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080: The Outskirts Of Glitch     081: Droids Of Slaughter     082: The Reaving
083: Deathhaven     084: A Night's Respite     085: Being Hunted
086: Narrow Path Through Hell     087: Return Of The Harlequin
088: Blood And Metal     089: Dark Door To Twilight


Post: 01.29.2003
Date: 01.03.2196
Time: Midday

The Outskirts Of Glitch [p043]

"Luck isn't really your forte, is it?" I ask Phoenix as I pull the sever-whip from my pocket.  I grasp it with both hands, raise it in front of me, and flip the switch.  The plasma wire feeds from the handle like a fountain of light.  The end of the sever-whip undulates in the air in front of me as my hands move against the control surfaces.  Not sure what I'll be able to do against Kill Lasers though.  Can this thing absorb beams of that intensity?

"Luck isn't controlled," Phoenix says.  "It's experienced.  We're just not experiencing any right now.  From what was on that pamphlet, I'd say those are Sentinel II's."

"They have Kill Lasers."  I was wrong.  They're not carrying their weapons as much as their weapons are mounted to them.  I can see the thin tubes of the Kill Laser housings flashing in the sunlight.

"Lasers that kill," Phoenix says.  "Who would've thought..."

"Shut up," I say.  My hand is shaking.  My brain is static-ing.  What a wonderful feeling that is, and it’s making me irritable.  That, and those glitchable robots running at us.  “We gonna run?”

“You think that’ll do any good?” Phoenix asks, his sais out once again, ready to dance.  “Think we can outrun them?  You’re in bare feet.”

“I can handle it.  Been in bare feet most my life.”  But I immediately wonder where that impression came from.  Is that as true as I think it is?  Ever since I woke up—

I don't even have time to jerk back.  A laser beam reaches out, narrowly missing my head.  The thin rod of light cuts a green knife edge through the air.

"Lasers are more difficult to outrun," Phoenix says, stepping in front of me.  "Me, I prefer to dodge them."

"Yeah, right.  You're fast, but not that fast."  Moving in front of me is chivalrous and all--I think that's what you were doing--but it's not gonna stop a laser beam.  Those things'll go right through you.  You know that don't you?  I duck behind a pile of debris.  "I'm not that fast either.  Was that a warning shot?"

"Either that, or it has really bad aim."  Phoenix moves back, but doesn't kneel down.  Instead, he continues to watch the robots approaching.  Laser beams flash above us, way off target.

"They're glitched in the head for sure," I say.  "The fall of cyberspace damaged them, and now they're not operating right.  Were they meant to do this?  Were they actually programmed to kill humans?  That Spotter said we were in a restricted area, but we're outside the city!  How the glitch can that be restricted?"

"Anything's possible," Phoenix says.

"What is this city?  Do you know?"

Phoenix ignores me.  "We should be worrying about how to not get killed by the Sentinels, not about why they're attacking.  I think we should run."

"Fine.  Which way?"

Phoenix points over my shoulder.  "Away."

East.  Of course.  Not the way we need to go, but I'm up and running.  I'm picking my way between the piles of debris as best I can, guiding my feet into small patches of sand with as few sharp objects as possible.  I'm not entirely successful, but I'm moving too fast to worry about the pricks and pokes and pains I'm inflicting on myself.  I hold the sever-whip away from my body, the end of it sparking against the ground and the various metallic objects it encounters.  I can hear Phoenix a few steps behind me, then he's moving in a slightly different direction.  Giving them more targets to track.  Still, he'd better not leave me.  I don't want to be alone right now.  Laser beams stretch out, up and to my right, hitting the city wall then diffusing up into the sky.

A quick glance over my shoulder brings strands of blue into my vision and confirms what I was afraid of: the Sentinels are gaining on us.  Cyberspace may have messed with their targeting systems, but there's nothing wrong with their motor functions; they're intent on catching us, and I suspect their aim is going to be a whole glitch of a lot better up close.  This running thing.  It was a glitch of an idea.  Very bad.  Bad because it's not gonna work.  Any second now we're gonna have to stand and fight--glitch!

Ow! (glitch) Ouch!!

A fire in my foot tells me I just wounded it again.  Probably leaving bloody footprints in the sand now glitch it.

Phoenix appears by my side, vaulting around a misshapen form--a segment of a massive robotic leg now without a body to attach itself to.  Green light zips through the thick leg, cleaving a diagonal cross-section from it half a second after Phoenix clears it.  His face is hard, his teeth clenched.  He's in a good amount of pain no doubt.  Being forced to move this fast can't be easy for him; not sure how he's even managing it. 

"Okay," he says, "running was a bad idea.  They're gonna catch us no matter what we do.  We're not fast enough.  And we can't run forever.  They can."

"Stand and fight then?"

"Yes.  Let's just make sure it's on our terms."

"Is that even possible?"

"Yes," Phoenix says, cutting in front of me.  Deft maneuvering takes him clear of the sever-whip as he spins across my vision.  I feel a hand on my side, then I'm cheek-to-cheek with him.  A pause in time--a single instant of clarity--and I  notice the slick of sweat between us and the pulse of blood in his neck.  The static flares at that, and my vision flickers, possibly going blank for a second as we twirl.  The flitterwasp in my stomach flies upside-down and I'm weightless, picked up and handled as if I were a mere whistlewisp on a breeze.  The world whizzes by, streaks of gray and brown punctuated a hazy yellow glow and stark green lines.  The sever-whip.  Laser beams.  Close...

I struggle to catch my breath when Phoenix sets me on my feet.  Tilting my head back, I can see we're hidden behind a curving metal shape that's imbedded in the ground, like a thin, giant fingernail caught in the sand.  There's really not enough room behind it for both of us, but Phoenix presses me deeper into the hollow, crowding me with his whole body.  My mind tells me that I can hear his body leaking--blood dripping from the wound on his chest.

"Don't get any ideas," Phoenix says.

"Glitch.  You are going to find out what a sever-whip tastes like one of these days."

"Doubtful."  Phoenix breathes the word against the top of my head.  Above me, he's peering out through a hole in the metal.  "Probably won't live long enough."

I crane my head, trying to get a look behind me...unsuccessfully.  "Did they see us move behind here?"

"I'm not sure, but when they pass us, I'll take the Sentinels on my right.  You take the ones on your right."

"You make it sound easy.  What if they saw us and just slice us in half while we're behind here?"

"This metal thingy behind you is laser resistant."

"It is?  How do you--"

"Okay, I was hoping it was laser resistant."

Glitch you straight to Eiech, Phoenix.  Making jokes at a time like this.  Either you're trying to take my mind off the amount of j'aa we're in, or you're...well, I don't know what you are.  If I didn't have this static headache I'd--

Two Sentinels appear off to my right.  Phoenix catches my eye for only an instant, then moves left--toward where I'm hoping the other three are.  I push out of the hollow, experiencing a sudden flush of coolness on my face as I go into a full run, hoping my feet in the sand aren't loud enough to alert the Sentinels to my approach.  I'm behind them, only able to gain on them because they've slowed--most likely when they lost sight of us.  I'm less than two meters from them.  I bring the sever-whip up.

Buzz!!  Mind speeding.  Static interfering.  How am I going to take them both out before one (or both) of them zeroes in on me and cuts me in half with a Kill Laser shot?

But I don't have time to answer myself because my body is acting on its own now.  The sever-whip is just an extension of my arm as I bring it up, plasma wire tip searching for its target.  The control surfaces feel like liquid in my palm--somehow, through the shaking wall of static, I can feel each and every one of them individually.  Somewhere deep down, I know I'm in control of my arm; I know I'm directing it.

I have to be.  Who else is there?

The sever-whip catches the Sentinel around its neck.  Its body jerks, and its head separates from its torso in a smoking flash, falling to the ground, already lost among the sea of wreckage around me.  Its body takes a couple more steps before twisting down into a heap, Kill Lasers speared into the sand.

Glitch, the other one has its arms up.  Laser beams pass on either side of my head.

!!BUZZSTATICBUZZSTATICBUZZ!!

I'm dropping to the ground in a daze, vision surging between complete blackness and the vision of laser beams forming an X where my head just was.  I roll onto my back, the trench coat bulky and loose around me, trapping the arm holding the sever-whip.  I continue rolling, pouncing to my knees, then to my feet, keeping my body in a crouch, scampering to the side.

How did I avoid hurting myself with the sever-whip doing that?

Out of the corner of my eye, amidst a field of blue, I see that the Sentinel is less one arm--only a fused stump of metal now with less than half the Kill Laser assembly still intact.  The robot swivels its head, as if trying to determine the source of its damage.  Before I can make a move, it turns back to me, bringing its other arm to bear on me.  I'm not in position and I can only throw myself sideways in what I hope is a completely random movement.  No such luck.  The Sentinel tracks me with its arm, and I have a full second of sprawling-on-the-sand-staring-into-a-Kill-Laser-barrel before it fires.

I don't move.

But I don't die either.

Instead, the Sentinel's arms swings down, its head bowing.  It collapses as if deactivated, smoking.

This...can't...be.

     (That's not possible.)   I...didn't...see...that.

The static fades a notch, and I get to my feet, a little more unsteady than ever.  Bending over the Sentinel, I see the hole in its head.

I did that.  I...

The sever-whip...

     (That's not possible.)

I blocked the laser with the sever-whip, and bounced it back toward that Sentinel, killing it dead as glitch.  That's not possible...but I just did it.  And, oh yeah, I didn't see it, but I think I chopped off the Sentinel's arm when I was rolling there.  Not sure how I did that.  Static's buzzing around in my head, playing with my thoughts.  I put two fingers to my temple, deactivate the sever-whip, and brush sand from my trench coat.

Phoenix.

The thought of him brings me away from myself, and for a second, there's a moment of panic when I realize that three Sentinels were too much for him to handle, and I'm going to look over there and find a cut-up body and another Sentinel or two for me to deal with--

Phoenix is picking his way toward me.  His sais are out, but he appears relaxed--exactly if he were going for a stroll on the beach instead of just having been locked in mortal combat with three Sentinel II's.  Behind him, I can see three plumes of smoke.

"Well, that was fun," Phoenix says, his sais disappearing, then looking me over: "I'm glad you're not dead."

Me too.  "Glitch, yeah."  I look up again at the city wall, and notice that the uniform surface of the wall is broken a little farther west.  In fact, a complicated structure of some sort extends from the wall and continues down to the ocean, waves crashing against it.  "What is that?"

Phoenix follows my gaze.  "This...could be good...or bad."

"What is it?  You know what this city is don't you?"

Phoenix sighs.  "Now's not the time for a history lesson."

"Glitch that!  This is current events!"

Phoenix sighs again, his sais suddenly in his hands, metal twirling.

You're not nervous are you, Phoenix?  That can't be it.  But what then?

When he speaks, his voice is low and even.  "The city's actual name is over a million characters long, but I've always heard it called 001010011010.  It's the city of the Slaughter Droids."

  Post: 02.05.2003
Date: 01.03.2196
Time: Midday

Droids Of Slaughter [p044]

"It's sort of funny when you think about it," Phoenix continues.  "SLOT-R.  Slaughter.  Get it?"

The static is fading now; I want to hunch my shoulders, bow my head, and fall to my knees.  I've been in constant danger ever since I woke up in that alley, and now we have to deal with an entire city of droids.  It's too much.  Off the scale.  I want to cry, but now's not the time.  It'd be nice if we could find a Haven.  If we could, we'd be safe enough, and I think I'd be able to break down for a little bit.  God, I miss JACK...she'd let me cry near her...like before, with the eoas...even she cried then...

"What we need," Phoenix says, "is some new transportation.  Getting wherever we're going will be easier if we can find something to speed us on our way."

"Wait, you want to steal something from inside that city, don't you?" I ask, but it's rhetorical.  "Glitch, I might've known.  Maybe you had it easy with those three Sentinels, but I barely made it through with my head still attached.  Now you want to snuggle up all snug with danger?"

"We're already in danger," Phoenix says.  "This city's big enough that there's nothing we can do about that.  This city is miles long; we can start walking east again, but if we encounter more Sentinels or some of the bigger droids, we'll be forced to fight them with the weapons we have on hand.  As much fun as it is to go hand-to-hand with droids and their lasers, I'd like to avoid it as much as possible.  Besides, it scratches the finish on my sais."

"And we wouldn't want that," I mutter.

"Hey, they're collector's items!"

I can only grip the sever-whip handle tighter, but I briefly consider flinging it into the ocean in frustration.  "This is glitched up!  I'm--"  I trail off when I realize that instead of speaking I've descended into what can only be described as a growl.  It's vibrating deep down inside me, in my throat and my nose.  I bow my head, not even bothering to take in Phoenix's reaction, not even caring what he thinks, glitch him.  Glitch me.

The ocean waves sliding against the shore.  Water crashing against metallic debris.  I listen.  I can hear Phoenix breathing.  I can hear him waiting.

"I'm...tired, Phoenix," I whisper--part of me hoping he didn't hear me.  He doesn't respond, so maybe he didn't.  Or maybe he's just keeping his mouth shut like I want him to right now.  Peering through the veil of my hair, I can see him scanning the area, making sure that we're not in any immediate danger.  I straighten up.  "Okay," I say.  "What's your plan?"

"We steal that thing over there," Phoenix says, gesturing toward the structure jutting from the city wall.

Taking a longer look at the structure allows me to see what I hadn't seen before.  The structure isn't as much jutting from the city wall as much as it appears to have grown from it.  Where the city wall and the structure meet, I can see the wall broken and crumbling; large chunks of metal lie all around the area.  The structure is a tight bundle of gray, box-like shapes and angled protrusions, all of them pressed together in such a manner that it's almost possible to believe they sprouted from the original, underlying material instead of being constructed onto and around it.  The structure slopes slightly, tapering towards the ocean, where a massive ramp extends down, its end submerged in the ocean.  Across the top, clusters of antennae and other miscellaneous wire-like fixtures shoot from conical housings like eruptions from a chain of volcanoes.  A large sphere rests on the top of the entire structure, rotating slowly.  Thousands of thin sensors protrude from its bright red surface like the back of a needle beastling, each glinting in the midday sun, slivers of fire.  Twin pillars are raised to the sky, spewing out thick streams of smoke which merge into an ever-widening funnel of pollution.

"It's a factory," I say.  "I doubt that it's steal-able."

"I know it's a factory!" Phoenix says, gently probing the wound on his stomach, wincing, then pointing again.  "I want to steal that!"

Beside the factory is the biggest security droid I've ever seen.  Even though it's dwarfed many times over by the height of the factory, the HULC-S--if I remember what that pamphlet said--is clearly a monster of a machine when fully erect.  Currently, its bulk is low, touching the ground--the effect being that its four legs appear to be bending under its own weight, unable to hold its mass up under the terrific strain of gravity.  The HULC bristles with assorted weaponry and devices I can only guess as to their purpose.  Its skin is painted a dirty white, but it gleams in the sun anyway, the effect only broken by various logos engraved onto almost every flat surface available.  Compared to the rest of the area, the HULC is in pristine condition, and I wonder how it managed to remain intact and relatively unblemished for this long.

"That," I say, "is a big droid."

"And best of all, it'll take passengers--two in fact.  That could be the best thing that's happened to us so far."

"You mean outside of not actually getting eaten by the Zannathans and not actually getting split in half by Kill Lasers?"

Phoenix regards me with a strange look.  "Those...are good things too--"

"Oh, forget it, let's go."  I move forward without letting him finish or come back with anything else.  Something tells me it's always going to be like this with him.  Something about him raises my defenses and brings my claws out, and I don't seem to be able to control myself, to hold myself back when I should.

Does that mean the problem is with me?

As we get closer to the factory, Phoenix motions and we crouch next to a lopsided pile of debris--a strange sculpture-like image of droid heads and optical sensors burns itself into my eyes.

"Looks like somebody left the power on," Phoenix says.  "This will probably complicate things."

There is movement around the factory.  Droids.  Robots.  Whichever.  Not sure why I didn't notice them before.  Near the ocean, on the ramp, they're congregating as they emerge from the end of the factory.  There are easily a hundred right there, and I can see others walking about the outside of the factory and near the city wall.  Hard to tell what they're doing.  Looks like they're just loitering, walking around aimlessly.  I notice a few of them repeatedly running themselves into a fragment of the city wall imbedded into the sand, debris pooled around its base.

"Looks like they're keeping clear of the HULC though," I say.  "Got any ideas?"

Phoenix only glances at the HULC.  "I'm not as worried about all those droids on the ground, as I am about those over there.  Those are fresh off the assembly line."

I take a longer look.  "There is something different about them.  I'm not sure what it is though; can't quite get a fix on it.  What is it?"

"I don't know either, so let's keep clear of them while we're doing this.  It looks like we'll have the best cover if we stick close to the city wall.  We may have to move fast.  Are you going to be able to keep up?"

"I'm fine," I lie, suddenly aware of the pains in my hand and my foot.  I can feel slickness in my palm.  Glitch, I reopened that wound.  Same with my foot.  Not that either of them has had the chance to properly heal.  "I'll do whatever I need to in order to keep myself alive."

"You and me both.  You catch on quickly."

"Right.  What about you?" I ask, reaching out to touch a finger to his stomach.  He pulls back, but not in time, my tips brushing the material there.  My attempts to bind his wounds were feeble at best, and the strips of material there are now discolored with red.  Small drops of blood run down his jumpsuit.  Phoenix looks like he wants to move my hand away; he just stares at it without saying anything.  Confused, Phoenix?  Uncomfortable?  What is it?

"I'm fine too," Phoenix says as I pull back.

"Whatever you say."

Phoenix mutters something, but I don't quite catch it.  Then: "Let's go.  Get ready with that sever-whip."

Then we're moving, and I'm comforted by the warm sever-whip handle against my palm.  Bleeding against it too.  I could switch hands, but this is the one that it feels most comfortable in--like it belongs there.  And anyway, my hand has molded itself to the surface now.  It hurts, but it's the right hand for the job.  In the back of my mind, static rises.

We move toward the city wall.  Up close, the wall seems even colder, more intimidating.  It seems to extend upward for an eternity, as if it doesn't really end, but challenges the heavens in a kind of detached arrogance.  In the wall's shadow, I shiver.  Static increases with every step.

We're within a fifty meters of the main bulk of the factory--it's a little less than that to the HULC by a diagonal path--when the we get to the section of the city wall that isn't so much a wall anymore, but a pile of rubble.  Chunks of wall rest against each other in an assembly that is visibly precarious.  Even though the wall is heavily damaged, there does not appear to be any clear path into the city--at least not from this side of the factory.  Droid limbs--non-functional for how long now?--poke out from underneath the rubble.  When did all this happen?  How long has it been?

"Ok, now we're running," Phoenix says.  And then he's gone.

Lost in my thoughts again.  Glitch.  I'm having to catch up with him.  The droids on the ground are aware of our presence now, but none of them seem to be moving any differently than before.  Their heads swivel as we pass them.  What do all those optical inputs make of two humans making a laser beam's line toward one of their own?  As we run, I notice my thumb has found the sever-whip trigger, and I have to make a conscious effort to not flip it.  We're headed straight for the HULC, and we're about halfway there when I see the real reason we're running: the droids on the ramp--of the freshly assembled variety--have seen us and are now jumping off the edge of the ramp and making their way toward us.

"Glitch!" I yell.  "Can't we get a break?!"

"Maybe they just want to welcome us to their fair city!" Phoenix says.

"I can tell this is gonna be one of those 'I told you so' moments," I say, "because, glitch, I told you so!"

Phoenix doesn't respond because we're at the HULC.  It towers a meter or two above us, but Phoenix, grabbing a handhold, swings himself up, pulling open a hatch on the side of the HULC.  He disappears inside.  "Get in!"

"No glitch!" I yell, shoving the sever-whip in my pocket and reaching for the handhold and pulling myself up.  Phoenix better not be looking down my trench coat.  He's had too many glimpses of that already.  No more free peeks.  The inside of the HULC is hot as Eiech, but I pull the hatch shut.  The latch on it looks small and weak.  Not gonna hold if something tries to get in here.  I tumble into a cushioned seat next to Phoenix, who's already fiddling with the controls.

The interior of the HULC is lit with glowing controls on almost every surface.  In fact, I can't see light coming from anything except the controls.  There are no windows, but four wide screens at our knees give us various views of the outside.  There are assorted other monitors displaying neon graphical readouts in three-dimensional holograms.  Our seats are framed by armrests with fingertip-controls.

"Why aren't we moving?" I ask after a moment.

"I'm working on it!" Phoenix shouts, his voice clipped in the small confines of the HULC.

"You mean...you don't know how to...ah, glitch!  You can't pilot this thing!  And I thought--"

Phoenix swears.  "At least I got it powered up!"

I scan the controls.  "It was the big red button wasn't it?!"

Phoenix swears again.  Louder.

Speakers in the ceiling and under our seats pick up sounds from outside.  In the monitor, I can see a crowd of droids forming around the HULC.  Static is trying to drown out all other sounds; it's cycling up and down like an ocean wave passing through me.

"Got it!" Phoenix shouts.  The HULC shudders, then a low hum fills the air.  The HULC rises to its full height.

"Two sets of controls," I say.  "That doesn't make sense.  We can't both pilot this thing at the same time."

Phoenix shakes his head, putting his fingers onto the pads at the ends of his chair's armrests.  "Push a button and find out what it does.  I don't know, I don't remember it being like this..."

I lay my arms on the armrests, fitting my fingers onto the ten small indentations on the armrests.  A glance at the primary view screen tells me that the droids are climbing the HULC's legs.  A flick of my pinky causes two things to happen.  First, a little blue cross appears in midair, about six inches in front of my face.  Second, the droid on the view screen disappears in bright flashes of fire and smoke, bright yellow streaks pummeling it into pieces.

"I guess you're the gunner," Phoenix says.  "I hope that means these thingies make this piece of metallic j'aa go forward."

The HULC lurches.

"Or sideways, as the case might be" I say.

"That'll work too," Phoenix says.

The cockpit is suddenly filled with a thousand clanking noises.  I cover my ears, as these new sounds even cut through the static.  I have no idea how to turn down the volume in the cockpit, but fortunately, after only a second, the clanking stops, and is replaced by a scuffling sound.  All around.  Metal on metal.

"What the glitch is that?" Phoenix asks, looking at the ceiling.

Metal on metal.

"Ah, just great, they took out our external optics," Phoenix says, taping one of the screens.  "We're blind."

Yes, metal on metal, but more accurately: Droid on HULC.

"The monitors aren't out," I say, taking a look at them, static spiking.  "Those are just close-ups.  We've got riders.  They've jumped onto us."

A second later the hatch is ripped away and I'm staring into the optics of a droid that looks nothing like any of those described in that glitched SLOT-R pamphlet.

  Post: 02.11.2003
Date: 01.03.2196
Time: Midday

The Reaving
[p045]

A thin, convoluted mass of tubing and wire reaches toward me, sharpened metal talons twitching with an epileptic frequency.  I recoil back, fumbling for the sever-whip in my pocket, my other hand clamping down on the armrest, triggering all five fingertip-controls.  The HULC shudders and the world outside flares with white fire, sound clipping in the internal speakers, but a roar filters in through the open hatch.  The droid's body jerks and its optics fade black, its body going limp, talons dropping, sliding across my chest.  I can't suppress a shiver at the ripping sound of the talons gouging my trench coat as the droid slips away through the hatch.

Smoke and heat waft in through the opening.

"Glitch!  I want to say that was a little on the excessive side," Phoenix says, "but it worked.  I just hope you didn't use up all our ammo."

I straighten in my chair, clamping the sever-whip handle between my thighs, making conscious effort not to activate it.  "Sorry 'bout that.  I flinched."

"Well, if you don't mention the fact that this j'aa bucket is still moving sideways, I won't bring it up again."

I eye the hatch.  No droids yet.  There's a glitchload of smoke out there, but I can make out moving shapes.  We don't have long.  Glitch, not even sure how much damage I did anyway.  Maybe I just made them angrier.  But that's silly--they're droids, they don't get angry.  "Deal, but which way are we going?"

"You told me East," Phoenix says, fingers playing at the controls.  The HULC begins to rotate--a maneuver that has the cockpit swaying as if we were back on my boat.  There's the crunch of metal from beneath us--flattened droids hopefully.

"Just follow the city wall back the way we came?  You think this thing's Kill Laser proof?"

"Hey, I didn't memorize the pamphlet, okay!  Our only other option is to take this thing into the city!  Is that what you really want?  It's a perfect plan!  Except that the whole glitching city is full of Slaughter Droids!  They don't call them that for nothing!!"

The static rears up, taking my head between its serrated fingers, and tries to pull my head off.  If Phoenix says one more word, I'm not sure I'll be able to stop myself from wrapping the sever-whip around his body and finishing what the Zannathan started.  A pleasurable image forms in my mind of him writhing in pain on the ground, my sever-whip coiled around his neck, with only a flick of my finger between him and the abysmal darkness of Eiech.  Just a flick of my finger...  I smile 'cause I can see that Phoenix doesn't like that I'm smiling.  Good.  Besides, you have a lot to make up for--you've seen me naked.  Not really your fault I suppose, but I don't give a glitch.  You will pay.  In an even voice, I manage to say: "I wasn't the one who decided to piss them off by stealing one of their own."

"It was a good plan!" Phoenix growls.  "Technically, it hasn't failed!"

"Yet."

The HULC lurches to one side, almost tossing me out of my seat.  You did that on purpose! I think, but then realize that the monitors show the truth: droids everywhere.  So many!  So fast!  How can they be that fast?  One of the monitors shows a second HULC approaching from behind us, and a third emerging from around the corner of the factory.  How many droids are on the other side, hidden from view right now?

"Okay," I say, "let's kick the arguing out the hatch.  There are too many droids.  Can you make this thing go any faster?"

"I'll try.  Keep firing, okay?"

The HULC lurches again.  Droids beating at the legs.  Phoenix curses.

The targeting crosshair reappears as I focus on the primary view screen.  Minor pressure from my fingertips sends twin streams of pulsating energy ripping across the ground, searing dual furrows into the ground and melting droids into piles of fiery wreckage.

"Why aren't they attacking us with weapons?" I ask.  I don't expect an answer, but I want the question out there.

"Glitch if I know," Phoenix says.  "Maybe they left their pulse displacers at--"

An explosion rocks the HULC's hull, but we remain upright.  The cockpit on Phoenix's side is bent inward now.  I can just imagine the external damage on the other side of the hull, scorched metal, black and flaking--all those logos seared off.

"Ah glitch!  That hurt us," Phoenix says.  "Controls are sluggish now."

Glitch our luck!  My fingers dance on the pads.

Nothing happens.

No.  No.  No!  No way in glitch that could've hurt us that much!  "Cosmic glitch!  This can't be!"

"What's wrong?" Phoenix asks.

"All our weapons are offline!  They must've hit something extremely critical with that shot!"

Phoenix mutters something I don't catch, and the sound of another explosion fills the cockpit.  The HULC seems to rise up under the force of a shockwave, my stomach tumbling as we slam back down to the ground.

The monitors are filled to the brim with droids.  Static weaves a needle through my brain.  My sight flickers.  I pull my fingers from the armrest controls and rub my temples--it doesn't help.  No way out of this one.  Luck has turned against us.

"Don't worry," Phoenix says.  "I'll keep us moving."

"There's too many of them--a couple thousand maybe--and we're cut off.  The only clear way to go is back up against the factory wall.  You know...we're glitched."

Phoenix doesn't answer, the HULC shuddering under the strain of trying to move forward with throngs of droids blocking its legs.

My mind searches for a solution to our danger, but finds only emptiness.  We don't have the firepower or the brute force to get ourselves out of this.  We need some outside help.  We need a savior.

We need Aran.

A vision of his wings silhouetted against the sun starts to form in my mind, but the static rips it from me like a picked whistlewisp, disintegrating.  Aran's not coming, you know that.  That's why you're going to him, angel, remember?

Yeah.

     (I remember.)

     bzzzz DISTURBANCE! bzzzz

A sound cuts through the static, breaking it as if it were mere silence.  A sound like...dying.  Outside, something too fast for the monitors to track is moving through the mass of droids surrounding us.  Whatever it is, it's tossing droids left and right as it moves--I can see them spinning through the air, some of them have been cut into multiple pieces, each part spinning on its own axis as it arcs back down earthward.

"What's happening?" Phoenix says, guiding the HULC back away from the disturbance, back towards the factory and the city wall.  "What in the glitch is that?"

My fingertips reflexively moved to the weapons systems at the sight of droids exploding, deactivated with apparent ease by an invisible attacker.

No.  No.  No!  Too convenient!  First that beam from the sky that sliced that Zannathan, now this!  Somebody's watching out for us, making sure we don't get into too much trouble, making sure we don't glitch things up.  Glitch it!  Need to know what's going on here!  Who's pulling the strings?

"Well, whoever they are, they're helping us," Phoenix says.  "I think."

Something pricks at me as I watch the droids turn their attention from us to this new, and infinitely more potent, threat.  It's a feeling of...familiarity.  Droids explode, razor-edged shrapnel damaging their metallic brothers in close proximity.  Broken tubes gush liquid lubricant; severed wires spark, shorting out, creating new types of circuits.  Some droids attempt self-repair, but they don't accomplish much, caught in the unpredictable devastation path of their unseen enemy.  The monitors can't seem to pick up anything except for the effect.  The cause is moving too fast.  My mind tells me it sees something, but it's gone so quick, I know it's just a trick.  A memory surges up then, but it's gone too quick for me to remember what it was.

No, it can't be.  I don't believe it.  Not...  I'm--

     (confused?)

     (yes, that's it, I'm confused, and the static...)

     (confusing?)

     (yes, it's playing with my mind, my eyes...)

     (seeing things?)

     (yes, that's what I'm doing, imagining...)

"Regardless," Phoenix continues, "let's not ignore Lady Luck when she's smiling at us.  We're getting the glitch out of here."

I can't take my eyes off the monitors, wondering...  "We still don't have a path through all that.  Hundreds of droids have just been destroyed, but there's still too many.  And that factory's still pumping them out!"

Phoenix reaches out, hesitating at first, but dropping his hand to my shoulder after a second.  "We're going into the city then.  I know I said it was a bad idea before, but we're out of options at this point."

The static drops down a notch at his words.  Does that mean anything?  Or am I just calmer?

"We'll make it," Phoenix says, squeezing my shoulder, then taking his hand back.

"We don't have much of a choice.  I...I don't want to stick around and see who or what that is."  Especially not if...

     (seeing things, that's all, forget it)

"Same here."

The HULC leans left and wobbles as we turn.  The motion is slow and there are sounds coming from underneath us--grinding gears and burning motors.  How far will this thing take us?  Then, we're facing the city wall.  Where the factory emerges from the wall, there is a thin passage not blocked by massive wall fragments, and only a few small droids.  From this angle, I can see that the factory extends into the city for quite some distance.  Beyond, lies the dim expanse of 001010011010.

Behind us, Slaughter Droids are put to the sword, reaved by an invisible foe.

We pass into the city.

We are not prepared for what awaits us.

  Post: 02.16.2003
Date: 01.03.2196
Time: Night

Deathhaven
[p046]

"Oh my glitch, it's a Haven," I say.

And it is.  It's also the first thing I've seen in about five hours that I can stand to look at for more than two seconds without flinching away or wanting to avert my eyes.  Phoenix and I have been on foot for most of that time--the HULC didn't make it very far, expending its last bit of energy by dropping the cockpit to near ground level.  We left it slumped over like that in the middle of the street, just another useless husk of metal and weaponry.  One more monument to man's failure.

     (Cyberspace's death scream still echoes here.)

Inside the wall, the city is a mess.  We walk down its streets, unhindered and mostly unnoticed by its citizens--droids, every last one of them.  With every step I take, my mind wrestles with comprehending the reality of what my eyes are seeing: the truth of technology's dark face, laid naked and sprawling, a mere object to ogle, cheap fodder for the wandering lust of the unsuspecting passerby--my con artist and me in this case.  It's everywhere we look, and the only thing we can do is stare and contaminate ourselves with the pornography that is the seedy cityscape of 001010011010.  But arousal is only a sickness here, twisted in unnatural ways; the urge to vomit is no turn on.  Droids dance and cavort, but only in the coitus of death, their bent cogwheels winding down, their microcircuits nanoseconds from deactivation, electricity that once raced through wires now slowing to a crawl.  Most of them are incomplete, missing arms, legs or optical sensors, and the ones that aren't are set upon by those who need the parts, fiber conduits and pincer assemblies scavenged in bursts of spurting lubrication.  One life for another.  One AI dies; another grows stronger, integrating unfamiliar tech until its host body becomes something no longer mere droid, but a bastardized mechanical being, no longer performing its original functions.  Internal code subroutines are rewritten on the spot, adapting the host body to the capabilities of its stolen tech--it's a testament to the original programmer, but also a rejection of that original programming.

     (These droids have forgotten their makers.)

Black swarms of nano-machines sway along the streets, enveloping droid citizens, sometimes attacking them, sometimes possessing them--a million motorized nano-copulations, a sinewy cloud of mechanized ravishers.  Skeletonized husks--all that remain--waver in midair for a moment before surrendering to gravity's insistent pull.  Satiated, the swarms move on, their cloud-shapes seeming more bloated than before, movements more languid.

     (Humans aren't the only ones that can rape their own.)

These are the least of what I saw.  I saw...worse, much worse.

This is all.

     Worse.

My imagination doesn't stretch far enough to have made up the things I see as we walk.  All the while, the static is a faint hum, not letting me forget its presence.  I close my eyes at some point to block it all out, resting a hand on Phoenix's shoulder; I let him lead a blind angel through hell.  He doesn't even seem to notice.  Perhaps he's in shock too; perhaps not even he has a quick, wit-filled response to the cold debauchery being paraded in front of us.  Perhaps he doesn't care.  Perhaps...it doesn't matter.  In this city, I'm not sure anything matters.  All I see are the interactions of trillions of lines of code, as if someone were running a simulation in a computer just to see what would happen--just to see.  Glitch happens.  And it's happening here, all around my con artist and me.  One foot in front of the other, following my leader.

Now, in front of the Haven, I'm crying, breaking down just like I said I would.  Not even inside it yet.  Not even safe yet.  But here I am, letting the wetness drip down my cheeks while Phoenix watches.  He's silent, but I know he's watching.

That there's a Haven in a city like this should be a shock, but all I can do it gape at it through liquid eyes and shake.  The low entrance is inset into a featureless gray wall on this side of the street, and we almost passed right by it, Phoenix only noticing the Haven markings after glancing back.  Another point for Lady Luck.

"Knock, knock," Phoenix says quietly, then steps to the door.  It slides open.  "It's working.  That's a good sign."

"Is it?" I ask, wiping my eyes, then drying my fingers on the trench coat.

"Definitely."  Phoenix looks over his shoulder, smiling.  Then he pulls a pistol and a sai from his belt and steps through the doorway.

You're as smooth as glitch, Phoenix.  I draw the sever-whip, finger on the switch, and follow him.  My foot crosses the threshold and immediately, I can feel it--the wrongness.  The cold absence of it all.  The void.

The static is gone.

It's been guillotined, the severed stump of its head goes rolling and it is silent.  I open my mouth, gasping at the abruptness of the static's execution.  It's as if a great constriction is gone--a masked strangler's hands on my throat pried away.  For the first time since the alley, I feel like I can breathe!  My mind is quiet.  Oh glitch, oh God!  It feels wonderful!

Phoenix has his head bowed, then looks at me with a questioning expression, as if just noticing something, and I can't help myself when I do what I do next, which is fling my arms around his neck--because he's the only one here and I have to do it to somebody!  I rest my head against his chest and just wallow in the pleasurable act of breathing in and out; it's all I can do to keep myself from audibly sighing against him.

"What are--?" Phoenix begins.

"Don't say anything.  Just shut up."

Phoenix's heart thumps in my ear and I can feel his pulse where my thumb touches his neck, the two tapping out a syncopated rhythm, his body keeping time to that ancient beat.  Here, pressed up against another human being, the now-quieted static seems to be only a memory--a story somebody may have told me once, but certainly not anything I've ever experienced.  The silence is deafening, and I love it.  In here, in this Haven, against him, I'm free.

     (This Haven is heaven.)

And then I do sigh.  It's a relaxing of my body, like I'm falling, slipping into still water.  What is it about this place?  Why does it have this effect on me?  I'm not sure how long we stand there like that, but releasing Phoenix is like walking away from a fire on a cold night.

He's still avoiding my eyes when he says, "Maybe they have some water here.  We need to scrounge whatever we can."

I am thirsty.  And hungry.  I still have two food substitute packages, but there'd better be some water in here; eating that substitute j'aa can dehydrate a person in a hurry.

The Haven's layout is simple: one main hallway with several rooms branching off of it, and an arched entrance to a larger room at the far end of the hall.

"The Sanctuary there is what we want," Phoenix says, pointing to the room at the end, "but it doesn't look like anybody's here.  It's just as well.  Any intelligent Guardian-8 would've left this glitched city long ago.  Not that they're known for abandoning their Havens..."

We move to the end of the hall.  The door there is closed, and Phoenix pauses.  "Ready?"

Is he just being cautious?  Is that really a look of concern on his face?  Something else?

I nod my head.  The door slides open and we move through.  The temperature in here feels about twenty degrees cooler than the hallway, and it only takes one second to realize we're not in a Haven anymore.  Not really.  This is not a Haven if something like this could happen here.

     (This Haven is hell.)

It doesn't smell like death in here, but I feel my gorge rising anyway.  They're hanging from the ceiling, their insides on the outside, set out in a post-mortem display of suffering.

"Oh God, it's a family," I say, almost losing my balance.  A hand on the wall steadies me.

Five of them, hanging like disemboweled marionettes on the far wall, only a couple of meters above us.  Two males, three females.  Two parents.  Three children.  All of them dead.  They weren't just killed either; they were gutted, then drained, then...assembled into a...portrait of decay.  Their bodies hang naked and open, flaps of flesh slit, then peeled back like skin from sections of fruit.  Thin optical cables are woven throughout the bodies, stitching them together--a grotesque, human patchwork blanket.  Bundles of the multicolored strands puncture the corpses in a thousand places, tangling around and through the composition, running in and out of bone and muscle.  Cables exit through eyes, noses and ears, delicate threads throwing off rainbow-hued flashes in the rooms ceiling lights.  The bodies sway, as if caught in some draft I can't feel.  The mother's jaw has been torn off, only held on now by the optical cables running through her teeth up to the roof of her mouth.  The father's ribcage is viewable, his chest flesh spread like two doors opening wide.  Inside his cavity, each rib dangles, banging against others, and my mind tells me I can hear them chiming in the stale air.  The two young sisters--twins by the look of them--have been wound into an incestuous embrace, their eyes gone, their fingers and toes ripped off, their limbs curved around each other.  On one, her lips have been stitched shut; the other's, peeled back and tacked open, revealing teeth flossed with black optical wires.  Their tongues are at their throats, two wagging necklaces of limp meat.  And the boy...

I can't describe what's been done to him.

Beneath it all, in what I can only assume is blood, are the words:

I TOLD YOU, I SIMPLY WANT TO KILL YOU.

I have to turn away.  None of this was meant for human eyes.

Only...this was meant for somebody.  Somebody or something did this, and wanted somebody or something to see it.  We just stumbled across it; Lady Luck laughing once again at our dependence on her and her mood.  Wrong place, wrong time.  This is my life.  Who could do such a thing?  My mind sends me a picture of a crowd of rioters being decapitated by speeding spikes and razors.  Could Calamity...

The message isn't for me, is it?

Somewhere in there, Phoenix shoved both of his sais into the wall.  He's leaning between them now, face toward the wall, breathing hard and deep.  Mumbling something too.  Can't make it out.

It's a least ten minutes before either of us moves or speaks.

When Phoenix does, it's to say, "We can't stay here.  It's dangerous."

I catch his eye, wondering at what I see there.  Anger?  Fear?  I shake my head.  "We have to get them down.  Bury them."

Phoenix looks up, then back at the wall.  "That's crazy."

"We have to do something.  We can't leave them like this.  I'm not going to leave them like that.  I could use your help, but I'll do it by myself if I have to."

His teeth are clenched as he grasps the handles on his sais and yanks them from the wall, chunks and dust of polymer spewing out.  He drops to his knees, twirling his weapons.  They gleam, ripping rifts in the air.  It's another ten minutes before he speaks.  "Okay, you're right.  They need to be buried."

I try to smile, but knowing what we're about to do, I can't.

  Post: 02.21.2003
Date: 01.03.2196
Time: Night

A Night's Respite
[p047]

          Sonic
      sound
   assault
     battering
       dirt
         and
       blood,
     down,
   this
    invisible
      rain.
Harsh waves, unseen forces skim across bare skin, scraping grime and dead cells which litter the fleshscape.  Surges of audible air distorting vision, dissipating upon reflection, resonating against the living, breathing echo chamber.

I'm shivering, cold under the physical beating of the sonic shower.  The glitched thing is set too high--some brainfried g'ekk cranked the thing up to pulverize; feels like my skin's being flayed off--but I hold my body under anyway.  Not getting out till I feel like I'm clean again.  Hands against the neo-tile, I raise my face to the nozzle.  Vibrations course through my skull, and I have a moment of fear: the static is back.  But no, lowering my head, the sensation fades.  Blue strands flow around my eyes like grass in the wind, combed by translucent fingers.  Sound waves course down my back.

Flowing right across that marking you have back there, angel.  Don't forget about that.  Remember to take the issue up with Kiiziiziixii if you ever see her again.  Or Calamity Carl for that matter.

We buried the five in the alley behind this place, a massive crater from some recently exploded ordinance having left a passage into the soft dirt beneath the city.  I had tears in my eyes when I put those twins in the ground, optical cables still winding around their small bodies.  I'm trying to forget what Phoenix and I had to do.  It was a good thing--a necessary thing--but thinking about it...hurts.  Their bodies had been preserved with some technology unknown to me; their bodies may never decompose.  They're gonna remain like that for as long as this planet holds together.  In the end, I think that's what hurts the most.

We buried them in the alley, and I can't wash the feel of their deaths off me.

I slam my fist against the sonic shower trigger and the thing goes silent, leaving my skin tingling not unpleasantly, somehow more awake.  I slip into fresh undergarments and pull my new skinsuit from the hook on the wall.  Despite being deserted, the Haven is fully functional and well-stocked.  We found clothing, food and a even a couple of AquaSuckers.  I step into the skinsuit, loving the feel of it against my skin.  The skinsuit is the highest quality one I've ever seen--certainly not an inexpensive model.  Its surface is glossy white with thin black ribbing running at its seams, long curving lines which are no doubt designed to complement the wearer's body shape.  Underneath my fingertips, it feels like water, and it seems to flow up my body as I press and move the zip tabs along the shoulders.  The sleeves come to the middle of my forearms, and the legs go down to my calves.  Oh, this is much better than that last one I had to wear!  I can actually breathe in this one!  I shake my limbs, letting the skinsuit settle against me.  Not loose, but not tight.  Perfect.

     (plus it hides that dark marking, the one that makes you shiver)

Phoenix is across the hall in one of the side rooms, moving through a series of poses and motions.  Unlike the previous time on my boat, this time he's making use of both his sais and pistols, switching between the weapons seemingly at random, the transitions smooth and uninterrupted.  His face is curled in pain.  You're pushing yourself too hard, Phoenix.  Why would you do that?

"That was--" I begin, but the sound of a sai ricocheting off the far wall interrupts me.  The sai gouges a dent in the wall before clanking to the floor.  It lies discarded there for a second before I realize that Phoenix is...is what?  Staring at me?

"Glitch..." he says, trailing off, bringing a hand to the wound at his stomach.  "Guess I'm not ready for the tricky stuff yet."  He grimaces, then moves to retrieve his sai, not meeting my eyes as he passes.

"You shouldn't be doing that yet," I say.  We bandaged his wound earlier, and he'll heal nicely if he would stop reopening the wound!  Glitch, what a...  You were staring, weren't you?

Glitched skinsuits.

"I'll keep that in mind when the Slaughter Droids bust in here," Phoenix says.  "You can do all the fighting."

"Nothing's coming in here.  The EMP field, remember?  We're safe."

"That family probably thought the same thing."

"Fine," I say, waving my hand, shaking my head.  "You're right, of course.  This city is dangerous, just like you said all along, and not even this Haven can protect us.  I'm not sure how droids can function in the EMP field here, but I guess anything's possible.  Glitch, sit the glitch down.  At least give the mending solution time to work."

Phoenix catches my eye, not moving.  Eyes averting now, moving...where?

"I don't like seeing you in pain," I say at last.

     (but, do you like what you see, Phoenix?)

          (do you?)

"I hate it almost as much as you," Phoenix says, returning his weapons to his belt, and moving to the lone usable cot in the room.  "Oh, and you should take your own advice and get that hand wrapped back up."

"Doesn't this feel better?" I ask, moving to the cot, sitting down next to him, retrieving one of the medkits we requisitioned from the Haven's small medical storage.  I apply the mending solution from a small tube--like liquid fire in my lacerations--then begin to wrap my palm and middle finger with healing tape.  "Just...sitting down.  Not dodging Kill Lasers.  Not running."

"Well be running for our lives again tomorrow.  I know you know that.  But yeah, this is better than all that."

I retrieve the sever-whip from beneath the cot.  It feels awkward in my hands, the healing tape thick enough that I can't move the individual control surfaces.  "We've got one night's respite here, and I want to enjoy it as best I can.  I haven't had one in awhile, and I do know what tomorrow will probably be like, so don't ruin my mood by making me think about tomorrow.  Lady Luck is not on our side; the sooner you realize that, the better--"

Something in Phoenix's eyes...he's...amused!  What the glitch?!

"Okay, just what the glitch?" I ask.  "I've finally got clothes on now; you don't have a reason to stare!"

"Well...it's just, I see...your skinsuit--it's changing colors."

"Wha--?" I begin, looking down.  All over, the ribbing is not black anymore, but a pale pink.  Even as I watch it, it changes to a deeper shade, going almost bold red.  "Ah, glitch it!"

"I think it's one of those that changes color with your mood," Phoenix says, smiling.  "Those aren't cheap you know."

And I've got two of them.  They were the only two items I could find that fit.  Glitch, somebody somewhere hates me, and they're laughing right now.  Phoenix had his pick of at least five jumpsuits; the one he's wearing now fits him even better than his previous one.  Has more pockets too.  Why couldn't this have happened to him?  Let me be amused at him.  Let him broadcast his feelings and moods to the world.  Then, maybe I could find out what he's thinking some of the time.  Amused!  GLITCH!  He's not getting away with that j'aa!  Not this time!

"Listen close, Phoenix," I say, turning and putting my knee on the cot, rising up so I'm face-to-face and just a little above him, looking down at him.  He doesn't turn away.  The ribbing flaring to a bright red, almost glowing; I barely realize it, but my thumb is fingering the sever-whip power switch.  "I don't know your past experience with females, and I don't remember my past experience with men, so I may be handling this all wrong, but don't glitch with me!  We've been through enough life threatening situations in the past three days to set us both on the edge, if not over it.  I know we've both saved each other's lives, but you might want to be careful.  You just might."

I can see the red light of the rubbing reflected in his eyes, the glow painting his face and eyes.  "Is that a threat?" he asks.

I lean closer, furious...I think.  I'm so close, strands of my hair are touching his cheeks.  "Do you want it to be?"

Phoenix doesn't answer, not breaking eye contact with me, his eyes blue and bold, wide and unblinking.  Unreadable.

The ribbing's pulsing now.  Visual alarm beaming a warning, synched with the rising and falling of my chest.  As I breathe, my breath swirls between us, twirling wispy, azure strands, their ends trailing across the stubble on his chin.  There's a moment there--a pause--where I experience some small vertigo, as if I'm hyperventilating.  Too much oxygen in my lungs, and I'm suffocating.  Just like when I was in the sonic shower, the sense that the static is back creeps into me, but I realize that I'm simply quivering, adrenaline surging, tensing muscles.  In that moment of pause--both of us just there, just breathing--I get the sudden sense that he's going to push up and kiss me.

And I don't know how I feel about that.

The pause passes.  I push away and leave the room before either of us can say anything, do anything.  I take the sever-whip and take up residence in the Sanctuary for an hour or so.  Don't want to be near him right now.  Can't be near him.

          (fury)

     (the ribbing pulses red fury for hours)

               (fades)

When I return, Phoenix is asleep on the floor.  He's stretched out by the wall closest to the door, but opposite the cot.  I lie down, but sleep flees from me, elusive as a flitterwasp.

Yeah, a night's respite.  Glitch it.

  Post: 02.22.2003
Date: 01.04.2196
Time: Midday

Being Hunted
[p048]

               BLINK

          A droid wields a cutting laser, seeking random targets.

     BLINK

Two droids engage in violent, robot sex, hunched over, metal grating against metal, strange, non-erotic sounds blasted at full volume.

          BLINK

                Sprawling in the dirt, a small repair droid methodically disassembles itself.

BLINK

     A droid graveyard being desecrated, droids scavenging spare parts.

BLINK

                     Droids scraping at the street's surface and eating the shavings.

                          BLINK

     Robot gangs, Centurions in black and Sentinel II's in gray, facing off against each other.

     BLINK

     BLINK

     BLINK

This place is evil.  Just like that other place.

East.  Always east.  Phoenix and I have been traveling for several hours, walking through the city, unnoticed for the most part.  Droid optics take in the sight of us on occasion, ignoring or uncaring, and then they return to their cyclical existence.  Ravaged by the fall of cyberspace, the city's drowning in its own chaos, and we just try to avoid the worst of it.

"It's just like the island here," I whisper to Phoenix beside me.  It's the first thing I've said to him since we stepped outside the Haven in the late morning.  There's been a strange silence between us, and I hadn't wanted to break it; I was afraid I'd be breaking more than just the silence--as if something more was at stake, something more than a simple awkward situation.  Of course, that could all just be my mind stuck in overdrive.  Me thinking too much, analyzing it right on through infinite glitch.  "Only with droids instead of humans."

"What do you mean?"

I adjust the strap on my backpack.  "Man's creations follow in his own footsteps.  Like creator, like creation.  All this technology was designed to help mankind, but it failed, and now it's back for revenge.  It's sad and scary at the same time.  Mostly scary though."

"So, I shouldn't be surprised that man's machines have turned out the same as man himself...um, or as uh, herself?"

I smile at that, but I turn away so Phoenix doesn't notice.  "Yeah, don't be surprised."

Phoenix brushes something off his arm.  "More and more, I'm becoming used to surprises.  Pretty soon, the world could catch fire around me, and I'd just have to yawn and roll over."

"I wish I could say the same."  I pull out the AquaSucker from the side of my backpack and take a bit of moisture from the tube, stealing moisture directly from the air.  The AquaSucker makes a low whirring noise as I do.  "I'm always surprised.  I can't seem to keep up with everything that's happening.  It's surviving, but I'm always playing catch up, struggling to cope with the latest development I'm being thrust into."

"And here I am, caught right along with you," Phoenix says, giving me a sideways glance, but as if  he's distracted.

"Well, it's a real glitch to be you, isn't it?"  A wave of annoyance passes through me; the ribbing on the skinsuit fading yellow.  What does that mean?

"Hey, it isn't all that bad being me."

I take another hit off the tube before stowing it.  I swallow, trying to will the ribbing to return to its normal color.  I need to tell Phoenix something.  "Listen, about last night.  I--"

Phoenix stops walking, seeming to stare at the ground for a moment.  "syl, about surprises?"

His hands.  They look relaxed, but...

"What is it?" I ask, ribbing dimming to cold blue.

     (hand near sais)

     (near pistols)

Phoenix grabs my elbow, pulling me forward, pushing us both back on pace.  "Keep moving, but here's another surprise to add to the list.  We got a tag along.  But more than just that it seems."

I resist the urge to swivel my head and look.

"Something's different about this one," Phoenix says.  "It's definitely a predator.  Yeah, we're being hunted."

  Post: 02.23.2003
Date: 01.04.2196
Time: Midday

Narrow Path Through Hell
[p049]

"What is it?" I ask again, hand moving to where, strapped to my thigh, the sever-whip handle rests in its holster.  I don't pull the weapon out, but it's all I can do stop myself.

"It's an android, and by that I only mean that it looks humanoid.  It definitely doesn't look human.  Don't look back, just keep moving."

I pick up my pace, matching Phoenix's, but I can't resist taking a quick glance over my shoulder.  I don't catch much: a black form, crouching beside the street, pressed up against the wall, glint of light reflecting off metal, something long and thin at the end of a wiry arm.

I'm not sure how Phoenix is able to maintain this pace.  The mending solution must've done its job last night and this morning.  My own hand tingles, lacerations knitting themselves back together.  It felt good enough this morning that I only wrapped it in the thin bandages--the better to feel the sever-whip handle through.  "You're right," I say.  "This one's not like the others we've seen."

"You looked back!"

"Sorry, couldn't stop myself.  You have any idea which way to go?"

Phoenix doesn't answer right away, and in the interim, the static manifests itself once again, buzzing the buzz through my conscience, at times vibrating all the way down to my toes.  Welcome back.  Missed you, yeah, glitch you too.

"Mapping system's a little fuzzy here," Phoenix says.  "It's either some sort of interference or it's still recovering from being exposed to that EMP field in the Haven.  Anyway, there might be a street coming up," Phoenix says.  "Can't be completely sure, but it could lead us out of the city.  If we're lucky, we'll exit on the northeast perimeter."

"And if we're unlucky?"

"It'll turn out to be a dead end, and that j'aa eater back there will end up being impervious to my pistols, my sais and your sever-whip.  Actually, that's not us being unlucky; that's us being dead!"

"I wonder if it can get though personal pulse shielding?"

Phoenix coughs, wincing more than a little, touching a hand to his stomach.  "I'm not sure I want to find out.  EMP may have it on the glitch anyway."

"Why hasn't it caught up with us yet?  It has to be faster than us, right?"

"You know, I was wondering the same thing myself, but right now I'm content to let it stay as far back as it wants.  Gives us more time to run, and more time to plan."

"You said it was hunting us," I say, noting that the ribbing is still blue.  "Maybe you're wrong.  Maybe it just wants to talk."

"You need to relearn Rule #1, but you're welcome to stop and ask it," Phoenix grunts, taking a quick glance back.  "Yeah, it's still there.  And it's still carrying that displacer pike.  Didn't you see that?"

Memory isn't helping me out on this one.  Blankness only.  "That similar to a pulse displacer?"

"Glitch, I don't know!  I just use the weapons; I don't ask for the datadocs!  All I know is that they both emit the same color flash of light when used, so yeah, maybe."

I manage to resist a sudden, childish desire to ram into Phoenix and knock him to the ground.  And I see the ribbing has gone pink again, reflecting my urges.  Glitch it!

"This is it," Phoenix says, veering off into a narrow side street which shoots off diagonally to our right.  I'm right beside him.

Static rising.

Looking over my shoulder, the black shape has closed the gap.  It's hunched over, animal-like, on all fours, stopped in its tracks the moment I look at it.  Yeah, but it'll be keeping up with us the second I turn away.  Not only that, but it'll be gaining on us.  How long before it decides to catch up with us?

And why do I have the feeling it wanted us to go this way?

     (static told you)

Here, the city's structures are packed tight, towering high above, so close to each other that, as we run, they appear to blur together.  We're just passing through a canyon of metal, letting it streak behind us on our lefts and on our rights.  No streets branch off.  We're on a narrow path through Slaughter Droid city hell.

"We're trapped!" I say.

"Not yet," Phoenix says.  He's trying to hide it, but I can tell the Zannathan's wound is still causing him great discomfort.  "This way leads out of this glitch hole.  We're going to make it.  Trust me."

Static rising!

"You didn't tell me this street had no exits!  Since we're not going to confront the thing back there, we only have one direction we can run!  What, no Plan B on this one?"

"We didn't really have time to discuss it, now did we!  I'm open to suggestions!  Give me a Plan B, C or even Z if you can!  Besides, I told you my mapping system is fuzzy.  Stop giving me grief!"

"Oh, glitch, you're right.  Sorry.  It's this glitched static!"

"What?" Phoenix asks, reaching out and tapping my shoulder.  "Never mind.  Now's not the time.  If I can believe anything my map is telling me, this street is about a kilometer long.  Only a few more minutes, and this will all be over."

"I'm not sure I like how you worded that," I say, blood pounding in my ears, pounding in my chest.  Static pounding in both of those places too.  I'm breathing hard, the skinsuit breathing with me--it really is a high quality garment.  I almost have time to be amused by the ribbing, which seems to pulse blue with my breathing.  I pick up more subtle frequencies in there, quicker, smaller flashes--these synched with my heart rate.

"Glitch, it's closer," Phoenix says a few minutes later, having looked back.  "We're almost there though."

The sun shines up ahead, and the path ahead of us is clear, but I can't see anything that looks like the city wall.

     (BUZZholdBUZZ)     (BUZZthere it isBUZZ)

The black shape

      (android)

is closer, only fifty meters behind us.  This time when I look, it doesn't stop, but is running toward us, gaining.  Closer and closer and closer.

"Phoenix, this thing wanted us to go this way, didn't it?"

"Hey, there's no way we can know that!" he shouts, pumping his arms, increasing speed.  His hands flash, and the pistols are in his hands now.  Even with the static I think I can hear them whine as they power up.  He's expecting a fight.

The structures peel away around us and we tear into a clearing.  Our momentum carries us into the middle before we force ourselves to stop and take in the situation.  I'm blinking, trying to focus, static clawing at me.  No, not this!

"Oh, infinite glitch!" Phoenix swears.  "Techtrash glitch!"

"Rule #2 comes to mind right about now!" I yell.  "I know your mapping data is glitched, but shouldn't you have noticed this?!"

It's a dead end.  We're surrounded by a curving wall, shiny and smooth, sloping up and away from us for at least a hundred meters.  They wall is too steep to climb--too smooth also; it gleams in the sun, a mirrored finish spread across its surface like mercuric paint.  We're at the bottom of a funnel, and the only way out is about to be blocked by our android stalker.

"Is this the edge of the city?" I yell, turning and pulling the sever-whip from its holster, flipping the switch.  The plasma wire spools onto the ground, searing the street's surface.  Get ready, angel.  You know what's coming.

"I think so," Phoenix says, turning with me to face the exit to our cul-de-sac coffin.

The static goes silent, and for a second I'm disoriented.  I'm completely lost, my foundation wavering.  I bend down, forcing blood to my head, but I feel like I'm going to throw up.  What's going on?  Glitch, what's happening to me?  Then my nose is bleeding.  A single red drop splatters near my feet.  Through blurred eyes, I manage to look up.

Then the android--the black shape--steps into the clearing, displacer pike leaking a twisting stream of glowing energy.

  Post: 02.24.2003
Date: 01.04.2196
Time: Midday

Return Of The Harlequin [p049-050]

"Careful," Phoenix says.  I'm not sure if he's talking to me or the android.

A finger to my nose pulls back red and wet.  What brought this on?  Head's spinning, as if the sudden absence of the static sent me wild, internal gyroscope damaged and upset.  Which way is up?  World tilts.

The android is a violence-wrought simulacrum of humanity.  A black cloak meant to disguise its true nature only serves to contrast with the pale skin it wears, making its overall look seem unrealistic and comical.  Its mottled and torn flesh appears draped on the skeleton underneath, hanging in frayed strips, synthskin unraveling at the edges--pseudo reality revealed for what it is.  Dark gray bandages mummify its form, loosely wrapping around its arms and legs.  Metal fragments and white skin poke out between the bandages in the places where it's wrapped itself too tightly.  The back end of the displacer pike rests against the street, the android leaning on it for balance, its back bent forward, its form hunching not from age but from some inner flaw which prevents it from standing upright.  Even through my waterlogged eyes, I can see the thin weapon bending under the strain.  Its head is hooded, but pale yellow eyes glow deep within the cowl.  A nose, only half covered with skin, is the only other feature I can see, all others hidden by shadows which seem to defy the brightness of the sun illuminating the area.  It stands there, its whole body shaking, some unseen strain at work, as if it's expending great energy just to maintain cohesion.

A thought hits me: It tried too hard to be human.

The android's voice, when it sounds, is an unnatural, synthesized trembling.  It's an octave too high, and warbling, laden with static, hisses and pops.  And, strangest of all, musical notes ring out, carrier waves lurking beneath the digital vocalizing.  It says, "Two for me.  More for me.  All for me."

"Glitch that," I say.

"None for you, buddy," Phoenix says, wagging a pistol back and forth.  "Me for me, and her for her.  We don't like to share.  I know, I know; I was brought up wrong.  Parents, what can you do?"

The android stamps the displacer pike against the street, the sound echoing around the funnel.  "One female.  One male.  My two fleshes."

Which of us is going to attack first?  Not me.  Not with this nausea.  Glitch, almost dropped the sever-whip.  Is the android doing this to me?  How?

"Negotiation time's over," Phoenix says, sending silver streaks toward the android.

The android doesn't move, the shots from Phoenix's pistol curving at the last second into the sky.

Phoenix swears, replacing his pistols with his sais.  "Shielding.  Guess that's not a surprise.  And glitch me if it doesn't have something else too.  I'm getting a headache, and my nose feels like it wants to run.  As a bonus, my stomach isn't feeling too well either.  Either it's broadcasting a disruption field or I'm pregnant."

That makes one of us, Phoenix.  Is this field affecting my baby too?  "It probably can't take us both at the same time," I say.  "Let's rush this glitch of a g'ekk."

"You up for that?" Phoenix asks, wiping his nose on the back of his hand, leaving a streak of red.  "Just great."

No, glitch, I'm not up for it, but I'll do anything to save myself and my baby, and even a few things to save you at this point.  We're in this together now.  Oh, and we have a few things to talk about still.  "Yeah, I can do it."

The android must sense that something's about to happen because it takes the displacer pike and points it forward, the tip trailing a wispy streak of energy leakage.  "Weak and weaker still.  Male is weaker.  Female goes ill."

"You know," Phoenix says through gritted teeth, "insulting me and threatening her isn't very nice.  You're hurting my feelings, and you're scaring her."

"Stop talking to it!" I yell, and push forward.  "You can't run its energy core down that way!"

"It's worked before!" Phoenix shouts, running up beside me.  "Watch the tip of that pike!"

My con artist is faster, charging ahead.  The android crouches, and Phoenix goes airborne in front of me.  I cut to one side.  With every step, the nausea gets worse.  Blood's streaming out of both nostrils, warm and cold against my lips and in my open mouth, the metal taste painting my tongue.  In the end, it all happens too fast for my tear-filled eyes and my pounding head to accurately take in.  My sever-whip attack misses entirely, the plasma wire glancing harmlessly off the street and the handle flying from my hand.  I slip in something, or maybe I just stumble, knees weak under the influence of the android's invisible offense.  I manage to see Phoenix land both blows, one tearing neatly through the android's cloak, and the other digging into the thigh of its left leg.  Then I'm rolling and I miss what happens next.  I expect to hear an explosion from Phoenix's sai, but instead I hear Phoenix grunting and then the sound of his body hitting the ground.  Scrambling to my knees:

     (my con artist next to me)

          (prone)

     (android towering over us)

          (unhurt)

The displacer pike tip hovers in my vision.  Peripherally, I can see Phoenix struggling to stand.  Looking up, the android is staring down at me, those yellow eyes and that ruined nose still the only things visible.  Tried too hard to be human.  You failed, you glitch.

The android leans in.  "Pain and blood.  Blood and skin.  You will give me these, now."

My vision fades with the android as close as it is.  I look for the sever-whip, but can't see it.  Don't have the strength to stand.  I drop my head and wait for the pain.  And the blood.

It never comes.

Instead, something else.

There's a sound like wind in one second, and in the next second an impact--a sound I can't describe--then the static is back in full force.  What's happening?  What happened?  That sound...like the wind; I've heard it before.  Where...?  When...?  My headache is gone.  Nausea's gone too.  Nosebleed feels like it's stopping already.  What the glitch?  The android...what...how...why...?

Footsteps on the street beside me.  Then, a voice speaks from above my bowed head.  "It's only been a little while since we saw each other last, but I just have to know one thing.  Did you miss me?"

Glitch.  This.  Is.  Not.  Happening.

Anything.  But.  This.

Anyone!  But!  Him!

"Well, did you?  Please tell me that you missed me, Blue Beauty!"

  Post: 02.27.2003
Date: 01.04.2196
Time: Midday

Blood And Metal
[p050]

Calamity, you glitch.

On my hands and knees, I crawl over to Phoenix, ignoring the voice above me and who the voice is attached to.  Phoenix is on his knees, shaking his head as if to clear it.  I'm wading through a puddle of static, and the world still wants to tilt to one side.  My balance shifts, and I shoulder my way against Phoenix, embarrassed momentarily for my clumsiness, but grateful for the minor support his body is providing.

The android's body isn't whole anymore.  One half there; the other half way over there.  I don't immediately see the displacer pike.

"Friend of yours?" Phoenix asks.  "Even if he's not, it was real nice of him to help us out."

I pull a small square white cloth from my backpack and reach to dab at Phoenix's upper lip.  Some reflex causes him to pull back, almost grabbing my hand.  He looks at me for a second, then drops his hand back down.  I press the cloth to his nose, then take his hand and press it to the cloth, then release him.  What are you scared of, Phoenix?  Don't be afraid.  "No, he's not a friend.  That is a rivot bot.  That is Calamity Carl."

Even holding the cloth to his nose, Phoenix moves with quick deftness, a pistol in his hand as it had always been there, and he hadn't just had his hand on the ground supporting his upper body.

"Now, that's a little rude!" Calamity Carl says.  "You're not giving me an answer, Blue, and your mysterious boyfriend is pointing a pistol at me.  I may think twice about saving either of you next time!"

"Don't bother with the weapons," I say to Phoenix.  I pull another cloth from my backpack and sop up the blood on my nose, my lips, my chin.  "If his arrogance is any indication, he's invincible to anything smaller than a tac nuke."

"Actually, those too," Calamity Carl says, inclining his head a little, the outrageous spike-crown on his head exaggerating the gesture.  "But I'm not here to talk about me.  No, no, no!  Nobody ever wants to hear about Calamity Carl and his life!  And I'm not supposed to tell anyway!"

"Glitch off, bot," I say, pushing off Phoenix's shoulder in a weak attempt to stand.  "What do you want?"  Before I'm even finished, I notice that Calamity Carl is holding something, twirling it, rolling it, tossing it between his hands, clanking, metal on metal.  It's--

"Give that back," I say.

Calamity Carl smiles wide, too wide for his face, the grin seeming to stretch from ear to ear, a comical, yet ultimately frightening image.  "This is a very dangerous weapon, Blue.  Very dangerous indeed!  I'm impressed that you should come by one so easily...and so soon."

I take a step forward and stretch out my hand, palm up.

Calamity Carl continues, staring me down, but still making sure I know that he's ignoring me.  "You like it don't you?  And I'll wager you're good with it.  Yes, I can see it in your eyes.  And why...wait, you haven't...  Oh, my!  Yes, you have!  You've spilled blood with it!  Tell me.  Who was it?"

Static searing through me, but I get the sense that it's starting to lessen.  A little.  I don't want to play this game, Calamity, but you're not going to give me a choice are you?  "It was a Dokk.  He tried to rape me, so I took his sever-whip.  Then I took his head.  Don't glitch with me; you knew that already.  Somehow, you knew.  Listen, cut the g'ekk j'aa and just tell me what you want."

"You took his weapon from him?" Calamity Carl laughs, wiping at his eyes.  "Oh, this is too perfect; you wouldn't believe how perfect!  If only you knew!  You killed him and took his weapon!  Just like you're supposed to!  Cosmically perfect!  I know it's your way, your blod(eth), but...you don't even remember...  Oh, just too perfect!"

"Interesting friends you have," Phoenix says, standing beside me.  His weapons aren't holstered like they should be.  "Looks like he fell into a scrap pile and came out wearing what stuck to him."

"You're not halfway wrong," Calamity Carl says, giving Phoenix only a brief glance.  "But you're not the important one here, even if you are a son of The Circle of Silence.  She is.  She's the one everything rests on.  She's the one I'm here for.  You're just a coincidental player today, but I don't think you can cause too much harm.  At least not yet."

"Well, I'm still learning how," Phoenix says.  There's a gleam in his eye I'm not sure I like.  "I need more practice."

Calamity Carl turns back to me, still tossing the sever-whip back and forth.  "I've got a new secret for you, Blue."

The static is fading, and I'm able to take normal breaths again.  The white cloth is now stained with red, but my nose isn't bleeding anymore.  When Calamity Carl killed the android, it shut that disruption field down hard.  That's at least twice you've saved me, Calamity.   During the riots, when you killed all those people, and now, with this android split in two pieces.  Unless...  "After the island detonated, after that wave...was it you?  Did you put me on that boat?"

"I can't be everywhere, Blue," Calamity Carl says.  "I'm not the Devil or God, just the servant.  And soon, the only servant!  That was the deal."

"This is insane!" Phoenix says.  "He's insane!  Not even the Nation of Utopia is as bad as this!"

"But enough about me!" Calamity Carl says.  "All my other secrets were worth hearing, weren't they?  I told you about the blue spark, didn't I?  And I was right, wasn't I?"

Very right, Calamity.  And I hate you for it.  I almost put my hand on my belly, but I haven't told Phoenix about my baby yet.  If I do, I'm not gonna let it be like this.  Not gonna let it be because of Calamity!

Calamity Carl appears to study the sever-whip handle.  "And about the wirewitches and the eoas!  I was right again, both times!  Oh, I'm so good at what I do!  I really am!  And about how much pain you cause others!  And will cause!  Oh, and how can we forget the island?  Poor, poor island.  So sad to see The Universally Cosmic Circus of Amazing Wonder go out like that!   Still, that secret's not quite over with so you can rest assured, you have more people to kill.  Many, many more.  Poor, poor them!"

"Just tell me!" I yell, fists clenched, spittle on my lips.  "Just tell me your glitched secret and get the glitch away from me!"

Phoenix reaches out and touches my shoulder.  I shiver uncontrollably for a second, the static resonating through me, maybe through Phoenix too.

Calamity Carl pauses before shaking his head slowly.  "It's not that easy, Blue.  You'll be seeing me again, even after I leave you this time.  There's nothing I can do about that.  Like I said, I'm the servant, and I have a job to do."

"Just...tell...me...and...leave," I whisper, bowing my head, not wanting to look at his blade and spike studded form, those eyes and that wide mouth.

"Blue...here's what you need to do," Calamity Carl says.  "When you leave this place, this city, you must travel west.  You must travel through the Free States until you reach the barren desert of Black Vale Six and the city of Driftfane's Sin.  Once you are there...well, you'll know what to do.  That's it.  That's the secret.  Simple and clear this time."

No, that's not the way I'm going when I leave here.  Glitch you, Calamity, for telling me these things.

"You must do this, Blue," Calamity Carl says.

"She doesn't listen to me," Phoenix says, fingering a sai.  "And we've given each other mouth-to-mouth.  What makes you so special?"

"Maybe you should ask that question of yourself." Calamity Carl laughs, a mad twinkle in his eye.  "Oh, I just thought of something!  A secret for you!  Are you ready?"

"Leave him alone!" I say.  Don't get him involved in any of this.

"A secret?" Phoenix asks.  "What could you know about me?"

Calamity Carl laughs again.  "Oh, but Carl knows so many things about so many people!  About her, about you.  About them.  The Circle of Silence.  They're looking for it, you know.  You might want to find it before they do."

Phoenix's face goes blank.  I can't read him.

"Oh, enough about you!" Calamity Carl says.  "You asked me a question, and well, here's your answer: Carl is special because Carl is a rivot bot.  You don't see too many of me.  Especially now that I'm the last one, you know.  That was the deal.  Now, Blue, come here.  I'll give you your weapon back."

"Don't--" Phoenix begins.

I'm already stepping forward, already within arm's reach of the rivot bot.  I hold my hand out, waiting.

Calamity Carl's eyes search my body.  "This skinsuit!  It's great!  You put the 'Beauty' in 'Blue Beauty!'  And, oh, it changes color!  Even hides your back much better than that last thing you were wearing.  Cosmic!"

"Give me my sever-whip and leave us," I say.  "I don't want you around anymore.  I don't want to see you again."

"And you probably don't want to be around when she gets that sever-whip back in her hand either," Phoenix adds.

Thanks, Phoenix.

"That's not up to me," Calamity Carl says.  "What the marionettes want makes little difference to the puppeteer.  They must dance at his or her whims.  We will see each other again after I leave.  Besides, you'd miss me if you never saw me again wouldn't you, Blue!  C'mon, admit it!"  Then he grabs my arm and pulls me closer.

"No!" I say to Phoenix, getting a look out of one eye, over my shoulder, stopping him cold.  "It's okay."  Up close, Calamity Carl is all metal body armor--or is that his actual body?--and spikes, but everything capable of penetrating my skin retracts silently.  His body is warm, metal heated by the sun.  I try to hold his gaze, those human eyes--perhaps the most inhuman thing about him.

"This close, you smell..." Calamity Carl says, a hand in my hair, "...like female sweat.  So clean though; cleaner than any woman I've ever--."

"You're foul to me," I say.  "Give me my sever-whip."

Calamity Carl leans his head close to me, his crown blocking out the sun above me.  A hand moves at my hair.  Just like before, outside the Haven...  Only this time, he's got a sever-whip in that hand back there, fingers combing through my strands.  His other hand releases my arm and suddenly is at my lips, wiping at something.  The sensation of his fingers there isn't what I would've expected.  Instead of metal--

     (flesh and)

          (red on flesh)

In my vision are Calamity Carl's blood-flecked fingers.  His hand looks like it's been dipped in liquid metal, but the tips of his fingers show bare, pink skin.  He's...

"Blood," Calamity Carl says, his face almost seeming to pulse with strange light.  "It doesn't suit you, Blue.  You're one of the last Pure, you know.  You shouldn't be, but you are.  Sometimes, things work out like that.  Ironic, when you think about it."

"Give me my sever-whip," I say.  "Right the glitch now!"

"Uh, see her skinsuit, Carl?" Phoenix says.  "Shouldn't you take a hint?"

Glitch.  The ribbing is pulsing red.

Calamity Carl stares down at me, almost hitting my head with his crown, then laughs, loud and close.  "Oh, you are too much, Blue!  I love it!  I love you!  Your spirit!  Your skinsuit!  Your smell!  You're just the best!  I'm gonna think about you when I leave, and I'm gonna miss you until I'm allowed to see you again!"

I reach up and grab at the sever-whip handle which he's holding against my head back there.  For a second, our fingers entangle, and I experience a brief flare of heavy static, then he releases me.  The sever-whip is in my hand and I'm backing up, back towards Phoenix.

The sever-whip is active almost before I can get it clear of my hair.

Calamity Carl just smiles wider and claps his hands together several times.  "You're perfect, Blue!"

"Leave," I say, trying to calm myself, make the skinsuit go visually silent.  It ignores me.  The plasma wire seems to be moving of its own accord, thrashing up and down, sparking and hissing against the street.  "You're through here."

Calamity Carl wags a finger--the one spotted with my blood--and spreads his arms wide.  "Oh, and here I thought you might want to know how to get out of this city alive."

  Post: 02.27.2003
Date: 01.04.2196
Time: Midday

Dark Door To Twilight
[p050]

"Yeah, Carl thought that'd get your attention!" Calamity Carl says.  "You really should listen to Carl when he's speaking."  He turns, walking away from us, toward the far end of the funnel, away from the passage back into the city.  He pauses, arms up and wide.  His spikes and razors seem to grow, swelling and rippling in strange patterns.

A doorway rips into existence like a tear in the very fabric of air itself.  It's only a jagged black line in the city wall at first--Calamity Carl flicking a finger as if casting a spell from some archaic legend--but then the line widens, expanding till it's almost a meter in width, black webs of energy shielding stretching across the doorway like tensioned strands of industrial glue.  The strands fall and flow, pulling at the sides of the doorway, attempting to pull it closed, as if it's something that was never meant to be opened--as if it's a wound that needs to be healed.

"How--?" Phoenix begins.

Calamity Carl shakes his head.  "Sorry!  Not gonna tell.  Whatever you think, it's not magic--well, mostly not magic--but it is the only way the two of you will make it out of this city alive."

"You sure about that?" Phoenix asks.  "I don't know.  This place sorta grows on you.  I'm not sure I'd want to actually live here, but I might not mind setting up a small summer home.  Something with a basement maybe..."

Phoenix...

"Interesting friend you have here, Blue," Calamity Carl says.  "He's quite a talker.  Quite an eyebuzz too, not that I'm interested.  Besides, he's not as much of an eyebuzz as you are."

"Are you finished?" I ask, still holding the activated sever-whip.  "We need to get moving."

"Unfortunately, yes," Calamity Carl says.  "No more secrets for today."

"Good, we're gone.  Let's go, Phoenix."  I move toward the door.

Phoenix looks around for a second, as if he's making sure he didn't accidentally drop anything.  Overhead, clouds are beginning to dot the sky, polluting the blue with their sickish gray presence.  The sun's gleam is dimmed, filtered through those dark blinds.  Twilight seems closer than it really is in that instant.

"I don't trust him," Phoenix says, fingering his belt.  "That doorway is dangerous."

"Oh!  Intelligent and handsome!" Calamity Carl says, doing a small dance.  "You pick 'em well, Blue!  And he's absolutely right; it's extremely dangerous!  Deadly!  In fact, no organic material can pass through it!  Far better than that clunky pulse shielding everybody uses!"

I consider charging him, but I know it'd be a useless action, just giving into him.  Letting him goad me into a reaction would just be giving him exactly what he wants.  But it would feel so good.  To just...

No.  Not now.  Not today.  Maybe not even next time.

     (but...someday, yes)

Yes.  Oh, yes.

"How do we get through, Calamity?" I ask.

The rivot bot's face shifts at that.  He's almost...thoughtful.  "Calamity?  You never...well...I don't recall...you never called me that before.  You called me Carl before, but never Calamity!  I-I don't know what to say here.  What changed?  Well...well, never mind!  Carl likes it!  And just because you're you, I'll let you call me that anytime you want!"

Wait a minute, when did I start calling him that?  Glitch, when did I start thinking of him like that?  Never be able to stop myself now.  I'm stuck.

Calamity Carl turns his head for a moment, wiping something from his face.  When he turns back, that too-wide grin has returned.  "Blue, you can go through first."  He makes an exaggerated bow and stretches out his hand toward the doorway.  "You might want to deactivate that weapon of yours though.  I can't guarantee what'll happen if you try to go through with it on."

Glitch him to Eiech.  Twice.  I move toward the doorway.

"syl, wait!" Phoenix says.  "Maybe you should--"

Static burning a terrible scar in my mind, I stick the activated sever-whip, the hand holding it , and the arm that hand's attach to into the gooey, sludgy energy strands of the doorway.  There's a sparking sound, and for a second I believe that I did something worthy of a brainfried bangboy, losing a perfectly good sever-whip--not to mention my arm--in the process in one thoughtless, decisive instant.  My arm goes numb, then starts tingling.  I pull my arm back, still intact, the sever-whip still lit.  The energy in the doorway isn't moving any longer; it's completely still, giving the impression that it's partially solid.

Just a damaged, dark door to twilight.  One of many in the Slaughter Droid city of 001010011010.

"Uh, syl?" Phoenix queries.  "I think you broke it."

"You sure did, Blue!  Carl was not sure at first, but now Carl is proud of you!"

"How comforting, " I say, deactivating the sever-whip and holstering it.  "Come on, Phoenix, it's safe now."

Phoenix looks at Calamity Carl as if he's determining whether the rivot bot thinks it's safe!  Glitch him.  Glitch both of them!

"We won't see each other again for awhile," Calamity Carl says.  "Not for many many months.  Are you gonna miss me, Blue?  Please tell me that you will?"

"No," I say, and step through the doorway.  This time, I disappeared on you, Calamity.

The transition is instantaneous; I'm outside the city wall in a single blink of my eyelids.  Eyes open.  Wide view of sparse vegetation and hills greets me.  I'm facing north, the city extending a ways east before ending rather abruptly.  There's a noise behind me.  Phoenix.

"Well, Lady Luck got us through that," Phoenix says under his breath.  "We're still alive, and we even have supplies."

"Yeah, we do at that.  Maybe you're right.  Let's go."

"You're not one for taking a moment to rest are you?"

I exhale, controlling it as much as I can.  Thankfully, the static seems to exhale too, leaving me in a whoosh.  "I want to get as far away from this place as fast as possible.  Can we do that?"

"Of course."

Looking to the city wall, the doorway is still there, glistening darkly in the midday light.  Just as I'm about to turn away, something long and thin shoots through the doorway, cutting a thin, whistling line through the air, before landing several feet away.

"What in the...?" Phoenix says.  "Hey, it's the--"

"Yeah, it's that android's displacer pike."  Thanks, Calamity.  What the glitch would I do without you?

Neither of us move toward the weapon.  Phoenix looks at me, a question on his face.  He looks like he wants to say something, his mouth partially opens, then closes.  Maybe he saw the color of the ribbing on my skinsuit.  Don't say a word, Phoenix.  Not a glitched word.

After a moment, I sigh, move toward the weapon and pick it up.  Avoiding Phoenix's eyes, I step past him and walk.

East.  Always east.

 

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