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090: A Cliff, Precarious (i)     091: The Con     092: Behind The Back Room
093: What (2)syl Saw There     094: Dark Angel Raging     095: Never Ask Me


Post: 03.19.2003
Date: 01.15.2196
Time: Night

A Cliff, Precarious (i) [p051-052]

My angelwalk has brought me here, to this place.  This precipice, overlooking that dimly lit settlement nestling below, watches the narrow valley underneath as if keeping an eye on a small child who might decide to run away at any moment.  I'm crouched down, finding myself dizzy this close to the edge, the wind blowing through the valley and up the side of the cliff, twirling my hair off my neck and cheeks in a tumultuous swirl.  At one time, massive, bridge-like outcroppings seem to have spanned the valley crosswise--I can see remnants jutting out from the cliff on this side and the rocks on the other.  With only a sliver of the moon to illuminate the area, those outcroppings are just blank spots in my vision, masking the lights below.  From my angle, the outcroppings frame the city like thick, broken fingers trying to grab at the settlement--perhaps to carry it somewhere else, or maybe to crush it to rubble for violating the sanctity of the surrounding landscape.  Something inside me tells me this settlement is as much of a violation as the Slaughter Droid city was.  They should've left this valley alone.  For once, they should've left things like they were.  Of course, since the comet, things haven't been the same as they were before, so can I really blame them?  Guess not.

A week and a half.  It's been that long since we left 001010011010, and--this is quite a shock, even now--they've been the most uneventful ten days of my waking life, and that's been a new level of heaven for me.  Except for a few excruciatingly prolonged detours necessitated by the razed and blasted terrain, we've been following the southern coast mainly.  Whether we're at the farthest northern edge of the Wastelands, or at the Free States' southern border, I can't tell.  Haven't even bothered to ask Phoenix about that.  Does it even matter?  The static's guiding me now, and I've given myself over to that part of it.  I'm a little scared how easy that step was--not even sure when it happened--but it still feels like we're headed in the right direction.  For his own reasons, Phoenix is still with me.  That's another thing I haven't asked him about.

He could leave you at any time, angel, you know that.

     (my con artist)

Got to learn to get by in this world by yourself, angel.  Without any outside help.  Can't rely on JACK, Kiiziiziixii or Aran.  Or Phoenix.  When it all comes down, in the end, it's just gonna be you; who knows if the others will even care about you by then?  Best to wean yourself from this crutch of a teat you're still wanting to suckle at while you still can.  You've made some steps in that direction,

     (sever-whip displacer pike)

     but you still rely on others too much.  Don't forget the promises you've made to yourself.  You weren't gonna let yourself be abused anymore, right?  Taking out Dokk One was a start.  Just keep that up, and if your so-called friends leave you, well glitch them; you'll have covered yourself.  Just remember your self-promises and take care of things the blue-haired angel way.  This world doesn't care about you, and your friends may not either.  Be happy or sad that they're gonna leave you, but don't let it be because you're relying on them to get you through this life.  In the final moments, they won't be able to help you anyway.  Only you can keep yourself alive.

All that's fine and good, but I'm distracted by my knowing that Phoenix will leave me eventually, and I can't stop him.  I've no reason to stop him.  Glitch if I know what that means.

We've been here for a day and a half.  Deciding.

Deciding whether to go down into the settlement or not hasn't been the easiest thing Phoenix and I have ever discussed.  Perhaps it's because, until yesterday, we hadn't seen another normal human being for over two weeks.  Neither of us feels quite at home with jumping right back into the fray of civilization--me more so than him.  I suppose our hesitance is surprising, but I think we're...wary.  Can't quite put my finger on it, but things have changed inside us both.  Not for the better I'm afraid.  This wariness may help us live longer, but something inside--not the static--tells me that we've both lost just a little more of ourselves.  Well, me at least.  Phoenix may have lost that part of himself long ago.

Or perhaps it's the fact that Phoenix and I aren't entirely comfortable around each other yet--despite what we've been through together, and despite how closely we've had to sleep on certain occasions.  If anything, that may by working against us.  Being forced into close quarters brought a certain level of intimacy, but there was something...pseudo about it--still is--as if it's been forced upon us both.  What could have been a perfectly natural course has been navigated by perfectly unnatural means.  There are undercurrents of turmoil here, between us, and I've had to raise shields to prevent my emotions from boiling out before I'm ready; in his own way, I think he's done the same.  The danger we've been in together has shaken the system, scratching peaks and dips--emotion-spikes--onto the readouts.  Still-too-vague attraction--and what exactly am I attracted to anyway?--is a mere by-product of the adrenaline pumping through my veins.  Who's to say what my true feelings are?  Certainly not me!  So, what would I have done if, back there in the Haven, he had pushed up and kissed me?  Withdrawn or...or...can't even think about it can I?  Glitch.  But yes, that's the question: what would I have done?  Not so easily answered; not a one word yes or no to make this one go away.  Too many confusing signals to filter through: my chrome knight, my warlock and now my con artist.  How do I feel?  How do I feel about them?  And what am I supposed to do about any of them?  Glitch, this doesn't come naturally.  How am I supposed to sort this all out when I can barely convince myself that two-thirds of them aren't dead?  Still, Phoenix is my immediate concern.  The more time I spend with him, the more that concern will grow.  Until it becomes...what?

     (don't make me answer that right now)

          (can't answer)

But more likely than either of those two perhaps-es: it's my switch-on, switch-off morning sickness.  Glitch this body and glitch it for what it's doing to me and putting me through.  The insistent urge to vomit the instant the sun shows its fiery face combined with the debilitating static attacks that've ambushed me on a regular basis these past two weeks hasn't put me in the most serene of mind states.  A queasy stomach and a buzzing brain are a volatile mixture, at least within this particular blue-haired girl.  Couple that with all the attempted rapes, the beatings and the near-death experiences I've been through since waking in that alley, and it's a wonder I haven't ripped a few more heads from their shoulder mounts--a feat too-easily repeatable now that I have a sever-whip.  Phoenix has stumbled into the immovable reality of my mind state more than once; he hasn't learned his lesson yet, and I get the feeling that we're either headed for a major confrontation, or...something else.  And maybe that something else will just be another form of confrontation.  My stomach goes queasy (flitterwasp) just thinking about Phoenix and all the rest of this glitch.  I...I'm gonna have to tell him soon.  Maybe tonight.  I've managed to hide the worst of the symptoms from him, but he's gonna figure it out sooner or later.  Better that he hear it from me before he can figure it out and start interrogating me.  I can just imagine that scene, and I can't let it play out like that.

Glitch this body!  Glitch whoever did this to me!  When I find the miserable g'ekk, I'm gonna shove this sever-whip in an uncomfortable orifice and flip the switch.  I swear it.

How long I'm crouched there, I don't know, but in the end, when I stand up--my knees popping and my toes tingling--I've decided what I'm going to tell Phoenix and how I'm going to do it.  It's not going to be the easy, and it's going to make him uncomfortable--make him squirm I think.  The static actually lessens at that thought, some perverse pleasure trickling through the dissonance.  He saw me naked, and now he needs to make up for it; a little suffering won't damage him...permanently.  Back on my boat, I gave him a little glimpse of me, and he gave me a little glimpse of what makes him uncomfortable.

Too bad for you, Phoenix.  You've managed to hide many things about yourself--and not just from me I suspect--but that was one thing you couldn't push down far enough.  I caught on.  Now I'm going to use it against you.  Just for a bit.  I'm going to tell you my secret, but I'm going to tell you in my way and on my terms.  Don't worry though; you won't be the only one who's uncomfortable.  No, me and my mind have made sure of that.  I'll be right there with you, even if not to the same degree.  You see, it has to be done this way, otherwise you might not understand the weight of what I'm telling you--the weight of the secret I'm holding.  The incredible, infinite gravity of it all.  Oh, and you're gonna tell me a secret too.  There's no way you could know this yet, but you're gonna give something up, 'cause there's no way in glitch I'm giving this up without something in return.

Yeah, you're gonna tell me a secret.  Get ready, my con artist.

Moving back from the cliff and toward the barren tree our bedrolls are under, my boots whisper in the short tufts of grass, synthetic fiber soles scraping in the dirt.  I make it back without tripping on anything.  The static's still there--pretty much constant since we left 001010011010--grinding away at my skull and the gray matter inside in a low, irritating hissing.  Some higher level frequencies are creeping in; feels like I'm picking up radio signals in my head.  My hand goes to my neck, rubbing at the muscles there.

I'm wearing the second of my three skinsuits.  This one's a two-piece, and it's black as night.  It's not as high-quality as the white one, but it's the better of the two since it doesn't have that glitched mood-sensing ribbing!  I have enough trouble sorting through my emotions without beaming them color-coded to Phoenix all the time.  After the first couple of days wearing that white one, I had the distinct feeling he was keeping an internal list of which color corresponded to which mood.

     red is for...

     blue is for...

     yellow is for...

                         (glitchyouhatechu Phoenix)

On his bedroll, Phoenix is wrapped in one of the foil blankets we found in the desecrated Haven.  Even through the static, I can hear him breathing.  His breathing isn't slowed yet; he's awake.  Not snoring either--my other clue.  He may not even know that he does that when he sleeps.  I guess I don't know that I don't for that matter.  Don't care either.

The sever-whip moves from my thigh to the side of my bedroll, right next to the displacer pike.  Gotta keep both of them within quick reach.  I lay down, my body relishing the soft, pliable surface of the bedroll.  I'm able to remove my boots, thankful for the thick, padded socks I'm wearing; I'd have blisters on my feet otherwise.  Also, I hate sleeping with boots on, and the socks free me from having to do that.  The foil blanket crackles and crinkles underneath my weight.  I'm on my back, the moon only a brief tear in the fabric of the star field up there.  It's just enough light to make out objects in the landscape, but not enough for me to make out Phoenix's eyes to see if they're open or closed.  I almost open my mouth--no time like the present, right?--but at the last second I turn coward, the static jumping up a couple of rungs on the intensity ladder.  A small moan escapes me, not loud, but all-too-loud in the quiet of the darkness.  After that, I lie there for another hour or so, the static increasing all the while, my thoughts trying to wade through the swamp of discord they've become mired in.  They never quite make it.  Instead, I just drift in a state of minor confusion--a disquieting period of thought-less-ness.  Still, in the end, one thought does manage to make it through unscathed: Stop stalling, angel, and do this thing.

"You still awake?" Phoenix says, his voice cutting a swath through the static-swamp.

I turn my head to one side, trying to shake myself from the confusion congealing in my mind.  Spots appear in my vision, bright bursts of light standing out in the darkness.  I blink and they're gone, but I still can't get my mouth to move.  It's as if a thousand tendrils of static are attached to my tongue, keeping it from slithering, preventing it from forming words.  Phoenix is looking at me, waiting, his face now cast in a silvery sheen.  I swallow, hard, then realize I'm not breathing.  I start that up again, forcing air into my lungs.  That's better; I might be able to talk now.

"Yeah," I say.  I hope that didn't come out too slurred; thought I had control of my lips and tongue.  "You're having trouble falling asleep too?"

"Yeah.  Maybe I'm just not used to solid ground again.  You?"

No, I love solid ground, Phoenix.  Don't you understand what almost happened to me out there, when I was alone?  This world will probably kill me someday, but Dokk One tried to take something more valuable to me than my life.  This may be poisoned earth, but my foundation is a little firmer here.  Still, have to give him some answer.  "I'm still a bit shaken up from the robots and Calamity and..."  And what, angel?  You gonna tell him now?  "Everything," I say, leaving it generic and open-ended.  Maybe that'll satisfy him.

Phoenix calls my bluff--or he just doesn't know what else to say--when he asks: "Everything?"

     bzzz STATIC bzzz

My mouth slams closed, and I let out a faint humming sound.  Those spots of light are bursting again; closing my eyes to shut them out works after a minute.  It's now or never, angel.  You open that mouth back up and tell him.  Right now, angel.

"It's more than that," I say.  Is my voice wavering?  "There's something I've got to get off my chest."

Phoenix responds with some comment about my skinsuit being too tight.  I tell him to shut the glitch up and to pay attention.  Let me show him.

"Show me?" he asks.

Caution: You are now on the border of Phoenix's Comfort Zone!  One more step and you'll be in the much more restricted Discomfort Zone!  But you've been there before, haven't you?

I've been there a couple times.  Not sure I fully realized it then though--not like I realize it now.  And not like Phoenix is going to realize it in a minute or two.  Those times before...they were frigid compared to what I'm about to do.  I throw the foil blanket back.  It lands at my feet, leaving my skinsuited legs uncovered.

The light's too dim to see the subtleties of Phoenix's expression.  I reach for the hem of my skinsuit top, fingers curling underneath.  "Give me your hand," I say, my voice filled with quiet, my mind filled with static.  I'm really going through with this.  No stopping now.  Committed.

"Actually," Phoenix says, "I was just joking about the skinsuit thing."

I know you were, now glitch, give me your hand.  You have to feel this.  Just realize that there's no escape for you this time.  Lady Luck can't help you here.  Our bedrolls are close enough that I can reach out and touch him.  I reach out.  Make it easier on both of us.  Turn towards me, Phoenix.

As if hearing my thoughts, he turns on his side.  I grab his hand before he can change his mind and decide that the look in my eye is too predatory.  I can make out a questioning look on his face, which he quickly tries to hide.  His voice is flippant: "Er...okay.  Now what?"

Now, I make you feel it.  That's what.  You wouldn't understand if I just told you about this.  You wouldn't comprehend fully, and I need...I want you to know this about me.  Somebody other than the wirewitches and Calamity.  My fingers curled under the skinsuit top, I lift it, sliding it up my stomach.  The static bursts like a thousand bombs.  Wait, angel, you're not gonna--

Then Phoenix's hand is on my belly, his palm flat against my skin, warm, my finger pressing his hand there with constant pressure.  Necessary, or he'll pull away.  He's stronger, but I've got him trapped.  Somehow, I think I've done it.  And the static, it's--

Phoenix inhales sharply, his hand goes motionless, but stiff.  "Ah...syl, I'm not sure this is such a good--"

I silence him with a hiss, the buzzing in my mind wavering at Phoenix's touch.  "Don't say a word."  Just feel.

     Point of no return.

     I've reached it.

     Here goes.

I push down on Phoenix's hand, moving it down under mine, creeping past my bellybutton, even underneath my skinsuit bottom, underneath my undergarments too.  As I do, the static lessens.  It's such an unexpected relief; so I'm pushing his hand further, then realize what I'm doing and stop, the static holding, barely a whisper now.  Phoenix's entire arm is tensed and tight, like stone, muscles bulging.  What's happening?  How is this possible?  With the static practically gone, I can hear both of us breathing, and that's about it.  My heart seems to be pounding an accelerated rhythm, but that could just be echoes of the static bouncing around in there.

I can feel the pulse in his thumb against my bellybutton.

Too far, angel!  Too far!  His fingers...they're really close to...  But nothing you can do about it now!  Finish what you started!

My mouth feels dry, but the lessening of the static has given me clarity of thought and speech--or the illusion of them at least.  "There, can you feel it?"

"Feel what?" Phoenix asks.  His voice is noticeably weak.

I ask him again.

Phoenix can only get out an, "Uh," which trails off like a deflating balloon.

Touching or being touched by me makes you uncomfortable, doesn't it, Phoenix?  Not just me though I suspect; I know you don't like men, so it's definitely the close proximity of a woman that makes you raise shields and duck for cover.  Well, I got in underneath your shields, and you'll just have to handle it.  I'm probably like no other woman you've met, and I hope that confuses you to no end.  What are you thinking?  What are you gonna do now that I've got your hand and I'm not letting go till I've told you what I'm going to tell you?  What happened to you to make you like this?  Maybe that's what I'll make you tell me.  Regardless, I'm not letting you run for cover.  Not this time.  Maybe not ever again.

"Well," I say, "even if you can't feel it, I can.  No so much with my hands, but just...inside of me."  Right underneath our hands.  My baby's right there.  My blue spark.

Phoenix looks confused, but seems unable to pull his hand away.  "Umm..."

"Can you keep a secret?" I ask.  "That's a stupid question.  Of course you can, but will you?"

"Of course."

There's a second there where I almost don't tell him--a second where I'm about to back off and realize that just because I've spent two weeks with him and we owe our lives to each other doesn't mean that I have to tell him my secret.  I could leave him tomorrow, or even tonight while he's sleeping, continue on my own, we'd never see each other again, and he'd never know that growing inside me is a child I don't even know the beginnings of.  Nobody is forcing me to tell him.  Nobody but me.

When they come, the words rush out fast, and they're on the tail end of a deep breath.  "Under your hand--under our hands is...life.  A new life.  A spark within me."  Another breath.  "Phoenix, I'm carrying a child."

His fingers twitch a little at that, his eyes twinkle in the moonlight, wondrous.  "You--a child!  Really?"

"Yes," I say.  The static drops even further, until I think it's really gone for the time being.  As it fades, there's a new sensation--a heat--I'm suddenly cognizant of.  It's inside me and it's seeping through my entire body.  Can't tell it's epicenter, but something deep down tells me it's in the vicinity of where I've got Phoenix's hand trapped.  Tumult.  Tingles.  Tremors.  I swallow hard before adding, "Really."

"Ah yes..." Phoenix says, realization dawning like a lazy morning sun, "the morning sickness.  Well congratulations!  You certainly don't look it."

Congratulations!  Of all the ignorant, g'ekk-brained...  Doesn't he understand what I'm telling him?!  Doesn't he understand that it's a secret because I didn't ask for this to happen to me?!  Glitch, it was a secret from me for awhile!  I wouldn't even know yet if 2-85 hadn't told me cold as ice that day in that Haven.

     (after he gave me a kiss but not just any old kiss a witchkiss a deathkiss)

"I'm sure I will sooner or later," I say.  I'm sure I'll fatten up quite nicely.  Not that you'll be around to see me.  You'll be leaving me soon.  Or I'll be leaving you.  Not sure which yet.

"So, who's the lucky father?" Phoenix asks.

Cosmic glitch!  You're impossible, Phoenix!  I don't know!  You know about my lack of memories, yet you go ahead and ask that question?  Glitch!  Despite your lack of tact, I'd answer you if I could.  I'd...want to tell you.

Phoenix's arm relaxes.  "Ah.  So you don't remember who it was," he says.  "I'm sorry.  Well, I'm sure one day you'll be able to find your long lost lover.  Or, maybe...he'll find you.  And hopefully, I won't be anywhere around when he does."

I know you won't.  One of us is leaving the other soon.  Did you really have to bring that up?  Right now?  Like this?

"I haven't exactly had much experience with jealous boyfriends," Phoenix explains.  "Speaking of which, is it okay if I take my hand out of your pants now?"

Oh no it's not.  You're gonna live in the land of discomfort until I get what I want.  I've told you my secret, and now I need to hear one from you.  Give it up.  Make life easier on yourself.  I press his hand tighter, deeper against me, and ask, "This makes you uncomfortable, doesn't it?"

Phoenix shakes his head, muttering a single word to mirror his action.

"You're such a liar," I say.  "Listen, I just told my secret, and I feel so much better!"

     (not the only liar, angel)

"I'm sure you've got something on your shoulders too," I say.  "I'll bet you'd feel better if you just let it out."

"No," Phoenix says, "because I feel fine already."  I can almost hear him trying to raise a barrier between us.  Shields up!

That's not gonna work.

"Ah," I say.  "I see.  Well, goodnight, then."

"Goodnight."

I close my eyes.  I let my mind wander from the battle I'm about to win, letting it drift in its static-free bliss, not knowing how much longer serenity can last.  Since it's been plaguing me constantly since we left the Slaughter Droid city, there's no small ecstasy in the simple absence of the static.  And also that heat that's coursing through my veins, toying with my skin, my sensations.  Our hands--

Phoenix talking interrupts my peace.  "My hand--"

Eyes open to Phoenix, frustrated.  "Well, I though that since you were so comfortable with it, I'd just let you sleep with it there."  See, Phoenix?  You're out of your element here, and that puts you at a severe disadvantage.  Okay, so I'm not exactly in my element either, but I made the first move, and maybe you haven't noticed, but I've been in control ever since.  Either way you choose to explain it, I've won.  Game over.

It takes a few more minutes, but eventually, he realizes that he's dealing with a pregnant woman who wants her way, and that I'm not going to give him his hand back until he tells me something, and also that I'm not opposed to resorting to use of the sever-whip if I have to.  Wisely, Phoenix stops trying to raise his barriers and he relents, letting me in.

     (farther than you, angel)

He tells me of his three partners: his father, a man named Lattis and a woman named Maia.  His story is really about Maia, his lover.  And his betrayer.  At its core, I think it's a love story--even if Phoenix didn't intend for it to come out that way--but there's a thread of sadness woven throughout, and that's what keeps tugging at me.  He tries to disguise the tone that sneaks into his voice, but I catch it.  It's the sound of complete disgust, but ensnarled with complete loss.  At some point, his voice causes a tear to form in my eye.  Now I'm feeling sorry for him and what this woman did to him?  Oh, what's happening to me?

As Phoenix speaks, I feel myself drifting, eyes closing.  The absence of static, the heat of our hands below my bellybutton--it all sends me to a different place.  It feels good there, just listening to his voice.  Am I asleep?  It's a removing of myself from...myself, and I can almost hear myself answering his questions, making comments as I have them.  He talks.  I listen.  At some point, his story becomes less of a story to my mind, but a stream of sensory input--smells and tastes in my nose and mouth, pictures and names that parade against the backs of my eyelids.  A faceless, nameless father, Lattis, Maia, blond hair, blue eyes, beauty uncontained, perfect white teeth (still smiling) with bits of loveroot stuck between them, whiffs of cinnamon strong against nostrils, an old lady, an old lady's smell, a theft, multiple thefts, routine thefts, Maia again, the back of a silver jacket, three holographic letters on its back, G and I and the third obscured, an E?, no an F, GIF, feelings of...attraction, jealousy, frustration, admiration, dirt and lights, many lights, the circus, that glitched circus, Maia picking pockets, a street gang, then blackmail from my con artist, why did he do that to her?, didn't he realize it would only draw her closer to him?, and him to her?, Phoenix the teacher and Maia the apprentice, but she wasn't the apprentice for long, but a partner, not a partner for long either, but a betrayer, gleaming pistols in her hands, pointed at their owner, trembling fingers on the triggers, a pause, an infinite pause, tears dripping from her chin then, weapons discarded, she...tells him she loves him, how could she not end up loving him with the way he kept her close to him?, the answer comes a few seconds later in the form of his profession, he loved her too, perhaps from those first few moments when he realized she was pulling his same con, bliss and happiness after that, comfort in companionship and the intimacy of a shared, dishonest craft, she wasn't his betrayer for long, but his lover, for a time at least, then all-too-quickly, no longer his lover, but his betrayer again, and finally.

Phoenix's voice and his touch carry me away from the events of the past couple of weeks, and I let myself be carried.  I realize that he's given me a glitch of a lot more than I gave him.  Maybe I should feel guilty about that, but for some reason, I don't.  What does that mean?

The drone of his voice and the intoxicating sea of comfort I'm floating in are too much.  I can't help but wonder if that's where the story ends, or if I just fall asleep, but eventually, my mind winds down, succumbing to the tidal pull of sleep, my body following its lead.

Only upon waking the next morning do I realize that I fell asleep with Phoenix's hand still firmly under my skinsuit.

  Post: 04.01.2003
Date: 01.16.2196
Time: Night

The Con [p054]

The sign sticking out of the mouth of the decapitated robot head says:

Now Entering
Die Droid Die (D:D:D)
Est. 2194
Human Population: 104
Droid Population: 0

"Great," Phoenix says.  "Hopefully they're friendly to humans."

I only let out a grunt, a harsh rush of air between my teeth.  Phoenix gives me a curious look, obviously unaware of my feelings toward him at this point.  If he expects me to react, he's going to be disappointed.  There was tension between us before, and it's been magnified by what happened between us last night; I can't ignore that chilled fact.  Well, his hand wasn't down there when I woke up.  At least there's that.  The communication between us has been...difficult.  Only short questions.  My responses have been brief, abrupt, my sentences barely complete, my answers aborted.

Maybe it's me.  But it has to be him too, right?

     (no)

Okay, gonna stop it now.  Break the cycle.  Break myself.  Respond to him.  I take a breath, and say, "Yeah, let's hope so."

Phoenix lets loose with a cautious smile.  "Oh, so you're talking now.  That's great too.  I--"

"You what?" I say, interrupting.  Why did I do that?

Phoenix's hand goes to his neck, briefly obscuring his face behind his elbow.  "I was afraid you were mad at me."

"Maybe I am," I say, letting myself smile, feeling the goodness in that, placing a hand on Phoenix's shoulder, then taking his hand, squeezing.  "But don't let that bother you too much.  Right now at least."

Phoenix clears his throat, turning towards what seems to be D:D:D's main street.  The night is dark, but the town is lit with harsh, white lights mounted to the tops of the settlement's structures.  A small sign hanging from a metal pole stuck in the ground is painted with a glowing substance, letters scrawled in a careless manner.  The words: Robot Killer Way.  The settlement itself is mostly a tight cluster of buildings, but there are a few smaller structures and tents removed from the rest.  A small corral disappears behind a larger building off to one side, thin, four-legged metal beasts standing motionless in the small breeze that kicks up tornadoes of dust and dry grass.  Phoenix wants two of those beasts for us--the main reason we're down here.  That, and currency.  The beasts because neither of us wants to walk anymore than we have to, and the currency because...other than our bodies, we have none.  I'm not willing to sell myself, and Phoenix doesn't seem the type.  Guess we have something in common.

For some reason, I feel like I'm blushing at that.  I find myself clearing my throat, turning my head away so Phoenix can't notice.

Robot Killer Way--or RKW my mind tells me--is a wide, dirt-covered path through the settlement, though underneath my boots I can sense the presence of some synthetic foundation, only a couple inches below the wind-brushed surface.  The buildings on either side of the street, much like 001010011010, are packed closely together, their surfaces uneven conglomerations of man-made materials, and hammered metal.  Each of the buildings contrast in color with the buildings on either side of it, giving the impression that each is trying to stand out and make its presence known to the rest of the town.  The brilliant lights of the settlement make these colors brighter than I suspect they really are, and the effect brings an image of the island to my mind, and the place where I first met Calamity.  I can't bring myself to take in the full scatterblasted cacophony of D:D:D for long.  Eyes averting.  That happens all to often.

"Friendly to humans," I say, echoing Phoenix's words as I look down RKW and at the settlement's citizens maneuvering across, down and up it.  Something vaguely robotic in the way they move.  Something inhuman about their gait; direct opposition to their looks.

"What I mean is, friendly to other humans," Phoenix says.  "They certainly look like they are.  Human, that is."

"Buildings are ugly."  I'm not looking at them.

"I wouldn't have chosen those colors either, but really, I don't critique building design on a regular basis, so what do I know?"

"Which one?"  Are we going into is the rest of that question.

Phoenix adjusts his belt, taking a few steps forward, past the sign--the one being vomited out of the robot mouth--and appears to study the buildings on either side of RKW.  But I get the sense that he's not looking at the buildings at all, but just letting me come to that conclusion.  Inside, he's got something else going on in there.  Other threads are running; other, hidden processes on secret neurons.  I don't think I could guess at what he's doing, thinking.  "That one," he says, already moving towards it.

Fingers underneath the shoulder straps on my backpack, I move to catch up.  I'm wearing the black skinsuit tonight, not wanting to draw much attention to myself, and not willing to enter the settlement with my emotions broadcasting.  At least from my clothing.  I've got the sever-whip on one hip, and the displacer pike--which I discovered was of the collapsible variety, just a six-inch long cylinder now--on the other.

Nobody here is wearing skinsuits.  Or jumpsuits.  Nothing to minimize the attention then; we'll attract plenty.

The building we're approaching is splashed in a sick green color, only broken by spines of polished metal, imprinting the surface of the building like traces on a circuit card.  Or grooves on metaskin skin.  Wirewitch skin.  JACK's skin.

DROIDSBANE

We stop in the middle of the street.  Though I'm repulsed by the building itself, my eyes are drawn to the worked-metal sign that proclaims the name of the establishment.  The name has been created out of a single rod, each letters flowing into the next, with the end of the "E" flowing back under until it meets up with the bottom of the first "D."  I can't discern the seam in the logo.  Formed from a loop?  The logo is emanating a bright green light, even brighter than the green of the building's face, yet somehow less stressful on my optics.  Mesmerized, when I look back at Phoenix, the logo, burning pink in the ether now, superimposes itself over his face, his nose poking out of the top curl of the "S."  I blink.  The image is still there.  I resist the urge to laugh.

"You sure?" I ask.  "About this?"

"Yes, we have to," my con artist says.  "They're not gonna give us anything for free, and neither of us is for sale.  Well, not me at least."

"Glitch."

"We have all we need to do this, and we'll let it happen--no, we'll make it happen--just like I told you.  Just like we planned."

I lean closer.  There are citizens near, and they're looking at us.  I lower my voice, the static flaring for a moment as I do.  "I'm not convinced we're not inserting ourselves into more danger here.  We need transportation, and we need money, but is this the only way?"

"Yes," Phoenix says.  So simple.  "Here and now, yes."

I swivel my head back to the logo, sighing audibly.  The static explodes, rapid firefights of interference battling across my skull.  Something about this place.  Disturbing.  Not as it seems.  Like that desecrated Haven.  Aran, where are you when I need you?  JACK, where are you when--

     (don't rely on them they will fail you)

     (rely on--)

"I can do this one on my own," Phoenix says.  "You can go back up on the cliff.  Wait for me."

I swirl in the static, almost not hearing him, barely comprehending, but I can't abandon him.  Not yet at least.  One of us is leaving the other, but I'm not ready for that event yet.  So it won't be me tonight.

"No," I say.  "I'm in."

Phoenix's eyes betray satisfaction.  "Don't worry.  I've never had one of these go wrong.  I'm good at this."

"Let's do it then.  Just like you said."  The static drops.

A few citizens, legs and arms wrapped in brown material and heads shaved, small goggles gleaming in the glare of the lights overhead, enter Droidsbane ahead of us.  The double-sized entryway doors are not powered and there's no evidence of shielding, pulse or otherwise.  We pass through.  Some horrible, dissonant sound permeates the atmosphere in here, and it takes me a few seconds to realize that it's probably what passes for music in this settlement.  Something experimental, performed by cyberspace-brainfried A.I. or tone-deaf, devoid-of-rhythm modies most likely.  It sounds like they recorded a nuclear blast while at ground zero, then released it unedited.  Something in my mind, or my memory, tells me that's been done before, and no, this isn't that one.  Fact: it's no Serpentblood, who I remember to have integrated some form of tempo into their recordings.

My eyes attempt to adjust for the low light in here, no doubt presenting the room to me as darker than it really is.  Inside, Droidsbane is painted in that same, reminiscent-of-vomit green.  Floor to ceiling; a monochromatic field of distaste.  The floor is littered with small tables and wiry chairs with low backs.  Most of the chairs are full, the tables bearing small, open-faced containers filled with beverages.  Some foaming, some steaming, some smoking.  No one looks up as we enter, but the static raises a notch, and I get the sense that everybody did notice us walk in, and that everybody is keenly aware of us.  Self-consciousness rising; imagined eyes roaming my body, my curves.

"This will be good," Phoenix whispers in my ear, his breath tickling.  I shudder.  "Easy."

"Really," I say, slipping my arm around his elbow, letting my body sink against his, even putting my head on his shoulder.  Playing my part.  Part of the plan, but Phoenix stiffens for a second before relaxing back down.  Old reflexes are hard to switch off.  This position feels a little too good, and I almost pull back, but for the sake of the con, I maintain.  "I'm trusting you on this.  I'm doing something I shouldn't.  Breaking Rule #1."  Never mind that you broke Rule #1 long ago, angel.

"I think I can let it slide this time."

"Just don't make me regret it like you did."

Surveying the layout and people in the room.  A counter off to our left, with a woman behind it, creating and serving drinks.  A sea of tables and customers in front of us and to the right.  To one side of the counter, a door, a sign next to it reading: "NO."  NO?  What the glitch does that mean?  What could be back there, behind a door so simply labeled?

Amazing, there's an empty table.  As we move to it, quick glances beam me intel about Droidsbane's customers.  Something strikes me immediately, but I have to take a few seconds to decode what it is.  There, got it: three different factions in here.  They've segregated themselves by their level of hygiene, their clothing and, more obviously, by their position within the room.  The first, limbs bound with frayed strips of material, hair only stubble--the women too--on their heads, circular-lenses tight against smudged foreheads.  Several of them with head coverings--woven caps of soft fiber--wear their goggles on top of their coverings.  Bodies splashed with earth tones; dirt and mud as skin paint.  Faint, earthy smells of grime and animal dung waft in the air--all coming from this group.  Strangely, it's not as unpleasant as I would've thought; there's sweat and power in those smells and what they represent.  But deeper in the aroma, something...dying.  Is it all of them, or just one of them that smells of this?  The second group: trench coats and violence.  Wide-brimmed hats and narrow eyes, backs hunched, lean forms bending over and into murky liquids, bubbling and sputtering.  Guns in holsters, only lumpy bumps underneath those leathery veils of slick, pocketless gray.  Male and female, long hair pours from beneath hats in waterfalls; there's some defiance there that I can't pinpoint, some cultural taboo being violated.  No one else in here has let their strands grow that long.  Facial hair long on the men.  On the women, blank faces.  Hard faces though.  The third and last group--the physically weakest by the looks of them--sit with an air of disquiet about them.  Modies, each and every last one of them.  And that's what makes them the least notable of the three.  Implant-heavy and cosmically wired,  they peer into handheld displays, forced to physically jack into their external devices with crumbling optical cables.  More victims of cyberspace's fall.  Some of those handhelds may not even be working--they're certainly not connected to anything of importance.  Physically, they're diminutive, and their numbers mirror this, only having enough to fill three tables.  The modies who aren't jacked and face-blanked are shifting their eyes between the other two factions.

"Friendly place you brought me to," Phoenix says, having noticed the three factions also and the way they seem to be--or not be--looking at each other and us.  "Is it just me, or does it seem volatile in here?"

"It's not just you.  This place is...vibrating with it."

Phoenix sits down, letting me release him, but I hold onto his hand as I pull a chair for myself.  I finger the odd scar there.  Not sure if I'm just maintaining the illusion or trying to find some sort of solace.  If it's causing Phoenix any grief, he manages to hide it it, instead focusing on a table at the center of the room.  "That's the one," he says.  "That'll have to be it since we don't have any money to buy anything to drink, and I doubt they'll just let us sit here and relax without us buying anything."

Static hurting me, seeing the center table.  Only now do I see this table is different than all the others, bigger, an oval.  Three people are seated at the table, one at the narrow side of the oval, and two at the flatter sides.  One from each of the factions.  On a small stool behind each sits a second person, forming an outer ring to the inner, more important ring.

"What is this?" I whisper-ask Phoenix.

Phoenix squeezes my hand.  Did he do that on purpose?  "Town meeting.  It's probably something they do on a semi-regular basis at the very least.  And they're playing my game."

"If it's a town meeting, what makes you so glitched confident that they'll let a couple of strangers interfere?"

Phoenix turns to me, smiling, blue eyes flaring.  "A little bit of luck and a whole lot of skill.  Let's go."

I'm pulled to my feet.  Phoenix picks up his chair.  I loop his arm; the deferring, weak female walking beside.  Just a con artist, his blue-haired companion and a borrowed chair.  That's what we are, on approach to the off-circular table where the faction leaders face off, for entertainment or battle--maybe both--difficult to tell.  We're incoming, unannounced, and it catches them with shields down.  Maybe they noticed us enter--probably did--just don't give a glitch, get strangers like us in here all the time since the fall.  Phoenix slides in, and I slide with him.  It's one smooth move: he twirls the chair, four legs screeching against the floor, then lowering himself, the seat moving underneath him just in time.  If he had missed, he would've pulled me to the floor with him.  I end up behind him, at the chair's corner, hand resting on his shoulder.  Passive female.  Insignificant.  Glitch.

I'm in the outer ring.  The less important one.  Phoenix just inserted himself into the inner one.  Guess we'll see how much trouble he just got us into.

"T-stack, right," Phoenix says.  It's not a question.  "Can I play?"

Six faces are pointed at us.  Inner and outer ring.  No, wait.  Quick check of my vision field.  Don't even have to look behind me to know that we just tractor beamed the attention of everybody in here.

Glitch, what good is Rule #1 if I don't listen to it?

Vector scanning the faces of the inner ring.  Static buzzing louder as I focus on each face.  They're looking at Phoenix more than me; gives me a chance to analyze them before anybody speaks.  My mind assigns them names without my permission, and I'm using them internally without thinking.  Glitch Man, She-Claw and Death Face.  Without warning, I'm suppressing an urge to go for the sever-whip and the displacer pike--not that those are things I need to have in my hands at the moment, but my mind, or the static, wants me to--an animalistic reflex unearthing grave-zombie-like.

"Private game."  Voice like an eoa roar.  It's Death Face.  Knew it would be him.

"What you got?"  She-Claw this time, voice husky, possible inebriation.  Maybe she's soaring.  "Credit not worth j'aa around here."

Death Face isn't happy she spoke.  I store that.  Phoenix flashes teeth, con thrusters about to ignite.  He snaps his fingers at me, not looking up.  A signal to give him my backpack.  I do.  Hand returns to his shoulder, tighter this time, claws out.  Because he snapped his fingers without looking at me.  And because everything else I own on this glitched planet is in that backpack.  Maybe he won't have to gamble the AquaSuckers.

"I have enough," Phoenix says.  "Stuff that's difficult to get around here I suspect, especially with cyberspace flatlined."

"Like what?" She-Claw asks.

"AquaSuckers."

Cosmic glitch!

"Multiples?" Glitch Man asks.  His voice sounds encoded, comp-gened.  I see a small silver box attached to his throat, talon-like wires digging into the skin there, holding the modifier in place.

"Let's see them," Death Face says.  "Then we'll consider letting you lose them to us."

"Not the AquaSuckers, love" I say, claws tighter.  "We need those."  Okay, that's not part of the script, but I know Phoenix plays these things from instinct, so I'm gonna do the same.  And I don't want our only real source of water in jeopardy.

Phoenix doesn't even look up.  "I know what I'm doing, angel.  We talked about this before.  Trust me."

Angel.  He called me angel.  Does he know what he just did?

Phoenix pulls the AquaSuckers.  On the table, covered with the opening moves of the T-stack game, the two devices look out of place, too modern.  And out of reach.  Guess it's too late to do anything about that.

She-Claw shoots a hand out, snagging an AquaSucker and turning it in her hands as if she's never held one before.  Her blonde hair flows in thick waves and curls from under her wide-brimmed hat, enveloping her shoulders, locks almost obscuring her eyes, shadowed and dark.  Her fingers are striped with plain metal rings.  Behind, her long-haired second sits, eyes alert and hands near his waist, fingers playing at the opening of his trench coat.  He has weapons there.

"Very nice," Glitch Man buzzes, fingering the second AquaSucker.  "What else you got?"

"So, I'm in?" Phoenix asks.

She-Claw ignores the question, instead answering Glitch Man: "He got a woman, that's what he got."

I'm not his.  I'm not anybody's.  Not now.  Not ever.

Death Face scratches underneath the goggles on his forehead with a dirty finger.  He exhales sharply, his version of a laugh I think.  "And a young one too."

I see She-Claw lick her lips with a pale pink tongue.  "The blue hair suits you.  You a D--"

"Too much hair, girlie," Death Face interrupts.  "You need to shave it off, rancher style.  That'd suit you a whole lot better than the way you got it now.  Though, I have to admit, you're more her type than mine."

Jus because we're running a con, doesn't mean I have to put up with this type of glitch.  "Actually, I'm--"

"So, I'm in, right?" Phoenix repeats.

I lock eyes with She-Claw.  It's reflected there, bare and plain.  And it's primal.  Mouth turns up, tongue, lips glistening.

She wants...

An arm snaking around my waist.  Phoenix.  "Sorry, she's not on the table."

"You sure?" She-Claw asks.

"Yet," Phoenix adds.

Death Face laughs out loud, slapping his hand down on the table, disturbing the T-stack game, pieces jumping.  Glitch Man adjusts a dial on a device attached to his wrist.  She-Claw smiles, leaning back in her chair, tipping it on two legs, flipping her trench coat open.  Her body is wrapped tightly in soft black fabrics.  Plates of crude body armor are molded all across her lithe form, sculpted alloys fitting her slopes.  The armor's surface is brushed, as if to deny any reflections.  A bandolier diagonals between her breasts, attaching to a wide belt around her waist, more ammo there.  Twin guns rest in holsters low on her legs.  Breathing deep.  Armor and weapons rising and falling.

I can't tell if she's just putting herself on display for my benefit, or if she's throwing out some challenge to Phoenix and the others.  The static rises and falls at irregular intervals, perhaps trying to communicate something to me in code--an ancient cipher which I don't have the energy or desire to decode.  Glitch, Phoenix.  We were just about even, but now you'll have to pay for that last comment.  I'm not your property.  This is a con, but I can't let that one go.

"You're in," Death Face growls.  "For a while at least."

"Great," Phoenix says, releasing me.  "I haven't played in awhile, so you'll go easy, right?"

I punch him in the shoulder, glaring.  This is part of the script.  "Shut the glitch up," I whisper in his ear, just loud enough for everybody at the table to hear, "and try not to lose everything we own."

"Trust me, angel, I know what I'm doing."

"Nice of you to bring me a chair," I say, turning away, walking back to our original, empty table.  By the time I return, the T-stack game is underway.  I've never played, and Phoenix didn't exactly explain it to me, so I'm forced to sit there, observe and listen.

"You'll regret that," She-Claw says to Glitch Man in response to some T-stack action he just did.

"Not as much as the new guy," Glitch Man says.

Phoenix has indeed bet an AquaSucker on the first round.  Phoenix swears under his breath.  In seconds the AquaSucker is gone, in She-Claw's possession.

Static bleeding like an open wound, I try to keep my hands from my temples.  Stomach's trying to tighten up.  Glitch, cramps too.  That's not right.  Is it hot in here, or is it just me?  I resist the urge to slide the zip tab on my top down a few centimeters.  She-Claw's eyes flick toward me a little too often for that--she's being so obvious it's almost comical.  I should laugh.

     (hah)

Instead, I slide my hand down Phoenix's forearm, taking his hand for a second until he needs it back for the game.  A few moments later, he loses the second AquaSucker.

"Glitch!" I say, standing up.  "How the glitch could you have lost like that?!  Glitch, you lost both of them!"

Phoenix turns toward me.  "Lady Luck is on our side.  You'll see.  Nobody wins every time."

"You let your woman talk to you like that?" Death face asks.  "And I thought there were only two masochists in this j'aa heap: the one at this table, and NiZo back in the back."  At that last, Death Face jerks his head toward the "NO" door.

"I say what I want," I say, "when I want."

Death Face snorts.  "I just bet you do."

"G'ekk NiZo," She-Claw hisses, then she spits on the floor.  "I should've killed that keetcha when I had his throat in my hands.  I would've licked his blood from my fingers, and painted my chest with the kill marks as if he were a Slaughter Droid."

"Watch it, hunter," Death Face says.  "Everybody here knows your feelings on NiZo.  Continuing to bring it up will just get somebody killed."

"Anything to liven up the evening," She-Claw says, again looking at me.  Licking lips.  "I'm bored right to Eiech.  Haven't killed enough droids lately."

"Hey, are we playing here or what?" Phoenix asks.

"You seem awfully anxious to lose more of your belongings, stranger," Death Face grinds.  "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

"My luck's about to turn," Phoenix says.

"It'd better," I say.

"Bets on the table," Death Face says.

Phoenix wagers his spare jumpsuit.  And loses.  Then my white skinsuit.  And loses.

Furious now.  "What the glitch?!  I could do better than this!"

"Calm down, angel," Phoenix says, trying to put me back in my seat.

"No!  Even I could come out ahead, and I don't even know how to play the glitched game!  I don't know why I let you talk--"

"Bets on the table," Death Face says, but he's grinning, enjoying the scene I'm creating.

I sit down once again, letting hair fan down over my eyes, hoping this is all as convincing as I'm hoping.  It helps that I don't have to act out all of it--if this doesn't work, we're not gonna get those AquaSuckers back.

"You got some heart, girl," She-Claw says.  "Maybe you be wasting it on blondie here."

"Leave her alone," Death Face says, "and play.  Can't you control yourself?  There'll be plenty of time for that after we're done here.  I'll even let you take her in the back when we're done as long as you don't use the room NiZo's playing in.  But, glitch if you aren't acting like you've been deprived.  We both know that isn't true."

"Glitch that," I say, under my breath.  Maybe they can hear me, maybe not.  "No one tells me where to go."

     (but the static)

"Klez!" She-Claw swears, leaning forward onto the table.  "Again you mention that keetcha NiZo in front of me!  And you tell me what to do?  I think...no.  Any more j'aa from you, and this peace will end--glitch the previous agreements, and glitch you."

"I'll pretend you're not threatening me," Death Face says.  "Now put your glitched bet on the table."

She-Claw throws the AquaSucker she won back onto the table.  "I don't make threats."

Glitch Man pushes his chair back a little from the table.  His face betrays nervousness.  He knows something Phoenix and I don't.  Some history here.  His eyes flick toward that back door.  The "NO" door.

Phoenix smiles through it all, not reacting to the growing tension at the table, throwing his bet--most of our food packets--on the table.  "Uh, usually my luck's not this bad, guys.  How about going easy on me?"

"Don't lose this time," I whisper in his ear.

He turns his head back toward me.  Low in my ear: "I won't."

"Tell you what," Death Face says.  "If you ever win, I'll let you have a peek in the back, at what's behind the back room, and that's more than these two g'ekk offspring have had.  You could probably handle it.  Glitch, maybe you'd even like to help."

She-Claw and Glitch Man look at each other for a second before turning back to the game.  It wasn't conspiratorial--more like trying to determine if the other knew something.

"It's...a deal," Phoenix says, then promptly loses our food to Glitch Man.

It's too much for me to take.  I hit him upside the head, not hard, but it gets his attention.  "Glitch!  Can't you do anything right?!"  Then, leaning forward, I'm at his ear again.  "You're losing too much."

"You're taking it too far!" Phoenix whispers back.  "That hurt...a little."

Static demanding my attention once again, and I sit back, angry and dazed.  This time I can't help but massage my temples.  Doesn't help much.  I look at the "NO" door, suddenly realizing that my stomach's turning, threatening me.  Not sure if that's because of the static or the blue spark inside me.  Glitch, now I need to pee.

"I have to go," I say.

"What?" Phoenix says.

"Right.  Now."

     (static.  now.)

Death Face smiles, motioning.  "Back there."  Towards the "NO" door.

Phoenix doesn't look happy about this.  I stand, shrugging his hand off.  Nothing personal, Phoenix.  I'm sorry.

As I pass She-Claw, she shoots her hand out, grabbing my wrist.  I can barely focus on her through the static haze.  "You no look so good."

"I know," I say.

"You call for me if you need."

"Gotcha."

She stands, speaking low in my ear so only I can hear.  "Watch out for keetcha."  Her grip tightens at that.

"Keetcha better watch out for me."  With that, I slide from her fingers.

The "NO" door looms.

  Post: 04.05.2003
Date: 01.16.2196
Time: Night

Behind The Back Room

Hand to forehead.  One eye looking back, watching Glitch Man, She-Claw and Death Face.  Moving away from Phoenix and toward the door.  Head's buzzing with all the ferocity of a tarokk in heat, and my fingers fumble at the crude, neoplastic surface of the door.  My fingernails scrape for traction, until they catch, one fingernail bending, cracking.  The door opens.  I move through.

I'm in a bare corridor, and I'm alone.

I can still hear the music and muffled conversations from the other side of the wall.  With the static masking everything, those sounds seem like they're coming from far away, a sound in a dream.

The light here is dim.  In the middle of the hallway, which bends at either end, further into the building, I find myself with two directions to choose from and no clear indication which one leads to the facilities where my body can relieve itself.  I turn left, one hand cradling my temple, the other scraping along the wall, as much for minor tactile contact (comfort) as for balance.

Sorry, Phoenix, I didn't want to leave you out there by yourself, but I had to.  I'm sure you can take care of yourself.  Continuing around the bend in the hallway, I notice several doorways further down.  Two are slightly open, with the one at the dead end of the hall closed.  Moving closer, the static climbs with each...every step, and now my entire body feels like it's shaking to the vibe.  I force myself to continue forward, even though I'm walking against the static-wind; even though it's trying to bend me backwards, lay me down.  Break me.

The two open doorways lead to nothing of consequence.  I open the closed door slowly, peeking through the crack.  The room beyond is dusty, some sort of storage area with a single light hanging from a crude crossbeam which runs the length of the room.  In the far corner, another closed door.

Glitch, this isn't it.

     (hurry, angel)

I turn, and the static relaxes its grip, but not before crushing against me for a moment.  I almost pass out.

     (wake up)

          (angel, you...)

               (missed...)

Back down the hall; back down the bend, then another bend.  There: two doors, each with the generic, universal sign for either female and male.  Beneath each symbol, some creative soul has helpfully translated them in hurried letters: keetcha and keetchin.

Keetcha it is.

I'm through the door, barely having time to note the sanitary state of the room before I'm using it, hands moving at the hem of my skinsuit bottom.  My body's on automatic, guiding me to facilitate its mandates.  Now, sitting, my body emptying itself, the static lowers, my vision clearing.  I wipe my forehead, my hand bringing back a layer of sweat.  I put my elbows on my my knees and my head in my hands.  Gonna have to go back out there in a few.  Back out to Phoenix and this glitched con he's got us running.  Back out to Death Face and the other two.  Maybe, by the time I get back out there, Phoenix will have won my stuff back.  Glitch, right.

     (missed something, angel.  saw but did not)

(see)

What's this?  Wait, what did I miss?

The static lowers even more, my thoughts able to break through finally.  Glitch me, what was it?  The buzzing was walling me off a few minutes ago, and something happened.  Where?  Out there, with Phoenix and the others?  The con?  Or, out on the street?

(no, not there, you're not thinking angel)

Where then?  Back here?

     (missed something, angel.  heard but did not)

(hear)

Deep exhaling and inhaling brings a measure of calm to my flesh and spirit.  My body, relieved, is able to relax, muscles deflating, and it's all I need to concentrate.  Concentrate and think...back.  I'm letting images of the day pass through my mind, projecting against the back of my eyelids like a ficflick.  They flash, like so many subliminal images--not so much images as thoughts and impressions.  I watch.  I feel.  I think back.  Not far back though; that much I know.  It happened recently, perhaps in the last minute or...

...so.

Ah, glitch me for a keetcha.

I'm up, moving, pulling my skinsuit back up my body and passing my hands under the sanitizer nozzle.  Exiting, my wrists inadvertently brush the sever-whip and the displacer pike at my thighs, and my mind flashes me a message noting: perhaps that's a sign of things to come for you, angel.

Maybe it is at that.  Considering what I think I'm about to do.

Back up the hall; back around the bend, then another bend till I'm standing in front of the three-doorway dead end, the third door still open from when I opened and didn't close it.  I step through, the static protesting, rising back to full strength, letting me know that it doesn't approve of something.

Death Face's face in my mind.  His words.  Behind the back room.  NiZo.  I'll let you have a peek...

In the back, a door.  I saw it, yet didn't see it before.

In the back, a noise.  I heard it, yet didn't hear it before.  Too much static for that, but my mind caught it.  Reminded me, and wouldn't let it go.

And now I'm here, standing in front of the door, seeing it, hearing the noises from behind it--despite the static raging in my mind.  Even through that monumental dissonance, I can hear what's happening back there.  The images in my mind, brought on by those sounds, tear at me, cutting the static like a hot knife, plain and raw in my head.

Gone.

I want that sound, those images...gone.

     (angel)

     (you don't have to)

     (none of your)

          (concernbusinessresponsibility)

I swallow deep, my mouth and throat strangely dry.  Hand goes to the door handle.  My touch is slight, but the handle moves without effort.  It's not locked.  I try to swallow again, but there's nothing there.  I realize that I do have to do this.  I do have to go in there and let myself have a peek.  Before this realization fully hits me, I'm uttering what I think is a prayer, limbs moving, taking action.

I push the door open and step forward...

  Post: 04.06.2003
Date: 01.16.2196
Time: Night

What (2)syl Saw There

...into hell.

     (static)

     (unleashing)

     (vision blinking)

Four bodies.

Three with flesh.

Ranchers.

Goggles.

Dirt.

The other, metaskin.

Youngling.

Female.

Naked.

Chains.

Shackles.

Bindings.

Hairstalk attached.  Temple.

Hairstalk, S-curved.  Floor.

Blood.

Blue.

Streams.

     (static)

Groaning.

Moaning.

Gagged.

Muffled wail.  Grating.

Grunting.

Two watching.

Third behind her.

Against her.

In her.

     (static)

Grunting.

Laughing.

Thrusting.

Hand caressing hairstalk.

Whispering threats.

Licking her ear.

A vibrating sob.

A tear.

Lacerated circuitstreams.

Blood dripping.  Floor.

Let myself.

Have a peek.

Glitch.

Me.

Forever.

For this.

     (static)

     (static)

     (static)

          (forever)

Rising and uncontrolled.

Intruder, me.

Been noticed.

Two turning.

Shock.

Surprise.

Cursing.

Their weapons.  Floor.

Mine.  My thighs.

     (static)

     (blinding me)

     (telling me to...)

     (SCREAMING AT ME TO...)

He's against.

Inside.

Her.

Grunting.

Keetchin!

I will.

Kill.

Him.

Them.

Now.

     (STATIC STATIC STATIC STATIC STATIC STATIC STATIC)

What happens next?

  Post: 04.13.2003
Date: 01.16.2196
Time: Night

Dark Angel Raging

I don't know how it got there, but the sever-whip handle is in my hands, and I'm charging into the room.

There's no thought here.  No plan.  Just action.  Just fury.

Just me.

I'm ducking and twirling, riding the static like a wave, feeling it surge through me, muscles buzzing--both pain and a vague, unfamiliar pleasure in that--all over my body.  As I spin, the room spins contrary to me, then a streak of light appears, encircling me, the plasma wire lengthening at my thumb's autonomous spasm.  There's movement at my peripheries, ranchers on the move.  I'm still twirling, static-spinning, arms extending.

Streaks of glowing luminescence, now marred by streaks of glowing blood.  I slashed one of them, maybe both, not sure how deep, but they both stagger back.

I barely see them; barely care at the moment.  But now the displacer pike handle is somehow in my other hand.  I'm coming out of my spin directly behind the object of my rage, still thrusting at the youngling, grunting, lusting.  The youngling moans softly, her head lulling against the wall.  I rise up, bringing the displacer pike handle vertical.  The rancher cries out.  A bolt of static hits me, then my arm jerks downward like it's been kicked.

A volcano of blood, high in my vision.  Something happened.

There's a furrow in the rancher's back where the displacer pike tip ripped upward along his back as it activated, extending.  The furrow starts at his mid back, then gets deeper and deeper, then bloodier until, at the base of his neck, it goes sub-dermal.  The entry wound there is clean at the moment, but the penetration is deep, culminating in an apocalyptic skull-rape out the other side, the entire top half of his head is gone, accelerated at high-speed against the wall in a splatter pattern by the displacer pike's explosive tip.  The wall above the youngling's head is a soup of dripping flesh and blood.  Bone fragments are imbedded in the surface there, thick globs of blood still clinging.  A stringy, fleshy mass slides down the wall.  It's one of the rancher's eyes, punctured and seeping, optical muscles following behind like the wet, misshapen tail of some newborn creature.  Other, unidentifiable pieces of the rancher's face and head are present on the now-blast-painted wall's surface.  Clumps of hair, still attached to flaps of skin, fall to the floor, bouncing off his shoulders and the youngling's head.  I can see broken teeth on the floor, a few with roots, all with strings of blood.  Then, right there--it's the upper half of his jaw, a lip and part of his nose still attached.

I'm shaking, frozen at the violence of it all, the suddenness of it all.  I take a step back, lost in a haze of static and confusion.  My hand, suddenly weak, releases the displacer pike.  Firmly imbedded in the rancher's neck--I can see the metal tip protruding from the jagged upper lip of his ruined head--it holds firm in place.

The rancher's body, no longer supported, begins to slide downward.  One arm limp, the other slipping from in front of the youngling's body where he'd been fondling her.  His head rolls back, then, because of the displacer pike, to the side, revealing a bowl of blood and a soggy, detonated brain pan.  As his body descends, discorporated chunks of glistening brain matter tumble out.  Spongy, useless lumps.  The corpse--that's what it is now--collapses, nakedness evident, limbs sprawling, the contents of his cranium pouring onto the floor like a tipped cup of water.

I did that.  What have I done?  The static--

The other two ranchers.  Forgot.  I spin, activated sever-whip following.  Both of them are huddling in opposite corners of the room.  One of them is obviously in complete shock.  The other looks like he might make a break for the door.

I jerk the sever-whip handle, pulling it back then jerking forward.  The plasma wire spits sparks into the air.  "You," I say to the one who might run.  "Over there with him.  Now."

He scrambles over, joining his fellow rancher, cowering.  One is clutching his arm; the other, his neck.  Sever-whip wounds.

"Give me the keys, now, or I kill you both, now," I say, hardly able to get the words out with the static running loose through me.  I want to curl to the floor and just shake.

The timid one reaches into a fold of his clothing, pulling a small key out.  He tosses it.  I pick it up.  "If either of you move, I will slice you both in half."

The youngling raises her head, turning it as I approach.  I work the key into the shackle at her outstretched right arm.  Her bottom lip is split, bleeding that blue blood, but her face is clear.  Then, I'm staring into wirewitch eyes.  There are swirls and torrents there.  Breaking through the static, an image of JACK flashes through my vision, overlaying itself on top of this youngling's face.  It's only there for a second before it fades.  I find that I've been holding my breath.  Her severed hairstalk twitches.  The one that's still whole waves is if caught in a breeze.

The wirewitch speaks, voice the sound of gravel-caressed cords.  "...thank you..."

The shackle flips open.  I ease her arm down, fingers tingling at the familiar feel of bare metaskin under them.  I move to her other arm, then her legs.  The ranchers don't move.

The youngling, free, goes down to her knees, her naked body hunched, her hands flat on the floor, shivers taking hold of her.  Where she rests, she's framed by the rancher's corpse on one side and the detached length of her hairstalk.  She moves a hand to touch it, and it comes apart, thousands of strands separating, no longer able to maintain their tight bundle.

Tears jump into my eyes when I see that.

And rage into my being.

"That thing..." the wirewitch says, "...hurts me."

"What's she talking about?" I ask the ranchers, moving toward them, static telling me what to do.  Making me want to do what it says.  Wanting to...unleash...

A trembling hand stretches out, the timid rancher pointing.  Over there, against the wall: a small silver box with two antennas sticking out of the top, a lopsided "V" of sorts.

"What the glitch is that?" I ask, the static creeping into my voice.

The rancher just shuts his eyes and turns away.  The other one--the one who's not so weak--keeps his mouth formed into a firm line.  Some people are defiant until the end, no matter  that it's their defiance that's hastening that end.  Glitch.

"Fine," I say walking past the dead rancher, avoiding the mess his body is making.  As the wirewitch continues to shudder on all fours, I lash out with the sever whip.  There are sparks and then smoke, hissing and popping.  The silver box, which had been transmitting some sort of field no doubt, goes skittering across the floor, but in pieces.

The static drops like a freefalling parachutist.  The lowering is so sudden, I think the static's actually been switched off, but after the initial euphoria I realize that it's--of course--still there, buzzing as constantly as ever.  The wirewitch exhales, a deep outpouring of air and relief.  Her chest heaves with great breaths, the end of a her struggle for air.  She kneels there for a moment, at one point even letting her head touch the floor, her youngling-length hairstalk slithering against her back like a silver-tinted serpent.

"W-What are you g-going to do with us?" the scared one asks.  Timid Boy.

"Shut up!" the other says, elbowing the weaker rancher.  G'ekk Rot, my mind says.  That's what he is.

"Which one of you is NiZo?" I ask.

G'ekk Rot grunts.  "Sorry, you just killed 'im."

"Are you going to kill us?" Timid Boy asks.

"Boss Rancher wouldn't like that," G'ekk Rot says.

"Don't give a glitch about Death Face," I say, ignoring the confused look that spreads across their faces.  Turning to the wirewitch: "What's your name, and are you going to be okay?"

She stands, legs wavering, but with a strength I could never possess.  She's young, but she stands straight, unashamed, perhaps even unaware of her nudity.  Her body ripples with technosite-enhanced muscles, her form youthful and lithe.  There's blue splotches of blood all over her body, but no serious external wounds.  But the internal...

"I am XOXO, and I am not mortally wounded," the youngling says, eyes darting between me and the ranchers.

"What happened here?" I ask.

"My coven took refuge in a cave near here.  We've had been without direction since cyberspace stopped transmitting.  People from this settlement raided us seven days ago.  I do not know the fate of the rest of my coven, but they took me and brought me here.  I have been in this room ever since.  Only recently had they raised enough courage to even touch me, and only then because of that disruption generator."  Her last sentence is spit out.

"Why are you protecting a wirewitch?" G'ekk Rot asks.  "She isn't even human.  They're not fit for much."

"Listen," I say, stepping closer to the two, "some of my best friends are wirewitches."

"You're crazy," G'ekk Rot says.  "You deserve their same fate.  If you weren't holding that there sever-whip, you'd find out for yourself what the youngling already knows--how much man she can take.  And how many.  We all had her you know."

     (do it)

     (finish this finish)

          (them)

Is it the static in me now, or is just my own rage?  Hand tight on the sever-whip handle, I having a hard time not...moving...attacking.

"No," I say.

Silence.  "No what?" G'ekk Rot asks.  "If you do anything to us, you'll regret it.  You won't make it out of this place alive on your own."

"Who says I'm alone, G'ekk Rot?  You don't mind if I call you that, do you?"

"Crazy keetcha."  Muttering.

"No, I'm not going to kill you two," I say.

"What will you do with them?" XOXO asks.

"Do you want them?"

"Yes."

I'm at a decision point here, too critical to let pass by without pause.  Let them be killed by action or inaction--doesn't really make a difference.

"But, if you ask," XOXO says, "I will leave without touching them.  Because you saved me.  Because you killed...him."

     (finish this)

In the end, I think it's the static that decides for me.

"They are yours," I say, but I'm thinking I just made a mistake.

"You first," XOXO beckons to G'ekk Rot.

G'ekk Rot stands, taking a courageous step forward, but he doesn't get far, the haughty look on his face replaced by one of pain as XOXO is on him in one leap, driving him sideways into the wall.  Her hands have become clusters of spikes which she is using to open countless holes in his body.  He vomits, a black-red fountain.  Within seconds, his chest is a bloody pulp, his groin a gross, wide open wound, spewing gore like a hole in a sewage pipe.  Her arms are blurs of blue and red, stitching up and down his form.  When she stops, pulling back, his torso skids sideways on the wall, leaving a wide, curving swatch of blood which follows him all the way to the floor.

Timid Boy whimpers in the corner, eyes wide at G'ekk Rot's lifeless form.  "Don't kill me," he pleads.  His eyes look to the witch, then to me, frantic.

I shake my head.  "I can't help--"

"I will not kill this one," XOXO says.  "He may live."

What's this?  Why?

"Come here," XOXO says.  "Stand up.  Walk to me."

Timid Boy doesn't want to move at all, but he manages to get to his feet.  He stumbles twice, but he's in front of her now.  He's crying.  Now that he's closer, I can see just how young this one is.  He's a half meter taller than her, but to me, he looks smaller.

"You have done the unthinkable to me," XOXO says.  "You copulated with me without my permission.  Wirewitches are forbidden to have relations with humans."

"T-They...m-made m-m-me," Timid Boy stammers.  "I-I didn't--"

"Yes," XOXO says, her voice soft.  "Yes, you did."

Timid Boy wipes tears from his cheeks, but more take their place.  No way to brush away a waterfall.

XOXO smiles, nodding her head.

And I know what she's going to do.

     (shoulda known)

(just like) (before) (just like)

                                        (always)

"Wait!" I say.  "Don't do it!"

XOXO's eyes go still.  "You would rather I killed him?"

I swallow.  "Making him...one of you, is worse than death!"

"You do not understand," XOXO says.  "You are yet a youngling yourself I see."

"What don't I understand?" I ask.  No, can't let this happen.  Not in front of me.

"This one," XOXO says, placing her hands on Timid Boy's shoulders, then moves them to his neck, then the back of his head, "is important to me now, in spite of what he has done--or rather, because of what he has done."

"How can that be?!" I ask amidst a burst of static.

"Because," she says as she tilts his head, pulling him down, her unclothed body rising to meet his, "his is the seed that created the child within me."

Frozen, I try to comprehend, as XOXO pulls Timid Boy into the witchkiss.

I turn away, not knowing what else to do, leaving an image in my mind of a naked wirewitch and a defeated rancher embracing.  Two lovers, visually; but nothing of love in what's happening now.  She's taking his humanity from him, stripping it from him as if she were skinning a tarokk.  And I'm here, letting it happen, because...

Because I can't do anything to stop her?

     (no)

Because, inside, I don't want to stop her.

Hands to ears, but it doesn't block out all the sound.  I'm forced to listen.

It's been only a few minutes, but it's over now.  I can hear him back behind me, writhing on the floor, changing.  Technosites now occupy the realm that is his flesh.  Maybe even his soul.  Who knows the effect they have?  How can anybody really know without being infected?

What have I done?  What have I allowed to happen?  How long have I been in here?  What is Phoenix doing right now?

I notice a door I hadn't noticed when I first entered.  I wonder--

"You can escape this place through there," XOXO says from behind me.  Must've seen me turn my head.  "There is a short hall that leads to the outside.  The warlock and I will be leaving soon too."

"I have a friend here," I say, not turning, not wanting to see another newly created warlock.  "I can't leave without him."  Though he may leave you soon, angel.  Don't forget that.

"Who are you?" XOXO asks.

My name.  She wants to know my name.  "(2)syl."

XOXO repeats my name, a grinding sound which resonates with the static.  It's the last word I hear her say, because, before I realize it, she's leading the warlock through the back door.  His three hairstalks are the last thing I see before the two of them disappear into the darkness of the hall.

I sit there for a few more minutes, feeling the static lessen, then finally, leave me, its duty done.  Before leaving, I pause at the door, looking at the room and the two corpses, lying in their own personal blood pools.  I feel nothing except revulsion for what they were.  Their deaths--they got what they deserved, and some part of me is glad that I was able to take part.

In that gladness, I'm scared.  For myself.  For the parts of me I've lost.

And for where I'm going from here.

  Post: 04.13.2003
Date: 01.16.2196
Time: Night

Never Ask Me [p055]

Outside, the air is dead, and I feel dead right along with it.  I'm in an undead haze, moving from the back alley where that hallway let out and around to the front of the building.

Commotion.  People in the street.  Chaos.

First thought: What did you do, Phoenix?

Then, as if on some cosmic cue, Phoenix rounds the corner, running.  My backpack is flying through the air.  I catch it, matching his direction and speed.

"Follow me," Phoenix says, then looking at me: "Hey, is that blood?  What happened?"

I can barely hold back tears.

"What did you do?"  More insistent.

"Phoenix," I say between breaths.  "Don't ask me that again.  Please.  Just...don't ask."

"But--"

"Never ask me."

 

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