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096: Black City East     097: Man Machine And Heat
098: Metalmorphosis     099: The Angel, The Demon, The Ghost


Post: 01.25.2004
Date: 01.31.2196
Time: Evening

Black City East [p057]

Am I doing that?

Who's doing that?

     (Oh, it's us.)

The skinsuit zip tab seems to lower of its own accord. My fingers are shaking, entwined with his. Our digits interlacing, the skinsuit opens at my neck like a flower. My shoulder is suddenly bare, and then his lips are there, his kisses leaving silent fires, cool moisture bubbling there as if boiling. I'm shivering as one hand goes up the back of my neck, fingers lifting my hair, pushing my head down. I go down on my hands and knees, and I sense him behind me, over me, against me, pulling the back of my skinsuit away. The air is cool on my skin back there, but before I can enjoy that sensation I'm feeling swift kisses zipping up my spine. Then...oh!...he's tracing the marking on my back with his tongue. My elbows and knees go weak at the heated trail of saliva being painted there. I want to reach back and touch him; feel him like he's feeling me. Taste him like he's tasting me.

But I can't move to resist. He's in control here, and I'm weak, being destroyed. And I'm welcoming it. Like a crumbling planet, I'm breaking. I'm coming apart...

"Hey! You with me or what?"

My eyes flutter open. Wha--

"syl?" the voice asks. "Good, I thought I had lost you for a second. I know you're tired."

The daydream--if that's what it was--swirls away, just beyond reach, but the feelings coursing through my body remain active. I feel cold and hot all at the same time. Skinsuit feels too tight, and I get the sense that my face is red.

"You feeling all right?" Phoenix asks. "You're all, well...flushed."

Glitch this body and what it's doing to me.

"And I've never seen that color on the skinsuit either."

I'm wearing the skinsuit with the color-changing ribbing, but it's gone black before I can see what he's talking about.

"What color was it?" I ask.

Phoenix avoids my eyes. "You know, it's weird. I'm not really sure. It was...unique."

Ok, glitch what this body does to others too. Festering g'e--

Taking a deep breath, I let it go. A quick scan of my surroundings and it all comes back to me. Where we've been. Where we're going. And more immediately, where we are. I'm on my back, leaned up against the base of a tree trunk. We're protected on all sides by gray, twisted trees and long, curling branches. Above us, through the gaps in the branches, I can see the cliff walls rising high above. Only a strip of night sky is visible. A few stars manage to be bright enough to cut through the atmospheric haze. Phoenix is a few feet in front of me, crouching behind a large boulder and a few surrounding bushes. Behind him, through a small gap in the bushes, is the entrance to the city. At least, we assume there's a city behind it. The wall itself--a rugged construction of hardwood and black stone, overgrown with vegetation--isn't that high, maybe five meters, but it's prevented us from seeing anything beyond it. We had briefly thought about climbing a tree to see over the wall, but none of the trees were suitable for climbing. Phoenix estimated that the valley we're traveling through is over a kilometer wide. The wall crosses the entire valley, making it impossible to go around. It took us over two hours to find a doorway, which was inset into a small alcove. In all likelihood, it was not the only entryway, but neither of us wanted to search any further. Phoenix wanted to go up and knock, use his natural charm--some self-avowed seduction and subsequent taming of Lady Luck to get us in and through--but I reminded him of the failure of such tactics in Die Droid Die. His opinion of our failure--or success, rather--in Die Droid Die differed from mine, but I held firm. Eventually, he caved. We've been waiting for nightfall since then.

"Now that I think about it," Phoenix says, eying my skinsuit again, "perhaps you should've worn the other skinsuit."

"Which one?"

"Ah...the black one."

"Not wearing that one until I can get it cleaned. End of discussion."

"Okay, what about the red one? Nothing wrong with that one is there?"

"It doesn't fit right."

"Looked fine to--"

"It's too small for me. Can't breathe in it." Yeah, I caught you looking at my chest, Phoenix. Caught you looking at all of me. That's okay, I don't think you can't help it. Don't worry, I'm not going to hold it against you. I just wish I could tell if there's anything behind it all. Do you feel anything? For me, that is. Or am I just nice to stare at when you don't think I'm looking?

"All I'm saying is that it would be better if you--"

"I know. I agree. But there's nothing I can do about it. Neither of us knows how to disable the skinsuit, so we're just going to have to deal with it. I'll try not to feel any strong emotion."

"Good luck."

The sarcasm in his voice sets me off, the skinsuit ribbing fading to a brilliant pink. "Phoenix..." I say, letting my voice trail off, surprised that there's no static.

He holds up his hands. "I-I shouldn't have said that, I guess. Sorry."

"Be careful," I say as the skinsuit normalizes back to black. "But, apology accepted." I look past him, to the wall. Neither of us have seen any movement in the area. Actually, we haven't seen anybody in awhile. It's been two weeks since we left Die Droid Die, and we've only seen one person that entire time, and that had been from a distance. Phoenix's sharp eyes had spotted the lone figure, silhouetted on the ridge of a hill a few days ago. The person was traveling parallel to us for half a day, but had eventually disappeared. I was a little worried that we were being followed, but Phoenix thought it unlikely that the person had even seen us.

Though we had been headed east, roughly following the coastline for a couple days after our experience in Die Droid Die, it became apparent that we would be unable to continue our original course. A massive ridge had been raised in our path. I had no recollection of the specific geography of this region, but Phoenix told me the ridge looked like the rim of a crater. I couldn't disagree. We turned north, sticking close to the outside edge of the crater. After only a day of walking a second ridge rose up, just outside of the crater. An unnatural valley had formed between the two ridges. We debated whether we should go around the outside of the second ridge, but eventually decided against it. The way had been easy at first. With a landscape consisting primarily of rocks and sparse grass, there was little to hinder us. Unfortunately, several days in, we encountered tight trees and thick, hanging vegetation. We had to leave the transportation we had stolen from Die Droid Die behind. Those four-legged, metal beasts just stood there, watching us as we moved on. Phoenix grumbled about leaving them. Truthfully, I wasn't happy about it either. Walking everywhere held little appeal for me, especially when I didn't know how far I had to go. I had to pull the sever-whip from my hip several times to cut away at the denser foliage, but it produced a burning smell that stung my nose and made my eyes water. One time, Phoenix thought the face I made was funny, and he laughed out loud at me. A steady look from me was enough to quiet him. He had made some comment about there being laws against pregnant woman wielding sever-whips, but if he laughed the next time, at least he kept it to himself.

"You ready for this?" Phoenix asks.

"As I can be." I crouch, making sure my backpack is tight against me.

"I'm still not sure about this," Phoenix says, stopping me from creeping forward with a finger on my shoulder.

"Neither am I."

Phoenix smiles. "As happy as I am about you agreeing with me, I was referring to your condition."

"I'm pregnant, not disabled."

"I'm just not sure I should be tossing you over that wall."

"You're not going to be tossing me! You're just giving me a boost up. Besides, I'm not strong enough to lift you. This is the only way it's going to work."

"It's not too late to try this my way."

"It is," I say, pushing his finger off of my shoulder. "We already talked about this and made our decision. You boost me over, and I'll open the door from the inside."

"Okay, fine. You win."

As it should be. Remember that.

I follow Phoenix through the gap in the bushes. As I have been many times over the past couple of weeks, I'm impressed by Phoenix's ability to move silently through the vegetation. Glitch him, he moves so fluidly and with such confidence! My clumsy movements are the only sounds disturbing the night. Glitch it. Maybe he can teach me how he does that sometime.

Once we reach the wall, we move a ways away, to one side of the doorway. Phoenix turns to me. "syl, just--" He looks away. It's as if he's deciding something.

"What?" I ask.

"Just be careful. I'm not...ready to say goodbye just yet." With that, he kneels down and laces his fingers together and holds them out to me.

Leaving me with nothing to do except put a foot into his hands and wonder at the sudden tingles in my stomach and at the back of my neck. Glitch. I put my hands on his shoulders, but before I have a chance to whisper something back to him, he's lifting. I almost lose my balance, steadying myself with a hand on Phoenix's head, mussing his hair. My feet are on his shoulders then, and I'm reaching up.

(Not even)

     (close angel)

"Higher," I whisper.

I'm looking down, just as Phoenix looks up, then realizes where he's looking and quickly looks away again. The black stone of the wall is cold against my palms as I step into Phoenix's hands at his shoulders. He lifts me up. I'm not the heaviest woman in the world, but I'm still amazed at his strength and muscle control. He pushes me upward. I reach for the edge of the wall, which is closer than it was before, but it's

(not)

     (enough)

"Higher," I say again. "Toss me."

Below me, Phoenix curses, but lowers me back down. "Get ready," is all he says before he accelerates me upward, then lets go.

I catch the edge of the wall with one hand.

"Don't let go!" Phoenix hisses helpfully up at me.

"No glitch," I mutter, clawing at the wall with my other hand. There's static now, of course. It wants me back down on the ground, to let go, or to fall even. I ignore it as best as I can and manage to reach up and grab the edge of the wall with my other hand. I'm pressed up against thin vines which run up and down the wall. I think I hear something in my elbow pop as I attempt to pull myself up. My finger--the one that was bleeding on my boat--starts to ache, and my foot--the one that was bleeding in the alley--feels a little numb. A groove in the wall affords my foot a small ledge, which I use to push off of. After that, it's only a couple of seconds before I get my waist up, then one leg, then both legs. The wall is only half a meter wide, so my grip is tenuous, and I end up straddling it with my knees and elbows. I steady myself and look over the wall. I'm hanging over a dark alley set between two rows of buildings. The roofs of the buildings come to within a meter of the top of the wall. The one nearest me is covered in vegetation, but I'm going to use it as a foothold anyway.

"You okay?" Phoenix asks up at me as I begin to step down to the building. "You look like you're going to fall off."

Words of encouragement. Just what I need, Phoenix. "I'm fine," I say, but just then I put weight on my foot. It slides on the damp roof, my grab for the wall and then the side of the roof both failing, my body plunging downward, the black veil of the alley coming to meet me like an old friend. Dark shapes are below me, lumpy and unidentified, waiting for me to impact. The static is a sounding alarm in my head as I fall. I have the time to get my flailing arms under control, but then I hit.

Something tells me that my body actually bounces, rebounding away from the ground. Maybe I black out there for a second, maybe I don't. Whatever really happens, when I eventually come to a stop, I'm amazed by the amount of pain, but also the overwhelming numbness. I'm gasping, struggling to breathe. My head hurts, but that could just be the static reminding me that I'm alive. Both palms hit flat. My wrists and forearms are letting me know how much that hurts. There's numbness below my knees; I can't feel anything down there.

     (Hurting, but alive.)

I let a sob out. And a few tears. Ouch glitch ouch.

     (Alive, but hurting.)

Hold it. Static's trying to tell me something. Warning me. Of closeness.

A face. I see a face.

Whoever he is, I'm lying on top of him. Fell on him. Probably bleeding on him, various wounds leaking through fresh rips in my skinsuit. I'm tangled up in him, legs and arms pressed close. My body is convulsing for breath, but the odors all around me, coming from him, are sweet and strangling. I can smell his exhales. He's drunk. The stench of intoxicants irritates my nose. I feel dizzy. His body is cold. This is dangerous, me like this, laying on him. Got to get up. Got to leave. Ah, it hurts to move. Hurts to think.

Parting the static, a memory surfaces. Another alley in another place.

I'm having trouble focusing, but I can see that his hair is over his face. Before I can stop myself, I'm pushing his hair away, wincing at the movement. The ridge of his nose slides under my palm and then his forehead. Don't know why I'm doing this. I stare for a moment. I can see his eyes now. Dark silver spheres.

I recognize this face.

It's him.

  Post: 02.15.2004
Date: 01.31.2196
Time: Evening

Man Machine And Heat

Aran, my Chrome Knight, lies underneath my body. I've been here before. How is it, now, that I have returned? To my place atop him. To his warmth. Is my life that cyclical?

There's no static here. That alone is enough to prolong my dizziness, compound my confusion. Really, it can't be him. He died when the island went critical, when I killed all those people. He died when I killed him. Somewhere deep inside, I've known that all along--that I was responsible. It was my fault. But now, underneath me is the living, breathing, stinking proof that I was mistaken. A few moments ago I thought his body was cold, but that must've been shock, because I can only feel heat coming from him now. Oh yes, he's warm.

               Just like

          I remember back in

     that other dark alley.

He's unconscious, my fingers still buried in his silver strands. Is his hair longer than it was before? What else is different about this Technomancer reclining so drunkenly beneath me? It's dark down here, and I can't make out his details. He's changed, somehow. Does he even remember me? Will he recognize me when he wakes up, seeing how little I've changed? My hair, only a centimeter longer than a month ago, isn't much of a shift. The other changes, all of them, are internal. The scars, the wounds, the self-death; even I haven't wanted to examine those too closely. He'll never see them.

The blue glow, which I just noticed, is from my skinsuit. It's holding at a steady shade of blue that matches my hair. The light is reflected in his eyes, and, I suppose, in mine. His hair is coarse in my hand, but I find myself combing through it repeatedly, drawing an inexplicable comfort from the motion and the grain of his hair.

     (Oh...Phoenix...oops)

Gotta get back to him, open that glitched door, let him in.

Don't want Aran to wake up with me on top of him. Feeling is flooding back into my legs. My toes are tingling. I push up, unable to contain a small groan as I do, and a bigger, longer groan when I push to my feet. I step back to the edge of the alley, intentionally creating a space between us. I'm just about to turn, exit the alley, and see if I can let Phoenix in, when Aran twitches, muttering something I can't understand. Lurching then, he sits up. The two bottles, one from each hand, drop to the street, one tumbling, the other breaking. He stands and, for the first time in a month, looks directly at me. His face is covered in shadows, and his hair hangs down, covering his eyes.

Do you know me, Aran? Do you remember the girl with the blue hair?

"Tyillion...that you?" Aran asks. "How'd you...?"

"No, it's me, not her."

He holds up an arm to his forehead, as if to shade his eyes from some bright light. "Who...?"

He doesn't recognize me, but I can't bring myself to give him my name. I want to hear him say it on his own. Still, something in me is disappointed. "Don't you remember me?"

"I knows lotsa peoples. Ssssooo many can't glitching 'member 'em, 'specially when drunk!  Hey you, don' come closer! Ah, you're not armed are ya?"

I step towards him, only a few meters away now. My hand goes to the sever-whip handle on my hip. "I'm always armed now. I'm a different person from before. You might even be impressed with me, maybe."

Aran peers at me between his fingers. "Tole you...not ta come any closer... Hey, your hair..." Can see his eyes now. He's squinting at me, studying me. His eyes scroll down and up my body. He staggers, taking a sloppy step back. "Whoa! Where did the rest of you come from? Trying ta outnumber me! All of you look jessss like that naked girl."

"You're drunk. There's only one of me."

"That's jes whatcha want me ta think! Dontcha know you can't fool a Technomancer twice!"

Only a meter away. "You do know me, don't you? It hasn't been that long. You can't have forgotten already."

Aran shakes his head, laughing. "Everybody changes."

"I need you to remember me, Aran."

"Athara-Meeatora..." he whispers, suddenly breathing heavily.

     (?????)

          (wait what was...?)

"What did you call me?" I ask. I think I need to lie down.

His words are still slurred, but quieter. "That bast'rd was right. I killed for her. That part was real...I think. When it came time, both of us wanted to kill for her...don' understand that."

"What did you call me?!"

"Don' know...it means," he sighs, shaking his head, his shoulders slumping. "Too many memoriesss, too much too soon."

He's not making any sense. But he called me something...why did he call me that? What does that mean? And what stirred within me?

Aran smiles small. "I know you...ssssssss."

Close enough.

I can't help what happens next. A smile bursts onto my face and tears spring to my eyes. I'm throwing myself at him, against him, wrapping my arms around him, underneath his trench coat, pulling myself hard and close. We almost go down together, and there are a few seconds where we both waver. Then I feel hesitant hands at my back, the hug returned, or maybe he's holding on so he won't fall down. Right, as if I could stop him from falling! The thud of that alien heartbeat in his chest rings in my ear. It's the sound of fluid and machinery--an abominable mix--but I think it's the echo of sweet music.

"I'm glad you're alive," I say.

"You're real," he drawls, and I almost think it's a question. The stink of his breath is nauseatingly foul. The smell of liquor is burning the back of my throat. Stay this close to him long enough, and I may get drunk myself.

"And a whole lot more," I say.

He squints at me. "Wait, who...? How?"

"I want to tell you about it, but first--"

The end of my sentence--we need to go let Phoenix in--never reaches my lips because an enormous static blast hits me. I tremble and moan into Aran's chest. zzZZZkk ffgg ggonna pass out, it's so intense.

"Whatissit?" Aran asks, holding me at arm's length. His eyes look like they're having trouble focusing.

Through the static and through my tears, I notice what I didn't notice before--what's different about Aran.

"Where are your wings?" I ask, suddenly filled with thoughts and memories that are not my own. The static is bringing them to me, but there are too many, and they're too fast to make out. The torrent tears through me, and I'm powerless to stand against it.

Aran pauses, as if he doesn't know the answer to my question. No, that can't be it. Something else...

There's something new then, not static, but perhaps born from it, that takes me. It dries my tears and gives me the strength to stand despite the static trying to send me to my knees. Whatever it is, I think it gets its claws around Aran too. He suddenly pushes me away, doubling over, his body convulsing. An energy crackles between us. I can't see it, but I think I can hear it. Can definitely feel it--some type of storm contained within the meter of space between us. Something rips through the back of his trench coat, poking new and sharp.

The sound he emits then, of him screaming, is something I was never meant to hear.

  Post: 02.16.2004
Date: 01.31.2196
Time: Evening

Metalmorphosis

Aran, on his knees in agony, is a crooked, screaming hulk. The thing protruding from his back is a misshapen, skeletal finger which tapers to a point. But as Aran thrashes on the ground, trying to shed his trench coat, I can see other movements, fluttering in the dark. He gets one arm free and flings it back, sending the bulk of the trench coat across his body. Two dark shapes unfold from his back, expanding, reaching out like the emaciated digits of a corpse. They're his wings, of course, but they're not the same. The metal monstrosities that had sprouted from his body before look nothing like these.

There's a surge in the static, accompanied by a loud groan by Aran. Between us, the energy continues to flow. The sounds he's making tears at my heart. I want to comfort him somehow, if he'll accept what I have to offer. I take steps toward him, the static increasing with each step. It wants me on my knees, so I oblige. That's a little better. I crawl forward, squinting through black spots in my vision.

They're alive. A part of him. The bone gray fingers spread like the outstretched limbs of a waking beast. Unlike the old ones, these aren't superficial.

But, I notice, his new wings are unformed and incomplete, as if they were the wings of an aborted NeoDragon. There's no substance to them--just fingers without any webbing between. Nothing there to support flight.

I make it to Aran and put two hands on his head. He's thrashing around, as if he's trying to stand. "Get--" he growls.

"No, I'm here with you." Or, I think that's what I say, not quite sure that the static didn't drown out my words.

Aran doesn't respond. Above us, his wings beat, collapsing and unfolding. This close, the energy conduit between us is a constant buzzing, mixing with the static till I can hardly tell the two apart. What's happening?

Something black, wispy, jumps between us. From me to him.

I know I didn't imagine it because Aran jerks, his wings pulled against his back in a rush. He reaches up, grabbing at something--my hand, I imagine, so I take his hand in mine. His palm practically swallows my hand, taking it to the wrist. I sense he's restraining himself from clamping down and breaking my bones. How is he maintaining control?

His wings expand again, spreading wide. Only this time there is something between those skeletal fingers. Black, wispy strands of some sticky substance now stretch between those fingers. The substance bends and flows, pouring like liquid, living, breathing. The wings are beating now, drips of the black, oily substance almost flung off before being pulled back into the still-forming, blackish pools. Between those skeletal fingers--which now seem to be changing themselves, being overcome, lengthening--the substance begins to stiffen. Still fluid, its surface seems to move, but it has formed a thin membrane. Like nothing I've ever seen, the membrane glistens in reflected starlight. The membrane isn't continuous, but appears shredded and pock-marked. Strips of it hang down from the wing structure. There are patterns there, formed by the stretchy, webby membrane. Aran looks up at me, his screams dying out. In my mind, the static continues, but lower. His wings flash up, fully formed, fully exposed.

In his wings, I see the image on my back mirrored.

     (NO!)

Aran's wings seem to change color before my eyes, going bone gray, darker even in the alley's shadows.

The static...playing tricks on me. Glitch.

I can't tear my eyes away from the image in front of me. His wings, forming a cutout of that dark, wispy marking on my back. The image I saw, back on the island, back in that Haven, is as fresh in my mind as it's ever been.

"No, it can't be!" I shout. "Don't glitch with me!" I shut my eyes. I try to send the image of my marking away, concentrate on something else, anything else. My hand in Aran's hair. Something different there, between my fingers. It's--

"What?" Aran pants. He's still holding my hand, but with a gentler grip now.

I open my eyes. His wings, still outstretched as if he's about to take flight, almost span the alley. But they don't look like the marking on my back now. The wings vibrate, membrane quivering, dripping some oily fluid onto the ground. The wings, looking much more like an extension of Aran's internal skeleton than like the image on my back, fold up neatly on Aran's back.

"I don't know," I say.

Aran nods, as if he understands. We both stay there, breathing, not saying anything for a few minutes.

"What just happened?" I ask, sitting back on my heels.

"Dunno. Hurt like hell though." Aran sits back too, his body's shaking. He looks over his shoulder.

"Phoenix," I say, remembering.

"Fenix?" Aran mumbles, a drop of drool running down his chin.

"Yeah, Phoenix. He's outside the city, waiting for me to let him in."

"Phoenix..." Aran repeats.

"You met him back on--"

"Oh...I...did. Right." Aran's eyes narrow, focusing, his wings stretching. "I'm gonna need another drink."

  Post: 02.17.2004
Date: 01.31.2196
Time: Evening

The Angel, The Demon, The Ghost [p058]

An angel, a demon, and a ghost walk into a bar...

Or, at least, that's how my mind tells me the story should go.

Still untrusting of Aran, Phoenix sits near me at the table. Mind tells me that he's the ghost. Mind's not telling me whether I'm the angel or the demon. Aran's the one with the wings. He could be either also. Glitch my mind.

The bar--if that's what this quiet, clean place is--hasn't attracted many customers this evening. The three of us occupy a round table in one corner. Above us, a low overhang makes the room seem smaller than it actually is. The proprietors--two dark-haired women with veiled faces--have eyed us every couple of seconds since we came in with Aran. The sight of a drunk Technomancer being led by a pistol-packing man with a scowl and a woman with a sever-whip have kept them out of our corner. Actually, I'm not sure if they even know what the cylinder on my hip is, but a weapon is always the safest assumption. There's food on the table. Phoenix bought it with some of the local currency. I didn't exactly see how he came to acquire the local currency, and I didn't ask. It's not food substitute, so it's crunchy, sweet, and tasty, but my stomach is queasy, and I can only swallow a few mouthfuls.

God, I hate this. When I find out who impregnated me, I just might kill them. Twice.

Aran and Phoenix both have drinks in front of them, but neither have touched them. Phoenix is fuming silently, trying to make it look like he's staring across the room, when he's really glaring at Aran. He's still mad about the Lady Luck. Glitch, I wish he'd let that go. He looks like he might attack my Chrome Knight if given the right opportunity. Apparently, he's forgotten our earlier conversation on this subject. I may have to remind him. Aran hasn't said much, but I can see from the smirk on his face that he knows what Phoenix is doing, and, inside, he's laughing about it.

Too much testosterone in the air. I can smell it. Just a couple of boys...gonna see who's tougher. Who has the bigger gun. What utter glitch.

Aran, you're not the same. It's not your new wings, and it's not the hair. It's something deeper. What is it? I don't think you've noticed, but I'm happy to see you. You're half of my quest, and you don't even know it. Maybe you don't even care. If you can tell me where JACK is, it'll really make my day. There's some reason we've met up again. Do you know what it is? We don't have a lot of history between us, but I have this feeling that whatever there was...is important. Is there supposed to be more interaction between us? Is there something unfinished?

I'm a nobody, and you're a Technomancer. And I think that makes you dangerous to me.

If that's true, then why do I feel safer with you here?

"You survived the island," Phoenix says.

"Obviously," Aran says, scowling. "When it comes down to it, there are easier ways to kill a Technomancer than by blowing up the island he's on."

"It didn't blow up," I say. "It was dissolved. By The Bleed."

"Sure," Aran says. "Whatever. I don't really remember. Literally, I wasn't myself."

"What happened to the others?" I ask.

"They're safe. Got most of them off with the Rusted Whale."

"What about JACK?"

"Who?"

"The wirewitch."

"We did have some wirewitches on board. Had a time keeping them away from the Pure. Oh, and that modie."

"Kiiziiziixii?"

Phoenix seems to choke on something. He grabs at his drink and gulps it down in one motion, slamming the container back down, where it promptly tips over and rolls off the table.

"Yeah," Aran says. "Her. They took off soon after we hit the mainland."

"Do you know where they went?"

Aran's eyes narrow. "Why? You looking to meet up with them? Don't know why you'd want to do that. Wirewitches are killers. Or has nobody told you that before? Oh, and I'd watch out for the modie too."

He's sounds more sober now. Was he really drunk before, or has he just reached a new state of consciousness? "I have to find them. We have...matters to discuss. Where did they go?"

Aran taps the container of liquid in front of him. As if in answer, it hisses. "Looking for trouble probably. That's how wirewitches operate."

"You owe me for the Lady Luck," Phoenix says.

Aran turns slowly. "I don't know who the glitch this Lady Luck person is, so I don't see how I could owe you for her. Not my fault you have trouble with women."

Phoenix is getting angry. Can see a muscle on the side of his neck twitching.

"Drop it, Phoenix," I say, laying a hand on his arm. "Now's not the time."

Phoenix glares at me, but shuts his mouth. "syl..."

"Phoenix," Aran grunts. "How...unique. Interesting name. Kinda grabs you by the throat, doesn't it? Reminds me of a more utopian world...oh whoops, I didn't mean to run off at the mouth like that. You'll probably want to shut me up. Again."

Don't understand what he's talking about, but he's being as subtle as a charging eoa. Phoenix--to his credit--goes completely blank. He's unreadable at first, but then he smiles, like he knows something Aran doesn't. Glitch, I don't want to be in the middle of...whatever they've got between them.

I resist the urge to eat some more food. My body wants it, but the odds of it coming back up would be greater. "So, you don't know where they are right now?"

"With witches, you never know anything for certain," Aran says.

"They say the same thing about Technomancers," Phoenix says.

"Yeah, they do," Aran sighs. "Sorry...syl, I don't know where they are."

"Can you help me find them?"

"How am I gonna do that?"

"Can't you fly with those wings?"

"Good question."

"Look, are you going to help her or not?" Phoenix asks.

"Phoenix..." I warn.

"I never expected to see you again," Aran says, avoiding my eyes for some reason. "At least this guy hasn't gotten you killed."

"Hey, I saved her butt more than once!" Phoenix says. "It's not easy keeping her alive. She's  prey. Everybody wants the flesh of a beauti--ah, young girl."

I uncover my teeth at Phoenix, hoping my cheeks aren't coloring, trying to will the skinsuit from flaring too bright. "Without me, you would be dead, Phoenix. Don't ever forget that."

"I can take care of myself."

"Right," I say. "We all can. That's why the three of us are sitting here at this table. Because we can all take care of ourselves. We don't need anybody else."

The three of us lapse into silence after that.

Did I come all this way for nothing, Aran? Have I found you, only to find out that we're worthless to each other? Were our meetings in alleys just random happenings? Am I foolish for holding onto this feeling of a connection between us? Why don't you

     talk to me?

"I don't know how I can help you," Aran says. "I'm not going to be here long."

"Neither are we," Phoenix says.

"So, Phoenix, what's your part in this?" Aran asks. "Why are you with her?"

"I told you, she's prey. Somebody has to watch out for her. Besides, she's pre--OW!"

I just kicked him under the table. Glitch, that felt good. "Oops. Muscle spasm. Did I hurt you?"

"Of course not!"

"You're what?" Aran asks, turning to me.

"I'm pretty," I say. "That's what he was going to say. Right, Phoenix?"

"Not exactly, but it's close enough."

"How sweet," Aran says.

I rest a hand on my hip, tracing designs on the end of the sever-whip handle with my little finger. I'm making my smile at Phoenix as menacing as possible. "It was a nice thing to say, wasn't it? I didn't think you'd noticed how much of an eyebuzz I was."

"Glitched woman," Phoenix mutters, cross his arms across his chest.

Aran sighs, louder this time.

Why won't you help me, Aran? I guess this means I'm a fool. Been one ever since I fell on top of you in that alley. The first time, that is.

"It's not like you have an obligation to help me," I say, trying to catch Aran's eye. I reach across the table and touch the back of one hand. "It's just that--"

But I don't get to finish my thought. It's lost as a supernova of static detonates in my head. The pain is like nothing I've felt before. I don't know much, but I sense that I've risen to my feet, clutching my head, twisting and thrashing. My upright position doesn't last long, and I come down hard on the table. The pulsing in my brain signals that permanent damage is being done. This is it. There may not be a safe recovery from this static attack. I'm conscious enough to know that I've rolled off the table and am lying prone, trying to dig at my skull, uproot the static, pull it out. I fail, caught in a buzzing, grating agony. An image of Aran burns its way through my mind. He's screaming right along with me, feeling the same pain I'm feeling. But that can't be right. I lose focus, and things dim, slowing down, till eventually...

...around me, the world comes to a

                                                  (STOP)

 

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