Things Creeping In The Night
“You are late,” a voice rasped in the darkness. “There have been developments.”
Sahris pulled at one of his gloves, straightening it to precision without looking up at the speaker. “The Three,” as they called themselves, were a lot of talk but nothing to fear by themselves. They carried out orders with a dogged persistence that made them invaluable. But this service did, to an extent, render them irreplaceable and thus untouchable by Sahris. Sahris loathed their existence as much as they did his own.
“What has happened of such importance that it requires me to be away from The Master’s task? What could possible have made you think your little trivial duties require me ignoring the Fourfold Path?”
“I summoned you.” The voice of The One split the air. Sahris looked up sharply. The One, The Master himself, did not waste his time addressing his trusted. The schedule was enough, instructions came through, the schedule was all the information they needed. Sahris was the only living being who had spoken to The One for any length of time, and was the only living being The One would speak to directly. This was a fact that caused no small amount of displeasure to The Three. But something about the voice, Sahris thought, was different.
“You have come here, my lord?” Sahris bowed into the darkness. There was a brief pause.
“This situation requires my presence, and your full attention. The Fourfold Path is no longer your concern, I will tend to it myself. You work has been exceptional, adding it to my own tasks will be no burden. Rest assured, you are not being punished, my faithful standard bearer. But matters have changed. Look…”
In the darkness a screen flickered to life. Images of waves, water, and mighty ships filled its boundary. Sahris saw people thrashing in the water, saw ships colliding.
“Chaos. Destruction. Whose work is this?”
“The one who lurks in the shadows, I suspect. I do not know. Sahris, look closer.”
Sahris looked at the screen in bewilderment. He doesn’t know? Is that possible? He looked at the chaos on the screen, the ships lurching…away?
“Zoom on that third ship, the tanker,” Sahris snapped. The screen responded by showing a greatly enlarged image. “Closer!” The screen changed once again. He saw a figure blurring through the water, swimming at an alarming speed. Wires, cables, ropes where intertwined between ships, attached to various objects. Smaller, functional ships were towing the larger relics away. It wasn’t chaos at all, it was chaos becoming order.
“He can’t swim. That body is too heavy. We left all the servo mechanisms disabled. That ARM he’s got on...it’s not supposed to be there. He shouldn’t even be able to stay afloat with that thing attached to his body.”
“And yet, he does.”
“He’s been modified? We watched, no one has changed his configuration from the parameters established by the Fourfold Path, have they?”
“He was lost to our monitors for five minutes. Something has changed him, somehow. He may have acquired some old technology in that time. We do not know. I am sending you to find out.”
“I go, my lord.”
“One other thing. We are no longer able to fully monitor him. His brain pattern has changed drastically.”
Sahris remained silent.
“His brain is becoming more similar to the core design. He could remember you at any moment. He could remember—“
“No need to remind me,” Sahris snapped, unable to keep his composure.
“I know you’re feelings, my friend. Pavidus, is at your disposal, fully. The Three will report and answer to you, and you alone. If they give you any dissention, I will terminate them myself, with my own hands.” Sahris dared not look at The Three. The Master was serious, deadly serious. Their mutual hatred would have to be ignored…for the time. “There is another thing I wish you to do. I am moving the time table forward significantly. I am afraid whatever happened has triggered the final sequence. If that is the case, our goal may be close at hand. So I am giving you permission to begin the final testing. The first test, according to the Fourfold Path, will be Fear. Take Pavidus, while they are over the ocean. Take any weapons you desire, any troops you wish. All is at disposal. I will be finishing my tasks, in case he makes it to the fourth trial.”
Sahris looked out the nearby portal to the planet spinning silently below. From Pavidus, the sea below was a dense gray ooze. And further down, Aran and his company were a tiny dot. Sahris considered his options.
“Sahris, my old and faithful friend…”
“Make them know true Fear.”
Beneath A Sundark Sky
The ocean shimmered, gently rising and falling in from the sunset. The cold water reflected the red and gold hues of the setting sun, illuminating the shore and the city beyond. It was in fact the island all around him, but it was not the ruined wasteland he remembered. Aran felt his feet shuffle through the warm sand; he wiggled his toes in the sand, feeling the grains shift. Warmth flooded over him, the setting sun to one side, the waning heat of the city to the other. Looking down he found his body was different, more human. The technology wound into his body was far less invasive, and far less dense than the heavy machinery he was accustomed to. Wind whipped through his hair, and he could smell the sea breeze. It was breathless intoxication, a reeling moment where he couldn’t feel time pass. He could not imagine this being the same place that held memories of far more toxic and nauseous moments. Yet it was; here he stood in the same place that he would stand so many years later. Time alone separated and created the difference of the two.
“It is a thing of beauty, is it not?” The voice came out of time, somewhere from memory and at the same time an almost prophetic sadness of the future. Time slowly began to move once more. A Technomancer appeared at his side, staring out to the shifting sea. He wore loose clothing that fluttered in the wind, and his sandy blonde hair whirled wildly about his youthful face. The young man was smiling. That expression assaulted Aran’s memory, but could not find purchase. Who are you? Like Aran, the Technomancer beside him was not visibly modified, but the technology was there. It was graceful technology, functionality and art intertwined. His face continued to make his memory distort. There was sense of friendship, tragedy, loss, pain, and other emotions trying desperately to find purchase. But all washed away as the dream moved on.
“The ship…” Aran mumbled. He looked back out to sea and the object of beauty his friend had referred to. You are my friend, aren’t you? It wasn’t a ship at all, despite what they were calling it. It was half the size of the island, a series of catwalks and docks stretching out into the horizon. Floating construction grids, the only visible sign of the great shipyards beneath the waves. Over the past few months, block by block, section by section, the shining steel structures constructed in the sea had been taken into the stars. It was a city, the first city that humanity would take into outer space.
“These new implants will take some getting used to.” The young man sighed. But you got used to them. And so did I, right?
“Space requires different technology, and allows us to cut a few corners we couldn’t manage before.” Aran mumbled the words, though they came to his mouth easily. Memories, fragments of another life floating inside his mind began to merge together. All of the memories except of the young man. I know who you are. “We can user lighter materials, compensate, use the lack of gravity to our advantage.”
The figure turned to face him and smiled. “My old friend, I fear we will never complete this task you have set before us.”
Aran looked at the Technomancer at his side. Who is he? In the distance, lights began to flash on the girders. The last remaining component of the city was being lifted. The mighty lifters hoisted the odd-shaped cylinder into the sky.
“The largest ARM ever created. It’s a miracle they are letting you put that thing in orbit.”
“After their little project?” Aran found himself laughing out loud. “No. We’re just each turning a blind eye. Once the threat is over, both of them will be gone. It will be worse than the cold war, because they have practical purposes as well.”
“Speaking of threats.” He is a friend. Was a friend. “Long range sensor grid says the comet is slowing down. We’re not sure why, or how.”
Aran turned and watched the ARM mechanism ascend out of sight.
“No matter. We’ll knock it out of the stars.”
In the city, sirens sounded. Not the loud emergency sirens, but soft repeating tones. A signal.
“Right on schedule. Take a look.” The blonde stranger gestured down the beach. Thousands were lined up behind a makeshift fence. Behind them, windows were opened, hundreds of thousands of faces were tuned to the sky.
“Construction.” Aran felt memories tumble into place. “It’s about to begin. Nothing like this could ever happen naturally.”
The sun finally set. Darkness fell over the city, and lights dimmed. Apartments, windows, street lamps darkened slowly. In the intervening time, the world became dark. The components overhead were being fitted. Stationary lights in orbit came on. The design of the floating city, the layout, the conditions. In orbit, the final locking, the connection. The final testing, the calibration of the ARM. All would create a unique atmospheric condition. And it exploded.
It was light like he hadn’t seen. The darkness remained, but high above, the darkness emitted light. The world became monochrome, as luminance without hue washed over the night.
“And here we stand beneath a Sundark Sky, staring up at a city, men made of machines. What wonderful things this portends for the future.”
“Nathan.” He forced the words out, foreign to the flow of the memory-dream. “Your name is Nathan.”
* * *
The world shattered, Aran sat bolt upright in bed. The image of the dream ran through his mind over and over rapidly, perfectly repeated. He sat in the quiet night and thought. Too quiet. Aran bolted through the door into the hall, breathlessly watching down the corridor. His eyes weren’t focused on anything, he was listening. The ship was quiet, far too quiet even for the dead of night. He bounded down the corridor and up the ramp to the deck, emerging into the monochrome world from his dream. The still, silver ocean stretched endlessly under that same Sundark Sky. And high above he heard the ominous whine as one of the two most powerful weapons ever created by man’s hands again came to life.
Walk Amongst The Dead
The sky rained yellow silver light. It pierced the ocean leaving no trace other than the hissing sound. Steam shot up from the sea around them causing the air to become thick with the scent of burning waste. The rank vapors closed around them and obscured sight of the sky or the sea round them. Flashes of brief light through the fog gave away other smaller bursts of energy from the orbital weapon. The sea was being turned into a smokescreen, the waters almost boiling. The Rusted Whale’s hull could compensate for the temperature for the time. The breaches would take in the steam quickly despite how well they had been patched. Below deck would become a sauna soon.
“What is it?” Tyillion asked. Of course she would be on deck. The woman could have heard a pin drop three decks down in her sleep. If she was aware, the Technomancers, wirewitches, and (if they were truly unlucky) The Pure would be on deck as well.
“It’s an ARM, in orbit,” Aran said.
“In orbit? That’s impossible, do you know how much energy—“
“Concentrated stream provided by capacitors charged from solar cells, and simultaneous feeds from dozens of orbital capacitors. Once fully charged it can sit dormant for centuries and still have enough power to vaporize cities.”
“What could it do at full power?”
“Bore a hole completely through the planet,” Aran said. “Twice.”
“What are they doing?”
Aran glanced up into the monochrome fog. Lights flashed less frequently now, only enough to keep the vision obscured.
“Letting us know just how helpless we are. Ta-Kyn was only able to get us enough engine power to keep our direction and drift. We’re a sitting duck.”
“Can we do anything?”
Aran turned and stared at Tyillion.
“Against an orbital weapon? What are you, stupid?”
“Say it again, tin man.” Tyillion gripped her sidearm.
“No, why don’t you ask me if we can fight against an orbital weapon that could puncture the planet? Really. I want to hear those words come out of your mouth again.”
“You really want to—“ She stopped as Aran made a quick motion across his chest, ending with a gesture to his ear. The sea hissed, the water boiled, and the wind was stirring again. But beyond that, there was another sound. A low droning sound that seemed to fade in and out of intensity, but grew steadily in volume.
“Dropcap,” Aran said. “Smart drop capsules that can make it through re-entry and then reacquire a target. Once they get close enough they break apart and drop their payload over a set area.”
“Their original design was to be able to rapidly deploy supplies and equipment to any area that needed aid after the comet came through the atmosphere.”
“I’m guessing they’re not carrying supplies or equipment.”
“Oh,” said Aran. “You really think so? What was your first clue?”
A series of pops filled the air and objects rattled to the deck. Small cylinders rolled aimlessly between crates and other obstacles. One near Aran’s foot hissed and popped open. A tiny red eye blinked, and the item opened. A small creature pulled itself from the dropcap like an animal emerging from its egg. Tiny spine-covered metal legs dug into the deck, cleaving tiny footprints in the metal. It stood up briefly on all four legs, its red eye looking around rapidly. Revenants. Aran’s mind reeled with memories not his own, of the tiny creatures latching themselves into anything they could find, flooding the nervous system with chemicals. Anything they attached themselves to died, but kept moving under the Revenants machinations.
“Get everyone into one room, arm them, and bar every exit no matter how small. Sit in the middle of the room. Shoot anything that moves towards you.”
“What is it?”
“What does it do?”
“You don’t want to know. Have everyone cover their necks with any kind of material they can find.”
“Go NOW!” Aran grabbed her by the shoulder and shoved her gently down the deck hatch. Swiftly, the lid came down and he slid the locking bar through the restraints.
Aran watched as the cylinders he could see continued to open. Red lights pierced the silver as tiny, inhuman optics began to take in their surroundings.
“Nothing here with a neck you can sink your teeth into, you little bastards.” Aran leveled his ARM towards one of the creatures and concentrated. Just need a light enough shot to fry them without overloading this thing. If I fire it too much, or wrong just once, it’s a dead weight. The creatures began to scuttle across the deck madly. Aran heard splashes of water all around him, and wondered what the little mechanical monsters could be doing when the Rusted Whale stopped abruptly. The impact was light enough that the Rusted Whale wasn’t damaged, but the force sent him flying off the bow of the boat and through a window. Glass stuck in between overlapping plates of metal and cyberware. Aran pushed himself up in a pool of thick, murky liquid. Decayed walls around him and a shattered window in front, with the Rusted Whale lurching just outside. A building? Aran turned his low-light optic software on and glanced through the room. Furniture had long since eroded, and the room was bare of any decoration. Of the walls, all that remained was structural steel, aluminum alloys, and plaststeel. He ducked out the door and into an empty, destroyed hallway. The skeleton of a stairwell loomed into the darkness. Aran bolted for it, moving up and up the levels, having to jump between the remaining structural supports. As he moved up he found levels where the sea level hadn’t destroyed the walls. Furniture, old technology, even some papers and cloth still remained. The thick musty smell of mildew and water hung on everything. As he rounded the next landing, he found an observatory. He was high enough that the fog was only thin wisps. From the broken windows he looked out over the surrounding sea. The Rusted Whale loomed below, halted from its forward progress by the massive skyscraper he stood in. Out across the sea he saw jutting towers of glass and steel, with skyways crisscrossing through the fog.
“A city,” Aran said. Out loud, the first words shattered the thick silence. He started at the sound of his own voice. “A big one, too. This must have been a costal community before the Fall.”
A horrid thought crept into his mind. These ruined cities, mostly submerged, held thousands of nooks and crannies for the remaining ocean wildlife to nest. It was the only place safe enough to attract large numbers. And where those small creatures nested, their predators hunted, as did their own predators, and their predators. A big enough city could attract almost all of the Seven Dangers of the High Seas. Worst of all, these sort of places tended to be the home to—
And Aran suddenly knew why the Revenants had jumped into the sea. They weren’t going to take control of humans, no, such power would pale to what they could find below.
In the distance, Aran heard the unearthly wail of a creature dying as the Revenant burrowed into its spine. Soon, the inhuman machine would inject its chemicals into the brain and render the subject mindless. Soon its strength would increase, reaction would double, and the creature would become a juggernaut as it died. When it was dead, only the revenant would remain to single-mindedly carry out the task set to it. More cries rose up. Some were nearby though some seemingly came from the Rusted Whale itself. No, that’s a different noise. Aran watched in horror as the Rusted Whale jerked unnaturally in the water. It was being pulled away from the building. After a few seconds it was lost in the fog and Aran was alone in the ruined city.
Metal creaked below, followed by thousands of rapid clicks. The building shook beneath him; broken glass on the floor clattered wildly from the vibrations.
Something was climbing the stairs.
Aran dove through the doorway and rolled to the left as hard as he could. Several shards of bone whistled past as he dodged, embedding into the steel and concrete remains of the skyscraper. Without pausing to glance behind, he bolted upright and down the hall into the stairwell. The click-click of spiny legs meant he was still being followed. Collecting energy from his internal batteries, he charged the ARM once again and fired below. Portions of the stairwell crumbled and fell, leaving a gap.
"That'll slow it down a bit," Aran said. He ran a quick check on his ARM in the brief peace. Stress from firing and the rapid use was causing it to go out of alignment. Aran silently cursed the lack of any other weapons and did the best to realign its targeting software to compensate. I can keep up with it for a while, but if I keep using this ARM I'll just be getting myself into more trouble.
A few feet below, the creature had found the collapsed stairwell. It chittered wildly, frustrated at the escape of its prey. Aran whistled and the creature turned a deformed face upwards. Bits and pieces of marine life were meshed together into a semblance of being. Six different kinds of eyes blinked out of synch as they stared up at him emptily. The shining chrome shell of the Revenant still jutted out of the base of the creature's "neck." Of all the Seven Dangers of the High Seas, the least likely you would encounter is the Stitchfish. A carrion predator of the deep, the Stitchfish had been one of the first to spontaneously mutate after the comet hit. Whatever species it had been before was indistinguishable, only the base qualities of a fish remained. They scavenged the reefs and sunken ruins off the coastal waters for smaller prey, stitching the remains of other animals together to make it capable of finding stronger prey: preferably other Stitchfish. Normally they weren't a threat to a Technomancer (who had little organic tissue to "borrow" and most of it was in pesky metal casings), but anything that had a Revenant burrowed into its back was a threat. Aran leveled his ARM again and let another round of condensed energy fly. The brilliant yellow beam pierced the Revenant's exposed shell, and the creature shook violently below. It would die, slowly. He frowned, I was aiming for the brain. This ARM is getting further out of alignment than I thought.
Turning back to the stairwell, Aran began to climb upwards again.
* * *
Tyillion kicked the metal cylinder gently; smoke still poured out of the numerous holes along it's length.
"Anyone know what these things are?" she asked.
"Dead," Kreep rasped. He flicked one from his fingers into the water. With The Pure safely secured below, Tyillion, Doc, and Kreep looked out over the deck of the Rusted Whale to the city ahead.
"Ta-Kyn says the blasts from the sky caused a disturbance in the hypercurrent. We got pulled back about two hundred miles. He's managed to get us back into the open ocean, but we're making worse time than before. Aran will just have to hold out for another few hours," Doc said.
Tyillion sighed and crushed the Revenant shell beneath her boot.
"I don't think we need to worry about Aran," Kreep said. "I seriously doubt anything out there could hurt him."
"Yeah." She pointed upwards. "But what about up there?"
"I may be of some assistance in that." Doc stepped forward between the two. "An ARM requires three main components to work properly. A heavily reinforced firing chamber, an incredibly precise firing mechanism, and insane amounts of energy. Seeing as we cannot get at the first with it being in orbit, and we have no idea how they are firing it, our only option is to take out the third."
"Keep talking..." Tyillion glanced up at the sky.
"That orbital ARM must be drawing from some sort of condensed power. Batteries of energy. The amount of energy it's producing could not be safely handled by any orbital platform, lost technology or not. Therefore, the energy for the cannon must somehow be channeled into a central collection point that doubles as the firing chamber, whereas the station acts as the firing mechanism."
"So we take out the batteries. Literally. Good plan, Doc. But how do you propose we hit something, in orbit, we cannot see and cannot track from here?"
"Well...I have been thinking. Ta-Kyn can realign the grids on the ship's array with some of the hardware lying around. If we can get them to fire at just the right time, we can use the ship's weather tracking system to catch the flow of energy. Thus, we get the location."
"So how do we hit it, then?" Tyillion asked.
"We'll...that's the tricky part. You see--"
* * *
Aran fired three more rounds from his ARM before ducking behind a crumbling cement wall. Glitch! Armor? Cyberware? Where did they find that?! With the Revenant in charge, it would be able to assimilate and use them. Glitch, glitch, double glitch! He heard the pounding of legs and dove from the wall. This Stitchfish was no longer even remotely similar to the one he had seen earlier. Instead of composite creatures, it was composite technology. Four long, spider-like legs supported its main body from the floor. It remained wrapped in plates of plasteel armor. And somehow it had acquired weapons. And PLE batteries. Aran charged his ARM up again, holding the charge longer and letting it build up before spreading his fingers out and hurling the energy across the room. The creature caught the blast in its chest and fell over from the impact, though it quickly set about righting itself. Aran charged another round, and fired. And another. And another. The shots were wild, he could no longer aim the ARM safely. The creature kept shrugging the blasts off.
"All right...you asked for it." Aran began pulling all the energy he could spare. The recharged PLE adapters in his system were emptied, as well as all of his backup batteries, and everything the independent power supply in his ARM could muster. Aran held his hand out to the creature and smiled. "Now yo--"
His voice fell silent, though the words continued. Aran felt the world give way. There was a flash of blue, and flash of red, and flash of blue, and a flash of grey, followed by blackness. Every part of his body that could hurt, did. As feeling slowly returned he began to regain his bearings. Internal equipment registered him being out of balance by several degrees. Whatever had hit him, and the creature, had hit him hard enough to throw him into the concrete foundation. He groped with his ARM trying to find something to pull him out. When that failed, he strained ever muscle and hydraulic system in his body to push himself out of the crater. Fresh air hit him as he struggled over and sat down, still reeling from the shock. He tried to pull the dirt and rubble from his eyes, but it didn't come off. Aran flailed his arms about wildly, trying to find anything around him before the grime finally shook loose and he was able to see again.
His ARM was gone. The mighty explosion that had hurled him into another skyscraper had been the ARM critically overloading. His complete right side was scorched and battered, his shoulder cauterized from the blast. His right arm was gone. A smooth mound of melted metal poured down his side from his shoulder, and his internal systems that were not horribly out of alignment were seriously damaged. Aran pushed himself up with his left arm and surveyed his surroundings. Apart from the wall he had been thrown into, there was nothing else around. Where two walls should have been was nothing but open air, the sea stretching below. Aran glanced upwards to the smoke curling from the building above. He could see movement, the four legged creature crawling out of the blast hole and down the side, searching for him.
He suddenly became aware that with most of his systems offline he could no longer get proper feedback. Glancing fearfully to his side he saw thick streams of mahogany fluid oozing out. Synthetic blood mixing with the micro-hydraulic fluid, pouring out of the impact wounds. I shouldn't even be standing. Aran managed to remove his shirt with his left hand, and, pinning the cloth beneath his knee, tear it into two rough strips which he draped around his side as best he could. The infuriating part was that he could still feel his right arm, and the ARM cannon attached into it. He managed to roughly stop the flow of vital fluids and pushed himself up on his knees.
Tyillion taught me to fight one-handed, but with most of my systems offline there is almost no chance of winning against that thing. Much less if there are any others. I can't risk a fight, I have to get out of here.
Aran stumbled through the gaping doorway into the remaining structure of the skyscraper, climbing up to the vacant observation deck. Glass had long since been broken out, and only the load bearing beams and structural supports remained. For 360 degrees he had an almost unobstructed view of the ocean. In the distance, to the east, he saw the Rusted Whale. They're coming back... Aran nodded and continued looking around. If that thing found cyberware and armor, there must be a building still untouched, still functional. That would be my best chance of finding something to patch this wound, and some way to get back to the Rusted Whale.
A flash of light caught his eye and Aran turned to face it. A light, in one of the distant windows? Yes. No doubt about it: artificial light. Aran grunted and studied the layout. Skyways ran between his current building and the next two in line. But there was a gap of several hundred yards between the last building and his target.
He heard the heavy sound of feet below. The creature had found the building, and had probably found his blood. Glitch. Now I can't shake it. Aran spun around back to the stairwell and began to climb to the skyway some ten stories above. Without a weapon he would have a hard time slowing down his pursuer. Well, at least things can't get much worse.
* * *
"No!" Sahris leapt from his chair with a start, running towards the corridor.
"Why do you leave?" the Three asked in unison.
"He cannot find it! Not now!" Sahris pulled his dark cloak around him.
"What is to be done?"
"Vaporize it!" Sahris roared. "Everything! Burn the buildings, the sea, steel and stone, flesh and bone! Burn it all! He will escape, because it is not his time to die. And I will escape, for it is not yet time for me to take his life. But everything else, burn to ash!"
"It will be," the Three intoned, "as you command."
Aboard the Rusted Whale Tyillion nervously watched Kreep and Ta-Kyn working on the old weather array. Doc had detected the orbital capacitors beginning to link up to the main ARM mechanism a few moments ago. If that ARM fires in the next few moments, she thought, we won't be able to stop it properly. But maybe it will distract them enough to get it done. Tyillion hated situations she could not fully understand. Doc was currently logged into the ship's computer, attempting to gain control of its long-dormant orbital relay. If it were Aran hacking into the system, I wouldn't be worrying.
“How much longer until we have a lock?” Tyillion asked. She was snapping at them, she knew. Right now the thing she needed to do most, for the sake of everyone, was to maintain control of the situation.
“Their activation of all the orbital capacitors has created some unique problems, but it has also let us triangulate the rough position of the ARM. Give us a few more moments and we'll have the location,” Ta-Kyn said. “From what we can see so far they are diverting concurrent streams from all the capacitors, which makes things harder for us.”
Kreep, who had been refitting the array antennae with parts from the other working systems laughed darkly. “That means they are planning on drawing a lot of power over a lot of time. It means things are about to get very toasty somewhere.”
As he spoke, the sky above began to pulse with yellow light. Tiny streams of yellow energy pierced from above down into the ocean, scattered and wild across the water.
“They're calibrating!” Ta-Kyn shouted. He flipped up and used his clamp-like feet to suspend himself from the array, looking down over their hastily cobbled set of computers. “We don't have any more time. Get the feed to Doc!”
Kreep dropped the remaining rods, dropping from the top of the array to the deck. Grabbing the leads of cables, bound together with torn strips of cloth, he pulled them towards the hatch and into the ship's central command center. Doc sat surrounded by antiquated LCD flat panel displays arranged and hanging by wires around him. A datajack had been hastily connected to the computer they had been able to piece together.
“Doc! We have to do this now!” Tyillion followed Kreep into the room and began hooking the array feed into the network.
“The weather grid has it down to about a four percent targeting lock.” Kreep's rasping voice was strained. “Get us something better old man.”
“I have.” Doc said. “Alpha and Beta are online, Delta is following. Logging information from the array now.”
Doc closed his eyes, something Tyillion had seen Aran do in similar situations. The screens around him began to flicker and change as he began to simultaneously run thirteen different processes. Above, they heard Ta-Kyn began to shout, sending Tyillion scrambling back to the deck. Above, rough winds were starting to toss the ship and a thick steam was rising all around them.
“We've got problems!” Ta-Kyn shouted. “The beams! They're calibrating for a sustained burst. They're targeting everything! Every building, every ruin. And the hypercurrent is pulling us straight into it.”
“Stop the boat!”
“We can't! We calculated for our speed in rigging the array, if we stop it throws everything off. We've got to stop the ARM before we get into the line of fire.”
“How long do we have?”
Ta-Kyn stared at her. For the first time since she had met the easily distracted Technomancer, she saw a look of pure fear.
“About thirty seconds...”
* * *
The beams of light cascaded around Sahris as he descended to the earth. The lander could only drop so fast from orbit without killing its occupant. Sahris was afraid it would be too long. He had forgotten about the sunken city, it had been so many years. Aran could not be allowed to find it.
He must not be allowed.
“My Lord.” The voices of the three crackled in unison over the lander's intercom. “There are complications.”
“The boat. They have acquired control of three abandoned defense grid satellites.”
Sahris roared. Not now! How did the situation get out of control!? Everything has been planned; all deviances accounted for. How could such situations arise?
“Reset the lander and take me to the boat!”
* * *
Aran couldn't see a way out of the situation. Below him he could hear the creature climbing the stairs, drawing closer every second. And the ARM cannon had begun firing again, drawing closer to the towers. He was weaponless, wounded, and missing an arm.
Aran slumped to the ground, his internal power no longer sufficient to support his augmented limbs. He sat and waited. Cold and broken, powerless and helpless.
He felt like he was back in the vat at Takiyoma. Alone, not knowing what was coming in the next few minutes. He closed his eyes and could almost feel the vat liquid around him again. Sitting, shaking, waiting, Aran tried desperately to think of a way out.
Which is when the building shook. The streams of yellow light became brighter as they quit targeting and began to fire in earnest.
Outside, the ocean took on a sickly tilt...moving towards him.
The building was falling. It only took a fraction of a second for the thoughts to form, and Aran pushed himself up with what little energy he had left and scrambled up the tilting floor to the window. Vaulting up, he swung with his only remaining arm to flip himself around a support beam onto the side of the building. As it fell, he only had a few seconds to run where the incline would be low enough. Aran broke into a run, climbing up the side of the building as it fell. The other tower was closer in sight now, almost within reach. Aran pushed himself a little faster, as the building began to fall faster itself.
“Glitch!” Aran leapt from the falling tower towards the opposite tower, his fingers barely brushing the glass windows as he fell. Aran tumbled down towards the ocean, spinning wildly before hitting a metal support beam sticking out of the building. The impact was enough to throw him back up into the air where he hung for a sickening moment before falling again, this time able to grab the support and swing inside the building.
The building, except for a few parts exposed by broken windows, was intact. It even seemed to be clean and functional. He heard the hum of lights and air filtration in the room, and saw light underneath the door. Lurching into the hallway he made his way to an elevator which, to his immense surprise, was still running. Aran limped inside, leaning against the wall, and thumbed the button for the top floor where he had seen the lights.
* * *
Sahris abandoned the lander after he was within range of the ship. The lander returned skyward towards Pavidus. His body could survive the fall, his gear was already compensating for the rate of descent. Yes, he would survive the impact. They, however... Sahris focused on the boat below, spinning his scythe around to his side ...will not be so lucky! He could see the crude communication array they had assembled on the deck and wondered how something so ramshackle had managed to derail their plans so. Raising the scythe over his head, he streamlined his body. He would cleave it in two with one blow before tearing the ship to shreds.
Or rather he would have if his descent hadn't been halted by a wall of force. Sahris suddenly was left flailing in open space as his equipment cut out and sent him falling rather gracelessly to the deck of the boat.
“You like that? It's a little something I picked up from my teacher. He showed me how to use it to stop incoming projectiles in a fight. But Doc was kind enough to point out that with some quick and dirty modifications you could stop something larger moving faster.” Tyillion walked across the deck towards Sahris. She unfastened a bracer on her arm that wound around her palm, tossing it aside. “Of course doing something like that burns it out. But I know how to build another.”
“You insignificant bitch.” Sahris leapt to his feet, whirling the scythe around. “For that everyone one this vessel will die before your eyes.”
“I don't think so.” Tyillion said. Her voice was a low, cold, whisper. Above, the sky erupted in red light. “You see that? That was Doc frying your orbital capacitor array. The next blast will disable the ARM completely.”
A brilliant burst of red light cut through the sky above and the barrage of yellow light stopped.
“You would have been better off dealing with me,” Sahris said. “Destroying the ARM will just draw the attention of my master. His power is beyond compare. While I may have toyed with you, his wrath endures beyond your death.”
“Doesn't matter,” Tyillion said. “Kiizziizziixxii. Take the Pure below and get the team ready to get Aran. Me and ugly here have some unfinished business.”
The modie ducked below deck while Tyillion moved forward, drawing her sword and leveling it at Sahris.
“We both know a style of fighting that was lost with the comet. We both know what has to happen now.”
Sahris said nothing, instead rushing forward with the scythe. Tyillion caught it with her blade and parried, lashing out with her foot before Sahris flipped easily through the air.
There was no turning back now. She had to beat him, or they were all dead. Aran wouldn't be able to get back in time to save her. She alone knew the true danger of the dark warrior. She alone would have to buy them time to escape.
* * *
The door slid back and Aran fell out of the elevator to the floor. Pushing up with his good hand, Aran saw that this was indeed where the creature had found the cyberware. But there was more. There was much more.
Aran stared up at an acrylic statue of himself. At least it was his face. The differences in cyberware and clothing were far different than his own.
“Here lies the Technomancer Aran, who defended the city against the creatures below at the cost of his own life, 2104.” Aran pulled himself up against the statue, staring into his own eyes again. Pushing against the statue with all his might, he felt it move slightly before toppling below. Aran collapsed to the floor, looking at the cavity in the floor beneath it. There were some bundles wrapped in what looked like the clothes on the statue with a medallion laying on top. Aran picked up the medallion, a blue triangle set with wound white gold.
“Assessing damage.” Aran looked up to find a pair of metal arms had picked him up. Lifted into the air and spun around, Aran saw a vat in the center of the room.
“Submerssing in nutrient bath, preparing auto-doc system.”
Aran felt the warm liquid surround him, felt the sedatives began to pull him into unconsciousness. As the darkness closed in around him, Aran continued to stare from the tank to the statue of him lying on the floor.
Somewhere inside his mind, memories stirred. He fought to stay awake but he couldn't.
Sleep overtook him, and the dreams came.
Doc managed to free himself from the spider web of wires and cables that hooked him into the Rusted Whale's central systems.
“I took out the capacitor array for certain, however I may have only disabled the ARM itself, I--” Doc paused as he looked around the room and found Kiiziiziixii, Davis and Tyillion's remaining mercenaries standing silently against the wall. “Where is the girl?”
“She's up topside, fighting that freak with the Scythe,” Kiiziiziixii whispered.
“Then why aren't we helping her?”
“She has it under control,” the modie said. The hardened warrior's face broke into a slight grin. “She's a lot tougher than she looks. See for yourself.”
Kiiziiziixii motioned to the wall monitor opposite of them. Tyillion and Sahris were a blur of gray and black on the screen, moving so fast the camera seemed to stutter.
Tyillion had held Sahris a lot longer than she had thought she could, but not long enough. The boat was still moving slowly into the abandoned city at a crawl, the hypercurrent was unable to rapidly move the boat and their engines were still disabled. Their only hope was to get close enough to the city's core where hope of defeating Sahris lay.
Sahris's dark scythe whirled through the air, rebounding off her blade once more. The dark warrior seemed to never tire in battle. She wondered how Aran had beaten him, twice, without knowing his weakness.
“You're good,” Tyillion said, pulling her feet back quickly into the position Broken Butterfly, flipping the sword lightly across the other hand and resting it against her shoulder. “But we're getting nowhere. If you won't play your hand, I'll call your bluff.”
Tyillion flicked the sword around rapidly, moving her hands across the pommel and activating the PLE battery inside. The blade shimmered with a white light for a moment before arcing through the air. Wherever the blade traveled it left a distortion of light and shadow. She raised the blade upwards in a quick thrust.
It struck against Sahris's scythe, the blade rippling with dark shadows of its own.
“Only a handful of people know how to use these weapons. I don't know who trained you, but you're still nothing compared to me.” Sahris swung the scythe around in a wide circle, pivoting it across his back. A trail of shadowed light followed the scythe blade. As the two weapons clashed, they shook violently.
Tyillion broke away from the locked blades and dropped the tip of her sword down, moving gracefully into the Hands of Blades posture. The blade became a blur as it streaked out and across in a crossing motion, parrying and riposting Sahris's attacks while driving him back towards the edge. The dark warrior's eyes were locked on hers with intense hatred.
I'm winning, Tyillion thought.
* * *
Aran dreamt of fire. It fell from the sky, striking the earth and scattering the embers of a dark fire across the globe, consuming all it touched. He dreamed of machine men and men of flesh forming armies great and terrible that fought against the new menace. He dreamt of skies the color of ash, of rain that burned and turned cities to dust. He stood in the middle of it, watching.
“Strange, isn't it?” said a voice. Aran turned lazily to the figure beside him. Lean and lanky, the tall figure was crouched beside a broken wall of bricks that had been a convenience store. “They built all these things to last. But things don't last. Only what you build inside lasts.”
“Who are you?”
The figure unfolded itself and brushed dust and ash from its jacket. Wide, blue eyes stared unblinking at him, through him.
“You don't know who I am right now, Aran. But you know me. You've known me before, once. You were a good friend, and I owed you. I owe you, and you made me promise.”
“That I would break you apart, limb from limb.” The figure grinned. It sauntered across the street, the temperature so hot the smooth surface rippled under its footsteps. Aran saw an emblem on its jacket, a blue triangle outlined in white and gold.
“Don't worry. We'll get to that, but first things first...” The figure reached out and grabbed Aran's remaining arm. With a simple tug, the creature snapped Aran's arm at the shoulder leaving it to hang limp against his side. “...now you can learn.”
Aran doubled over in pain too real for a dream.
“What's the matter? No arms to reach out to your enemies with?” The figure produced a cigarette and lit it idly from a burning street lamp. “Why don't you grow another one?”
Aran looked up at the figure, dumb with pain.
“You reach out because you have arms, kid.” The figure bent over and blew smoke in his face. “You see, because you have eyes. But did you know you can reach out without arms? Did you know you can see without eyes?”
Aran stood up and ducked his head forward at a dash, trying to ram his attacker. The figure sighed and simply grabbed the top of his head and pushed him down with so much force Aran nearly lost his sight.
“You're stubborn, kiddo, you know that?” He exhaled another ring of smoke, sending it idly into Aran's eyes. “Listen. It's simple. To reach out, you have to reach in. To move forward, you must stand still. I thought the chickadee taught you that.”
“Yeeees, the swordmistress who trained under John Salan for so long. She's holding her own against your buddy right now.”
“You know. Tall chap, likes to wear black and set things on fire. I didn't want to criticize but you sure can pick 'em you know? She's pushing him towards the deadwater in the city center because she thinks it will kill him. But you know it won't. If she makes it there, she'll die. Not him.”
Aran stood up and looked around the ruins of the city.
“Ahhh, the tin man does have a heart, doesn't he? As much as you like to deny it, as much as you like to avoid it, you love her.”
Aran spun around and grabbed the stranger by the throat, lifting him up.
“My. What happened to that broken arm? I wonder. All it took was concentration and a thought and you willed your body to fix itself.”
“What?” Aran looked down at the arm, which no longer throbbed with pain.
“You know what the major problem with incredibly complex cyberware is? You can't control it consciously. You have to achieve a state of enlightenment. Zen of the machine, kid. You don't reach out with your arms, you reach in with your mind; with your heart.”
“Who the glitch are you?”
“I'm the man that's going to break you into little pieces, Aran,” the stranger said. “You'll find me on the mainland. That is certain. It is what is to be, but how it is to be is your call.” He took a draw of his cigarette and grinned. “Much like Tyillion's life. She has close to two minutes before the boat gets close enough to the deadwater. But will you be able to get out. Time's running out, tin man.”
Aran slugged the stranger, but his blow glanced off as if he had hit steel.
Aran drew back and punched, again his blow rebounded.
Aran launched into a flurry of punches.
“You're thinking to hard! Don't focus on the movements, focus on the fight. Don't manipulate every muscle, manipulate the image in your mind and then let your cyberware do the rest.”
Aran landed punch after punch against the figure, each blow flying back as if blocked by an invisible wall. Roaring, Aran continued to punch and punch and punch until
Aran opened his eyes and found he had punched a hole through the vat, spilling the liquid across the room. Staggering out, he made it to the window and saw the Rusted Whale below. His side was aching and the shoulder where his ARM had been itched like crazy: the healing properties of the auto-doc hadn't been able to finish, but if the dream was right Aran didn't have time to worry about that. A Triadium scalpel lying on the nearby table was all he could find as he dashed to the window.
* * *
Tyillion frantically used the last of her adrenaline-fueled strength to parry off Sahris's attack. She had managed to position him next to the port bow, and the deadwater pools would be up ahead soon. They were teeming with the flesh-eating fauna that inhabited the sunken cities along the old coastlines, vicious creatures that could strip even a Technomancer to the bone in a few seconds. Finally the time had come. Tyillion leapt back from the attack and stretched out her other arm revealing a second repulser she had kept hidden up her sleeve. Holding her palm out, she concentrated on gathering the energy through it to push Sahris into the deadly pools below.
“No!” Aran's voice was above, yelling. Tyillion couldn't lose focus, she couldn't be distracted. She pulled her thumb back against the switch and sent the wall of force outward from her hand towards Sahris. But Sahris didn't fly back into the water, he simply leveled his staff at the wave of energy and cut through it as if it had been silk. Waves of force parted to either side of him, throwing debris from the deck into the deadwater pools behind. Aran hit the deck with a sickening crunch, but managed to land on his feet and stagger forwards. Sahris swung his staff towards Tyillion, but Aran managed to step between them, taking the scythe blade through his good shoulder.
Sahris and Aran stood still, glaring at each other. It took Tyillion a few seconds to see that Aran had jammed something into Sahris's neck, also to see that his ARM was gone, and the metal capped smoothly over his missing limb.
“We could kill each other here and now,” Aran said.
“You're almost dead as it is.” Sahris took one hand from the scythe, still glaring at Aran. “Perhaps now is not the time.” Sahris ripped the scythe blade out of Aran's shoulder and Aran pulled the scalpel from Sahris's neck.
“Soon, Aran. Soon we will finish this.” Sahris turned away and moved towards Tyillion.
“I can't kill him.” Sahris landed a quick punch to her stomach, doubling her over. With no visible effort, Sahris lifted her up by the neck and tossed her towards the bow of the ship. “You are a different matter.”
“Hurry, Aran. You might be able to save her. Or you could try to stop me from destroying the top of this tower. Which is more important, Aran, her or your past?” Sahris laughed, leaping from the ship into the building. Above, a dropship could be seen descending towards the tower.
Aran lurched towards the railing as Tyillion reached out for the railing, catching herself before falling into the deadwater pools below. Aran reached out to help her up, bracing his legs against a crate for support.
“Stop him, Aran, I can pull myself up.”
“It's ok, give me your hand.”
“Aran! If there's something up there that--”
“Glitch, Tyillion, that railing won't hold! Give me your hand before it--”
The railing, rusted and worn by age came loose with a screech of metal. Tyillion's eyes went wide and she grabbed onto Aran's arm with both hands. The sudden weight was more than Aran could bear after the wound to his shoulder. He had hoped to be able to help her up, not support her full weight. Hydraulics in his shoulder tore open and red-black fluid poured from the wound.
“Hold on!” Aran looked around desperately. He wouldn't be able to hold on much longer without help. “DOC! KREEP! Ta-Kyn!”
“They won't come, there down below waiting for me to signal,” Tyillion said. She held tight as the brackish hydraulic fluid/blood coated her fingers. Her grip was slipping. “Com-link is on my belt, I can't reach it!”
“Aran, let go.”
“Let go. Get them to the mainland.”
“You can't win every battle Aran.”
“The hell I can't!”
“I'm sorry Aran...but trust me...this is for the best...” Tyillion smiled weakly and let go of his arm. Aran saw her drop below towards the still waters.
“NO!” Aran dug his hand into the bow and swung after her.
She can't die.
Time seemed to have moved to a crawl.
She can't die.
Aran closed his eyes.
I won't let her die!
Aran reached out to Tyillion.
I love her.
Aran felt the world lurch, shaken suddenly. He glanced down at Tyillion, who he was holding by the collar. Holding with his missing arm. Smooth, pale skin devoid of cyberware joined at the shoulder with the molten metal, skin and metal fading into each other.
“Call them!” Aran shouted. Tyillion glanced up and the railing gave way, dropping them closer to the water. “GLITCH! This won't hold my weight! Call them!”
Tyillion fumbled at her waist for the com device.
“DAVIS! Get up here! Bow railing, front. GET UP HERE NOW!”
* * *
“What happened?” Doc asked. Tyillion held the cup of coffee in shaking hands, staring down into it. It had been hours since she and Aran had been pulled up by Kreep seconds before falling into the deadwater pool and she was still shaking. If she guessed right, she would still be shaking for another few hours before she calmed down.
“I don't know. I let go and he swung down after me. It was...it was like his shoulder just grew another arm. I haven't seen anything like it.”
“Mutants from the Genetech wars have similar abilities, like that of a lizard to regrow limbs," Doc said. “Perhaps something has modified Aran in such a way?”
“No. I've seen them. I've fought them. This wasn't like that. When they regrow a limb you can see it form. Cut of a their arm and another arm grows back. But it has all the fingers and bones as it grows back. That didn't happen with Aran. It's like his arm... rebuilt itself from the shoulder down.”
Doc sat in silence across from her.
“Is he still behind me?” he whispered.
“No. He went up on deck about fifteen minutes ago.”
“We need to get somewhere where I can examine him properly.”
“I'm not sure. But Aran may have just proved me wrong.” Doc saw the confusion on her face. “Trust me on this, please. It's for his good we have to find a lab somewhere. As soon as possible.”
“Ok,” Tyillion said. “I trust you Doc. I trust you.”
Up above, Aran sat on one of the crates in the night air. The sunken city was far behind them now and the ocean stretched unbroken into the horizon. Silver moonlight illuminated the skin of his regrown arm, glistened off of it like metal. Aran flexed his fingers. There was no delay, no familiar feedback of gears and rotors. But they where there. He knew they were, he could FEEL them. They were just acting like bone and sinew. The systems all still existed, but none of the cyberware was visible. Weapon targeting and feedback, a small device imprinted on his palm that fed information from smart weapons, still worked despite the small square of metal no longer being there.
“You OK Aran?” Doc asked. The old Technomancer sat down beside him.
“I don't know.”
“Forgive me for asking, but I have a lot of questions about that new arm.”
“So do I, Doc. So do I.”
“I've seen something like that before, actually,” Doc said quietly.
Aran looked at him blankly.
“Have you seen something like this?” Aran laughed, pulling back a roll of padding from his shoulder. Doc looked at the hole Sahris had punctured through Aran's shoulder. He had put the plug and gauze over it to keep it stable until they could find a way to fix it. Except that the plug was gone, the small spongy material had become a stringy mass of fibers stretching across the hole. Small ridges of rough metal folded around the strings, creating a spider web of silver lines.
“What is that?”
“The hydraulics, Doc,” Aran sighed. “They're healing.”
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