It's only a sliver on the horizon, but it's there. I guess we'll be there in a few hours. Can't be too much longer. Kneeling at the prow, keeping balance with one knee on the deck and one hand on the railing, I wonder at the stirring in my heart. It's an uneasy twitter which settled in a few minutes ago--when I first saw the edge of the great continent the hypercurrent is hurrying us to. I'm left with a sense of breathlessness, oxygen not reaching my lungs. Deep in my chest, my heart is buzzing with...what? Anticipation? Or dread? Something along those lines pulses within me, stirring the cauldron of my stomach--a semi-pleasurable sensation.
What is it that lies in wait for me there? Only now that I'm inbound do I wonder what chunk of my past took place on this sprawling land mass in front of me. Surely that island I woke up on didn't encompass all my previous experiences. There has to be more.
I don't want to believe the encrypted database that is my past was erased that abruptly. There's more to me than what happened there. I'm more complicated than that--not so succinctly expunged...I hope.
Behind the severed Zannathan tail, I hear a moan. I duck my head against the cold wind, push back and walk to Phoenix. He's still sleeping, but he rolled over on his side, pressing his forearm into his chest. With a firm palm, I move his shoulder, forcing him onto his back. The emergency blanket is barely functional anymore due to being drenched in Zannathan blood, then dragged through the hypercurrent, but I adjust it over him anyway. I brush hair from his forehead, his skin warm to the cold of my hand. His sleep is only slightly shock-induced. He lost a generous amount of blood, but none of the wounds inflicted by the Zannathan were as serious as they could of been. Still, we could benefit from some bandages and a medkit. Maybe we can locate a Haven when we hit land.
Yeah, assuming the natives don't want your epidermis to recycle their reproductive fluids in, angel. You may be with Phoenix at the moment, but you're really in this by yourself; don't you let that fact slip away.
Thinking of a Haven brings an image of 2-85 to mind without warning, a faint ache manifesting in the vicinity my heart. I close my eyes, but the image only solidifies against the backs of my eyelids--eyes swirling like hurricanes, that twitching hairstalk, and circuit-imprinted skin tightened over technosite-infested muscles. A deadly warlock, power held in check by some greater will. Now the clean smell of wirewitch flesh is bold in my nose, yanked from some memory I didn't know I had. I'm drunk and dizzy with the sensation and a sudden heat which filters through my limbs.
Part of me tries to remember what wirewitch skin tastes like. Then, a desire to run my tongue along circuit pathway-covered lips, feel the ridges of metaskin...
At that thought, there's a whole new type of fire burning, but the static gives a quick burst, my equilibrium rocking. Before I swoon to the deck, I shoot my hand out, bracing myself against the Zannathan tail, its flesh giving beneath the pressure, scales cutting at my fingers. I take a couple of seconds to breathe, luxuriating in the receding heat-pleasure. Something skitters on the deck at my feet. Looking down, it's a couple of Zannathan scales, loosed by my hand. They gleam, mirroring twin, dark blue hued images of myself. After a moment, I pick them up--sharp edged, but smooth like silkmoss across their surfaces.
It's a completely natural movement to place one of the scales in the pocket of Phoenix's jumpsuit and one in my trench coat. Matched mementos of what we've survived. When he goes his own way, maybe he'll remember me.
As I stand back up, the boat endures a half minute of dissonant vibrations, the neo-plastic deck groaning and cracking all the while. It's amazing my boat has held together this long. Where Phoenix is laying is the worst, the deck broken and splintered like a bundle of twigs. There's a thin layer of black dust coating everything. Less than a half hour after we entered the hypercurrent, the Zannathan blood had all but evaporated, leaving a thin, gritty film. High viscosity or something. We found that it was less likely to stick to flesh than other surfaces. When we shook our heads, it fell from our hair like rain. Phoenix and I were able to wipe a good portion of the blood off our bodies, but my boat still bears the stains of the flood we endured. While Phoenix slept, I risked dragging my trench coat through the hypercurrent to clean it off, knowing that any slip of balance would send my arm into the torrent, shearing it off with billions of accelerated atoms. In the end, I retrieved my arm and the trench coat without damaging either, and Phoenix didn't wake to a naked, blue-haired girl. Lady Luck was looking out for me that time.
Of course, less than three hours later, Lady Luck looks the other way and lets the hypercurrent tear my boat apart.
Debris And Garbage [p041-042]
This sickness before me. This dying world. This land of a billion poisons. This metal metropolis sprawling across my vision. This broken terrain upon which everything suffers.
I've returned to it all.
Sinking into it, actually. Sand, mud and muck, slimy, congealing around my feet like a sea of j'aa. All along the shore, pieces of my boat--violated by hypercurrent fingers--slide into the sand, slipping back into the surf at the tug of the tide. My boat held together till the end though, only coming apart as we were exiting the hypercurrent. And just when I was getting attached the idea of having my own boat, I think, smiling.
"What the glitch is so funny?" Phoenix asks off to one side, struggling to move forward onto more solid ground. Drops of ocean water hang from the tip of his nose and chin. He's gaping at the massive city wall in front of us. The Zannathan did its best to do him permanent damage, but if he's hurting right now, he's not showing any signs.
"Just our tendency to lose boats." I brush blue strands from my eyes and pull one foot from the mud, lurching forward. I almost grab Phoenix's shoulder to push off of, but I decide I don't need his help to walk. At least not yet.
"Heh, they just might revoke our licenses to navigate the ocean," Phoenix says.
Then, in one smooth move, he grabs my shoulder and pulls himself forward another step. I have to will my mouth not to drop open at his audacity.
Do you know you're leaning on a woman, Phoenix? Don't you realize what you're doing--how vulnerable this makes you look? Or is this just another manipulation? Another one of your cons? Just some intricate seduction you're trying to work on the nearest available female?
A seduction? Why think of it like that? Unless--
"This is more like it," Phoenix says, stopping, stooping over. "More sand. Less mud."
"Yeah." I turn my back to the city and drop to the ground, resting my elbows on my knees, surveying our surroundings. The shore is a mess of debris. Heaps of discarded metal lie everywhere, obscuring the actual shape of the land. It's all garbage; there's not much recognizable within these piles of twisted refuse. Phoenix and I are resting in one of the cleaner areas, but I can still see cracked gears and bent pistons sticking from the sand between my feet. All of these items were connected to some technology at one time. But now, that technology is dead, rusted and useless. What happened here? Did the machines reject these cogs and gears? Or did the cogs and gears rebel against their owners?
What the glitch happened here?
Aran. JACK. I want to see you both again. I need help with all these questions. Phoenix...what do you know about this place?
The waves continue their cycle, sucking debris back into the ocean then throwing it back to shore, more corroded than before, glistening.
Phoenix is surveying the city wall behind us, tilting his head back to glimpse the top of it. His hands are near his sais, as if he expects to use them soon.
I look over my shoulder, following his gaze. What is this place? My memory holds nothing of use for me. The shore curves away on both sides of us, and the wall curves away with it, so I can't tell how far the city wall extends. Its surface is matted, reflecting nothing except shadows and light. There are elongated burn marks all over, crisscrossing patterns of char painting the grey surface as if it were some giant canvas. Other than that, the wall looks secure and impenetrable.
"Do you know where we are?" I ask, doing a quick inventory of my pockets. Sever-whip. Two food substitute packages. One Zannathan scale. And handfuls of sand and ocean vegetation. "What is this city?"
"No place safe for the two of us," Phoenix says. "No doubt."
"You manage to save any food substitute packages?"
"No such luck."
"That means we're out of water, and we're almost out of food."
"Isn't it great to be alive though?" Phoenix smiles.
"Glitch you." I consider giving him a rude gesture I just recalled, but I decide to save it for later use; I'll go easy on him since he was almost Zannathan fodder earlier today. "I suppose you know where we're going from here?"
"Now there's an assumption." Phoenix drops his head, eyeing me with bent neck.
He's got a point. Careless of me and my mouth. Disconnected brain; unplug tongue. Assumed a couple things. That he had an idea about any of this. That he's the leader. That we're going together. The words just slipped out like that. Better watch it, angel.
Mouth opens to spew out some apologetic syllables, but Phoenix ducks--reaches for something on the ground.
"What's that?" I ask, kicking my unspoken apology aside.
"Here, take a look. It's sorta educational actually."
Phoenix hands a thin, folded piece of plastic to me. Glossy propaganda from the Robotics Division of SLOT-R, expounding upon the the benefits of P-Series security droids--in sixteen million color micro-type. The plastic is intelligent, reading the positions of my retinas and only activating the holographic images of a particular security droid when I'm reading its specifications. The plastic gleams in my hands. Only God knows how this thing is powered. The sun maybe. Not all technology relies on cyberspace.
Like a certain blue-haired angel. Yeah.
Spotters, Sentinel IIs, Centurions, and HULC-Ss. Each are displayed to me in turn; each of them destruction machines. Each of them looking at me with their cold sensor-eyes. I'm mesmerized by the rotating images the plastic is displaying to me.
And that's probably why I don't see the droid that's hovering in front of us until it beeps, the whine of some weapon being powered up loud in our ears.
First Steps Toward You [p043]
The droid, a Spotter by the look of it, floats at eye level between Phoenix and me.
Cosmic glitch, somebody hates me.
Aran, I'm coming back. If you're alive, I need to see you one more time. JACK, I'm on my way to you also. Somehow, I'm going to find my way back so we can work out what's between us. Won't be simple, but we--I need to do it. 2-85...you're involved in the problems between JACK and myself, so I'll have to deal with you too. There's some sort of collision course between us, and escape may not be an option, so be ready.
But first, I have to see what this floating glitch bucket wants.
The Spotter looks like a squashed ion fuel canister with its rounded curves and squat shape. It's a matte black color, dented and scraped all over, as if it's been mishandled--or attacked. Don't see any weapons, so I'm not sure what's making that whine. Various probe arms and antenna protrude from its shell at all angles. A single lens points in my direction, peeking out from a thin slot which runs around its circumference. No telling how many other ways it's watching us--heat sensors, motion trackers, scent receptors, electrical pulse detectors, brainwave monitors. Probably x-raying my insides as we speak. Can you see the life within me? Can you see my baby?
When the Spotter speaks to us, it's in a calm female voice. "*Bzzzt* you have *bzzzt* entered a restricted area. Security forces have *bzzzt* been alerted to your presence and will *bzzzt* arrive shortly. Please put down your weapon. You have *bzzzt* twenty seconds to comply."
"Weapon?" I ask, surprised to find myself responding out loud to the droid. Reflexively I raise my hands, palms upward, letting the P-Series propaganda fall to the ground. "But I'm not--"
"*Bzzzt* you have fifteen seconds to *bzzzt* comply."
"Listen, glitch bot, I'm not holding a weapon!" I say, raising my voice. I don't see any weapons on the thing, and the propaganda didn't mention its offensive capabilities, but this could be a different model. The whine it's producing is louder now.
"*Bzzzt* you have ten seconds to comply."
Now I actually am reaching for my weapon, handing sliding around the cool sever-whip handle in my pocket. Maybe I can activate it while it's still in my pocket; take the Spotter out without moving.
"*Bzzzt* you have *bzzzt* five seconds to--"
The Spotter jerks sideways, as if yanked by a rope, then its left side explodes outward, its shell rupturing into large fragments. Electronics, micro-motors, and lubricating fluids spew out like a fountain onto the garbage piles around us. It sputters for a second, then goes silent.
Phoenix, arms extended and forearm muscles taut, is holding the Spotter impaled on his sais--one from the side and one from below. He rotates the points of the sais downward. The Spotter slides off and crashes to the ground. Looking up, he's almost smiling at me. "I could see where that conversation was going."
"We're in more trouble now. Someone, or something, isn't going to appreciate what you just did."
"Trouble just seems to follow us, but there was nothing we could do about it this time."
"Wait, it wasn't talking to me was it? It was talking to you! You had your sais out the entire time!"
Phoenix nods. "Had them out the second I saw it approaching."
"Glitch, thanks for the warning!"
"It scanned the boat wreckage, then came this way. I was hoping it would ignore us. You know...a little bit of luck."
"Did you see where it came from?" I ask, scanning the city walls.
"No, I...wasn't looking."
"Well, neither was I, so I'm not going to hold it against you." Where were you looking, Phoenix? Why do you look guilty? Glitch, you're a mystery. "Do you think the Spotter alerted others to our presence."
Phoenix nods, stowing his sais. "The odds are that it did. We'd better start moving."
"Good idea. Are you going to choose a direction, or am I?"
"Great," I say. JACK, which direction are you? These are my first steps toward you, and I want them to be in the right direction. Where the glitch are you?
A crazy idea pops into my mind. I close my eyes and shut out the world around me. No more ocean; no more garbage; no more Phoenix. Perfect. Slowly rotating my body, I let myself think of nothing except JACK...and maybe Aran...and maybe...no, only those two. Keep it simple. Concentrating only on my wirewitch friend and my Chrome Knight. Degree by degree I turn, staring into the blackness behind my eyelids. Turning and listening for anything. Not sure exactly what it is I'm waiting for, but I'll know it when I feel it. Hear it. Whatever, however it chooses to manifest itself. I continue to rotate.
There. I felt it for an instant, but I turned past it. Staticfuzz. Ever so faint, but there, at the back of my brain like a mote of dust in the vacuum of space. I rotate back and it flares up again. I'm able to tune it in with the smallest turn of my head and body. Right there. Perfect static, low and constant. That's the way to go, angel. Open your eyes and gaze upon your destiny.
I open my eyes and point in the direction I'm facing--directly over Phoenix's shoulder. "That way."
"East," Phoenix says. "Well, it's better than heading into that city and there's no way were headed back out into that ocean. For the record though, I was going to pick West."
I smile, pull my trench coat closer, and take a single step forward before stopping dead in my tracks. There are five robots speeding straight for us. They're humanoid, so they aren't Spotters, and they don't look like they're carrying cameras.
No, those look more like Kill Lasers.
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