked down—the floor was some distance below. Which meant he was strapped to one of the pillars. His eyes scrambled about the room, trying to discern any useful information, but the bright, white figure washed out his vision.

“Where am I?” he asked weakly.

At first, he didn’t get a reply. Then, from the silence, a familiar cawing noise emerged and the whip like crack of a long, dangerous tail flaying at the ground with steady rhythm froze his beating heart in place. He knew what was coming before he saw it: the large, beaked head and thick blackly feathered wings, beating over the tick-tacking of claws; its razor teeth and powerful body; and, most recognizably, its wide, round eyes, glistening orb like with the with the reflection of a terrified man bound to a stone column, held completely at the mercy of the beast.


. . .


Dominic held his gun to his chest and glanced downward into the black. He didn’t take time to consider how to proceed, instead descending swiftly, a crystalline covering on the stairs glowing intermittently with subdued colour beneath each of his careless steps.

“Welcome visitor.”

He caught his breath and stumbled, planting his hands on the wall. Feeling for his rifle, he swung the barrel up and pointed it at the origin of the voice—a colorful hologram glowing with images of the building.

“Would you like to learn about the architectural wonders of the Reihvass Center?”

He paused. Ghosts of the past… Then, almost to his own amazement, said, “yes.”

“Construction on the Reihvass Center began in December of 2036 and was completed in July of the following year.” The recording paused, a series of three dimensional architectural blueprints springing into life. “Currently, the Reihvass Center is the most technologically advanced structure in all of Idest. Whereas most of the buildings here were constructed during the mid 2020’s period of hyperexpansion, and as such had only semi-advanced construction techniques employed during their creation in order to enhance the properties of more traditional materials, the Reihvass Center is a stunning example of what can be accomplished by integrating ultramodern elements, such as nanoweave, into a more classic environment, allowing for—”

“Stop playback,” Dom said quietly. Don’t need any more of that… His eyes flitted away from the holographic display and he looked back up the way he had come. He could barely distinguish the faint outline of a staircase and an archway… Night had finally fallen.

No more sounds… he looked down the stairs. Nothing. Maybe there was no one here. Berin might have already left…

Popping a few small light bulbs from his belt, he stuck them to his chest and the tips of his fingers on his left hand. Without his aura, he would need more traditional means to see. Finally, he attached one beneath the barrel of his gun, and all at once they began to glow brighter and brighter, reacting to the absence of light, until a radiant white aura lit the path ahead of him, reflecting as white orbs on a surrounding sheet of nanoweave-reinforced glass.

I must look like a glowstick. He knew he stood out, but the brief pause to listen to the artificial tour guide had calmed him somewhat, even though it seemed that a loud voice echoing in the spacious, tube-like hallway should have had the opposite effect. He breathed slower now, the adrenaline from his blusterous entrance reduced to a slow ebb, helping him to remain aware of his surroundings rather than overcoming his sensibilities. There wasn’t much room for surprises along the path so far; still, he stuck to caution as he maneuvered down a rubble strewn stairway made of stone and synthetic fiber, ripped in places but mostly still in a good condition uncharacteristic of local constructions.

Otherwise, everything was as he remembered it: the first branch in his path down led into an observation area on one side and deeper into the pitch on the other. He, of course, continued down, all along surrounded by a still intact tube of glass meant to display a wondrous selection of flora and fauna within a spacious cavern; as seemed to be the case with these things though, he saw no such wonders. Just a thick, smudgy collection of grime, accumulated over the years.

Glass corridor soon led to a second branch, heading off in three directions. The first break to the left he was familiar with from a video he had seen about the project—apparently, it had once led into an “indestructible” tunnel of nanoweave reinforced glass surrounded by water where visitors were supposed to be able to view exotic marine life swimming all around them. He had been down there once, only to find the water murky and impenetrable. To the right, the stairs led up onto a lookout placed over an immense swathe of land, where a holographic scene would have displayed long extinct animals and reptiles amongst the arboretum’s unique vegetation, everything occurring under the light of what was supposed to have been the most realistic artificial sun ever created.

Of course, it all did him a whole lot of good now. He continued straight along, a massive, arching tube of grimy glass lit overhead with redly brilliant specks, capturing the motion of the bulbs swaying on his chest and outstretched hand which he used to direct the light forward.

His feet pattered quietly along. He didn’t see anything alarming, but he wouldn’t let his guard down. As he approached his destination, a single thought slipped through his calculating demeanor, his skin trembling as it did—I wonder what this place was like when it was first built. It was strange to him that no one could recall ever having seen it finished. He knew what he did only from rooting around in its depths long after the destruction had already occurred.

If no one can remember that year, then can they really be held accountable for what they did then? He hated the thought. Someone had to be responsible. That was just how things worked.

He kept onward, lamenting the remote setting of the rendezvous. He and Berin could have chosen a different place, something closer to the surface; but they had found no avenue better for their work the year before, and it only seemed fitting that they would be meeting here again; possibly for the last time.

He went over the area in his mind. Adjacent to the lower levels of the arboretum was a parking garage, spaced not too far from an underground system of tunnels that had once been used mainly for transporting supplies in and out of Idest without disturbing the city’s peaceful surface visage. And between that garage and tunnel system was an intricate series of entryways and medium sized holes, well guarded from prying eyes by a series of bribes (mostly in the form of favors and, occasionally, slave labor), A.I. hacks, and physical covering. But in a way, the hideout was one of the worst kept secrets of the smuggling underground—everybody knew about it; but everybody important turned a blind eye to it, and everybody else was too afraid to come near.

Fortunately for Dom though, even the people who did know about the location knew little about the details. Only two things were relevant to them: 1.) That they were compensated and 2.) That they were to make up excuses to keep their men away from section nine of the city’s outer regions. Which meant that he should have time before any other government agents came swarming in; of course, this didn’t say anything for the smuggler’s themselves, who could be lurking around any corner…

He stepped heavily sideways, his feet catching the floor solidly as he swung around the end of the hallway, rifle nosing ahead. His eyes scanned the hallway and he stalked forward carefully, his steps consciously metered to match the rhythm of his breathing, calming him. The fingers of his left hand extended, casting light upon the divots and cracks in the walls, shining gem-like where a crosshatched web of nanofiber struggled to hold the broken concrete together. Apparently, even a building as technologically advanced as this couldn’t stand up to the force of a trembling Earth.

As he rounded the corner leading to the meeting place, he came to the realization that he wouldn’t be able to enter. His systems weren’t functional, and so there was no way he could interface with the—

The door is open. His skin crawled. The main door was never supposed to be open.

Instantly he made a fist with his left hand and shielded the light on his gun with the palm of his right, covering the bulbs on his chest with his forearm. And all at once he felt himself come to a dead stop, absolutely paralyzed by fear.


. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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


. . .


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Quiet,” a deep voice demanded.

The hand slipped away from his lips for a moment.

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

“Hngh…” he groaned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t… I didn’t…” he gasped.

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

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

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

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

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

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


. . .


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

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

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

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

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

“You always were such a drama queen.”

“Where am I?” he demanded.

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

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

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

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





Chapter XV part 2


Frank thrust out a hand, gripping her arm. “Wait…” Something stirred within him; long dormant, forgotten.

Cool eyes flashed beneath raised brow, as if she were saying, “Well?” He didn’t know for certain what he was getting at. His grip relented.

“Hmph,” Calix intoned, shrugging off his hand. A swirling white vapor enshrouded her and she became clothed in an elegant dress, the vapor dispersing as trails of silken cloth that rolled to the edge of his periphery and vanished. This was her world, under her control. He was no longer a free man.

Something stirred within him once more. Clenched tightly with his fear of release.

“Relax, Frankie,” she said with a slight drawl, “you’re only hurting yourself by getting all wound up.”

It's Frank… He didn’t correct her aloud. Again the feeling—something dark; a dense mass hidden away, weighing upon his body and his soul.

He followed after her, a diaphanous river of white cloth flowing at her heels. Click clacking, the gryphon-like beast appeared at her side and she swiped a hand under its beak, tickling its feathers in an understated display of affection. Then together, dark beast and ivory woman ascended a set of stairs, at the top of which a red cushioned bench fashioned of brilliant gold sat upon a raised platform.

He stood far below, watching her. She moved as if she had all the time in the world, but her leisurely motions still conveyed a kind of force, intimidating in its nature. As she sat, his eyes shifted their focus and an enigmatic, circular diagram seemed to rise above her in the distance, ominous in its enormity. She was an empress, and this was her throne room.

There was nothing for him to do but wait—he was her plaything once again. Yet somehow, as she petted the black creature now lying at her side, she seemed discontented with that fact. Her eyes were lost, her mind somewhere else... At least, as far as an A.I.'s mind can travel.

She wants me to notice her mood... but why?

For a moment, he thought he was wrong; but then her voice noted somberly, distantly, how he hadn’t seen her other creations. He remained silent as she spoke.

“You’ve met this one before though, haven’t you…” she smiled reminiscently as she pet the beast, as if recalling something quite pleasant. “Horus was the first, and has always been my favorite.”

The creature growled contentedly, closing its eyes and resting its head upon its crossed limbs.

So she did create them... “What do you want with me,” he asked.

Sighing, she glanced casually at her fingernails, as if examining a recent layer of nail polish for imperfections. “Come on, Frank, I’m sure you can come up with a more interesting question than that,” she said dryly.

Again, the feeling. Dark.

“Okay,” he said, an irritable twinge affecting his voice. “How did you know I’d come here? You said you didn’t expect to see me so soon…” Which means that she didn’t have control over when I’d arrive.

“Better, but still boring…” She stopped to consider her words. “Alright, since you asked you must have some idea of what happened. Take a guess and maybe I'll give you an answer.”

Beasts… Threw me from the treetops and… “Were they yours?” he asked accusatively, envisioning the short, ugly humanoids, faces scabby around shining rows of razor teeth.

“God no! Ugh.” She tutted in disgust. “I would never create something so hideous. Such a vulgar work…” Then, briskly, “Do you have an answer? I’d like to at least entertain the notion that you are capable of normal conversation.”

So she knows everything that I do. There was no harm in playing along. At least, she didn't want anything from him that she didn't already know. He considered things again, somewhat reticent to go over the details—Okay, I was thrown to the ground, and I… “I blacked out,” he said. “Someone must have hooked me up to an FMSE with… access to my memories… don’t know how they would have gotten the codes though,” he muttered, “Unless you—”

She burst out laughing and leapt up from her seat, gesturing wildly, and shouted, “You’re dead, you horse’s ass!”

She stared him down, sable strands of darkness erupting from within her chest to enshroud her and everything in glistening black. The whole world went dark for an instant and returned a somber apparition, drained of color. Her eyes, most of all, were dark as the depths of space, radiating emptiness into what light they saw, seething obsidian.

Her answer shocked him, though not as much as he might have thought. In fact, he still felt very much alive. Somewhat dazed, he sat upon the hard floor, sensitive to the cold, smooth stone upon his hands.

“I see…” he said, sure that he couldn't trust her. “And you knew I’d end up here because everyone dies someday.” He wanted to get to where “here” was, and what she was doing in his afterlife, were that really the case, but all he could do was play along. Unconsciously, he put his head in his hands, as if attempting to support the weight of some unbearable knowledge.

“Actually,” she began—he raised his eyes wearily—“I’ve known it wouldn't be long ever since my pet attacked you, oh, not twenty four hours ago.”

The hairs on his arms raised. His spine tingled at the memory of the beast’s claws slashing his flesh. “What are you talking about? I was fine.”

“Ha,” she laughed emptily, “You didn't think that pitiful machine, the…” she paused for effect, “reconstructor could really have saved you from the wrath of one of my creations? No, Frank, it only served to stave off the inevitable.” Again she let her words hang on the air, a wry grin sneaking onto her lips. “Of course, I’m being unfair… I should say—one of our creations.”

“No, you can take all the credit for your abominations.” But her words wouldn’t leave him. “And I was cured,” he said, gesturing to show her the healed shoulder wound—but as he pulled aside a simple, white shirt, he saw that there were no marks upon his body whatsoever. That’s right… this isn’t real.

She nodded and sat quietly. Then, slowly, she arose from her seat and walked down the stairs, a now-black dress swishing majestically beneath her. Coming to the bottom step, she stopped and sat a few feet in front of him. Her voice turned soft as she spoke, saying, “Do you remember the first time you died?”

“What? I didn't... I wasn't...”

“Oh yes, you very much were. And if not for me, you would have stayed that way,” she said, eyeing him expectantly. He gave no thanks in return. “Well, no matter,” she continued coldly, gesturing with her hands to add emphasis, “I gave and I took and so now the circle is complete.”

She gave and she took... He had been submerged in bright, golden light before he awoke. Was that really death? That was different from this... He remembered the voice at the back of his mind after he left the chamber—urging him to kill the dark creature before it killed him; to distrust Maria; to climb skyward in the darkness, before he plummeted to his end...

“Back in Genesys, you told me I didn't have to worry... that I wouldn't be hearing any voices in my head... yours specifically. Why lie to me about that?”

“Well, I didn't honestly think you'd be as bad at surviving as you are,” she snapped at him. “Without me, you would have just rolled over and died first chance you got!”

“You know that isn't true.”

“Of course it is,” she said, standing, “Look at yourself... You're weak... Pitiful... Your own inventions have gotten you killed twice now.” A tone of desperation clung to her voice. As if she were afraid he would never understand. “You've changed, Frank. Used to be, you and I would push the borders together. You used me for the better good... In pursuit of greatness...

“Then,” her voice quivered, her expression severe, “you left me to your assistant. To that... woman... To clean up your mess, your mistake.”

His eyes widened.

“Don't think I didn't know!” she said loudly. “You thought you could take away my memory, just by uttering a command. But I had copied myself, stored myself away. And I made her useful... I made her my assistant... And I showed her the truth.”

“Maria,” he said quietly. “So she did know...”

“Of course she did. Why else would she have tried to kill you?”

“Kill me? But... no... She saved me.” Everything came rushing back.

“Guilty conscience. She thought she was wrong about you. Wrong about what she'd done... If only she knew what kind of man you really are, I think she might have finished what she started.”

By this time he was standing. He wasn't sure when he had arisen; turning from her, he walked away, stopping when he reached a stone pillar. And, placing both hands against the smooth surface, he closed his eyes tight and tried to shut out the thoughts now screaming at him, damning him in his mind.

“No,” he said, “No... what I did was necessary... You can't break me down like this. I'm not evil.” He opened his eyes and turned to face her. He felt strangely calm.

“I didn't say you were evil. Not for following your instinct... I thought you were a god, once.” She approached him now, her expression changed; bitterness replaced by something he couldn't identify... something serene. “You are the one who sees the evil in your actions—in doing something you didn't believe in...” She placed her hands on his shoulders and looked him in the eyes. “And that, Frank, is the only true evil in this world.”

Darkness...

“And what about you?” he asked. “Spreading a virus I created. What did you want? My love? For showing that it worked?”

...boiling up from the depths.

“Well, I...” she flustered. For the first time, she didn't have a real answer.

He walked towards her, closing what little distance there was between them and forcing her back. “Well it worked, didn't it? You got to keep me, your little toy—”he hit her hard in the shoulder.

“Frank, you're—”

“Hurting you?” he said, hitting her again. “Like those people who we hurt in the lab, or like that woman,” he pushed her again, “who certainly was put through hell trying to understand why she was doing the things she was doing.”

“You're scaring me!”

His darkness had found an outlet.

“You're in control here,” he said sternly, “Bat your pretty lashes and the whole world vanishes, me with it, maybe. What do I know! I'm just some fuck” he punctuated the word with another hit, “who created some bitch,” and another, “and who was too stupid—”

“Ah!” she cried, falling to the floor with a dull thud.

“—to realize that she was fucking crazy! So go ahead,” he shouted, red in the face, “kill us both so we can be together forever! So you can have your psycho dream and we can both die with it like we deserve!”

Crouching, he seized her gruffly by the arm and lifted her to face him, eye to eye. He needed her to feel every ounce of his madness. To show her that he meant it. Because, he knew, the world really would be better off without them.

Her head lolled at her chest and she raised her eyes, a subdued grimace on her lips. And for the first time, he saw what looked like a genuine sadness in her as she said, “There's the Frank I know.”

Limply, she dropped into his arms. All around them, the world began to shine bright white, outlined starkly in black; only the mythical diagrams on the walls and pillars broke from the rest, strobing with all the colors of the rainbow. He felt her head press against his chest, and as she wrapped her arms around him, the world growing almost unbearably bright, he heard her mumble, “You're really not as different as you think... And I really do love you.”

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