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Truth And Consequence

054: Gunmetal Blues     055: Forever In The Rain, Forever In The Storm
056: Admissions     057: Master's Test
058: Release     059: Eternal Truths, Eternal Consequences


Post: 02.11.2004
Date: Unknown
Time: Unknown

Gunmetal Blues

It was raining again. Most of Aran's worst memories involved the rain. He was sitting in a makeshift shelter than had become Ta-Kyn's home. Various wires and tubes tethered him to a host of equipment that had been cobbled together over the last few days. Ta-Kyn was humming an unknown tune, off key, in front of a monitor.

“Are we almost done?” Aran asked.

“I need to get readings for another ten minutes,” Ta-Kyn replied. “Doc, how does it look so far?”

“It's like nothing I've ever seen before.”

“Wonderful.” Aran let his head slump back into the crude pillow and let Ta-Kyn and Doc continue to diagnose his internal hardware. The only time Technomancers ever had this much external hardware hooked up to them was during the first operation, or if they were being dissected. The strain of the human body trying to cope with so much extraneous feedback was more than most people could bear. One of the reasons why only a fraction of those who chose to become Technomancers ever could. Of course, they now had another problem. Aran's mind was filled with a static gibbering, as information streamed through and broke his train of thought.

“Ta-Kyn...” he groaned, “...it's happening again.”

Ta-Kyn moved quickly and began looked at the wiring leads protruding from Aran's arm. The arm that had regrown was causing them trouble. It kept trying to assimilate the leads into his body. When it succeeded, the data stream from the diagnostic hardware looped back into Aran. Ta-Kyn severed the cord with a quick slice and ran another cord between Aran's arm and the machine.

“A few more minutes Aran,” Doc said. “This is all going to be worth it in the end.”

“I doubt it.” Aran sighed.

“What's happening in your body is extraordinary. The human body has finally integrated technology to the point that it can evolve parallel to the implants. This could be what turns mankind's battle against the world out there. It could also mean a cure for Kreep.”

“I doubt it,” Aran repeated. At the mention of Kreep he felt his back itch. Aran shifted uncomfortably.

“The throughput tripled,” Ta-Kyn said. He let out a long whistle. “Aran's hardware is compressing the data, we've got more than enough now.”

“How did that happen?” Doc asked.

“Everytime I got a feedback loop from those cables in my arm, my head started hurting. None of the version numbers for my internal software match. It's rewriting itself.”

“The body can rewrite software modules?” Doc murmured. He tapped a screen thoughtfully. “Yes. Yes, of course. The software is stored in protein slivers grafted along the nerve column. If the body is able to assimilate other matter...hmmm...it could treat the software like an extension of the nervous system if...”

“That's great. Get me out of this.” Aran stood up slowly, pushing away from the reclining table.

“Aran. This is extraordinary, can we just get a few more...?”

“No.” Aran held his arms out wide, then brought them in to his chest quickly, tearing wires loose from machinery. Some of it clattered to the floor. Aran turned and exited the little tent, going into the rain.

He remembered the rain from blue skies. Of course he had never seen it with his own two eyes, but the memory was there. When the ocean wasn't purple gray the skies had been blue. Bluer than cobalt, or neon. Even years after the Fall when two generations had passed that had never seen a blue sky, mankind remembered. In paintings, in holovids, in dreams. The blue sky was what man wanted back. Man remembered the skies; Aran could remember the rain. It was clear, and cold, and it was cleansing. Now it was, like most of the earth itself, just another threat.

Aran trudged through the muddy pathways of the impromptu city. The pure had fashioned houses, working facilities for water purification and even a makeshift power generator. There was the glow of warm yellow light leaking from under the tent flaps and through crude boards.

“Two thousand plus years of knowledge can be packed up into a few crates. And as long as mankind has that, they can rebuild. What we attain, we retain.” Aran spoke to no one in particular. He stopped at the doorway of his house. Inside he could hear Tyillion snoring loudly, and he smiled for a moment. Lightning split the sky and illuminated the camp brightly for a split second. Aran saw the soggy settlement jutting from the mud, thick trickles of water moving down the hill towards the forest. There was no telling how long the rain would last. On the island it only rained for a few days, but the island had a few working weather manipulation towers. This however was the wilds. It might rain for weeks. If the settlement was to survive, trenches would need to be dug to redirect the water from the higher cliff. Aran turned away from his door. He didn't need to sleep. If he wanted to, he knew he wouldn't be able to. There was too much on his mind.

There were shovels in one of the work tents. Aran grabbed a few and hiked to the top of the hill. He had to make the settlement secure, had to ensure they would survive.

In a few weeks, he wouldn't be around to protect them any more.

  Post: 04.08.2004
Date: Unknown
Time: Unknown

Forever In The Rain, Forever In The Storm

The rain had continued for the last week, but the settlement's mass of tents were mostly dry. Aran's trenches had diverted the flow of water down into the valley below leaving only the occasional leak in the various tents and sheds. He had spent three days up to his elbows in mud, alone in the pouring rain and had relished every moment of it. The mud covered most of his body, hiding the changes he was no longer in control of from curious eyes. The patches of flesh on his back, the ones he had shown only to Kreep and Doc, had grown steadily. Honest to God flesh, not synthskin, was creeping across his body silently despite all his efforts. It was also creeping in a pattern, a series of twisting lines and curving arcs looping amongst its own design, spiking and sharp against the pale synthskin it was devouring. Aran was sure he had seen the pattern before, but he put those thoughts out of his mind. Now that the trenches were finished and the shelters secured, he was running out of excuses to avoid the Pure, who had seemed to adopt him as a de facto father figure of their group.

“Are you going to stay out there forever?” Tyillion laughed. She was kneeling underneath the awning of her tent, smoking a cigarette.

“If I can help it,” Aran said. He had been leaning against what was now the last pile of unopened crates in the settlement.

Ignoring the rain, Ta-Kyn and Greasy had insisted on getting the settlement started. Sensitive electronics and long-lost technology had been slowly coming back to life while he had worked the trenches. Each time he returned to camp, it had changed. Each time he returned to camp he too had changed. Unlike Aran's skin, which remained hidden under his heavy coat, the settlement's growth could not be hidden. Metal spires rose from the muddy ground, lined with lights and transmitters. The settlement had light and power now; man had reclaimed the night. All around the camp was an aura of interference, he could feel it. It was a dim buzz of information flowing through primitive wireless transmitters and receivers. Each tent was linked, and the new wooden buildings were being wired to the computer core the Pure had brought. Data flowed back and forth as recipes and books were retrieved from the long silent databases, children accessed training materials designed almost a hundred years ago, people separated by weather and schedules communicated through video links. It was a haphazard array of signal noise, unguarded in the security that there was nothing around to threaten the systems. Aran spent hours sleeping beneath the crates, jacked into the tiny little bubble of pseudo-cyberspace they had created. It was just noise and static, but when he closed his eyes, it was like being back, except for the size. It was claustrophobic, too small to satisfy the longing to immerse himself into the world's storehouse of information, but it satisfied a need. Aran, like any Technomancer, was as addicted to being a part of cyberspace as Tyillion was to her cigarettes. He was half in that little electronic sanctuary, half awake in the wet and miserable world outside when Tyillion spoke with him. She had come to help him in the trenches, an offer Aran had refused adamantly, but they shared a tent, something she had insisted on adamantly. Their relationship was a lot like a war; you had to pick and choose your battles.

“I hear Ta-Kyn got the panels working,” Tyillion said between drags. “They’re going to start broadcasting old shows tonight.”

“I'm not surprised. Ever since he and Greasy started opening crates it's been hard to slow them down.”

“They had extra screens…” Tyillion said. She was hesitating, uncertainty in her voice. “…I got one for our tent, I mean, they gave us one and I was wondering if-”

“Wondering if what?” Aran asked.

“If you wanted to watch a show tonight?” she asked. “With me? I mean…you know…just us.”

Aran let the little bubble of cyberspace go and fell solidly into the cold, muddy world where Tyillion had just 'asked him out'. Goose bumps prickled across his skin. Well, the parts that could get goose bumps anyway.

“What are they showing?” he asked, stalling for time.

“Well, they're going to have four channels. They'll be showing Soldiers, Happy House Review for the kids, Fields of Gold, and The Diary of Andi--.”

“Happy House Review? I haven't seen that in ages. You know, I had all the episodes on MMD. We're talking about forty-two hours of childhood bliss.”

“Aran?”

“School is out, we can't be blue…it's time for Happy House Review…” Aran sang softly.

“Aran? When did you see that? We never had an MMD drive in our panel back in the city? After you left, well, I never pegged you as the kind of mercenary for hire who watched kids shows.”

Aran's song died abruptly on the wind and in his mind. The words that came effortlessly were gone; he couldn't remember them. The rain continued to pour off his hair, falling down onto the folds of his coat in tiny rivers. He forced his concentration on the water, on the countless moving droplets across the horizons. Unbidden, brief flashes of recollection came into his mind. Brightly dressed characters with nauseatingly cute names appeared, as if they had always been there. He remembered the apartment with Tyillion, forced himself to remember those nights of sleepless fright while the rain poured outside the windows. The memories of Happy House Review receded, leaving only the memory of the moments and the now familiar sickening confusion of knowing things he never experienced. Aran stood up slowly.

“Sure,” he said.

“What? Aran, are you ok?”

“I'm fine. And sure, a show sounds great. You decide on what to watch, I'll go get us something to eat from the supply tent.”

“Don't change the subject, are you ok Aran?”

“I'm fine, don't worry,” he lied. Aran began walking down the hill. Don't look back. I know she's worried, but don't look back…whatever you do. “I'll see if I can get you some more cigs, too.” He waved nonchalantly and left Tyillion standing at the door of their tent while he entered the maze of tents. Ducking through empty work tents, he zigzagged through the camp until he came to Doc's lean-to. The old Technomancer's hut resembled him a lot, compiled of layers of various materials: cloth, metal, wood, and stone all lumped together into a kind of dome that jutted out of the camp like a sore thumb.

“Aran? Good to see you. Did you find out from Ta-Kyn about those skin grafts?”

“No.” Aran brushed past the old Technomancer. Doc's sole piece of furniture was a rough hewn table forever set with a full complement of dishes and utensils. Aran sat down on the bench and rolled up his sleeve. “Doc, do you still have that Acetatochrin?”

“Not much. Why? Did you have another one of the flashba---oh my.” Doc stared into Aran's upturned eyes, glimmering sapphire blue. He moved a rust covered hand up and pushed Aran's silver hair over his forehead, revealing blond roots. “It got further that time.” Doc pulled a small box out from under the table and opened it . Three small trays folded out of the box, sitting unevenly on plates and napkins. Several small vials and ampoules lined the leftmost cabinet. It was a first aid kit for Technomancers, a collection of the uncommon medicines and nanotechnology necessary for the inevitable breakdown or emergency. Acetatochrin was a cocktail of other medicines in a viral delivery that had been the cure for an early ailment of their kind: implant rejection. While it's application was no longer as common place, it still remained in most well stocked kits carried by Technomancers or street docs because of it's ability to delay the body's reaction to nanotechnology inside of it. Often it would give the body enough time to adapt, or the nano machines time to integrate. In Aran's case, it was the inverse. The Acetatochrin slowed down whatever it was inside of him that was absorbing all his technology.

“I have about three more doses. After that--”

“It won't come to that.” Aran interrupted. He pulled the IV housing from his elbow and held it steady while Doc injected the serum. “I'm having Ta-Kyn do an implant tomorrow, that should slow it down.” Aran flexed his arm slowly as the IV housing retracted. “That should take care of it.”

“Aran, you need to be more careful. This won't last forever, and you'll need a more solid defense against all those memories inside of you.”

“I'm working on it,” Aran said, standing up. “Thanks, Doc. But don't worry, right now I've got the strongest defense possible.”

“You say that…but I still worry.” Doc's words faded away as Aran left the tent. He made his way through the torrent to the supply tent, wrapping himself in the memories of his life with Tyillion. Those few years of rain, fear, compassion…love. All those memories inside of him were giants compared to his own, almost two thousand years worth of lives and events expanding into his mind daily. He hadn't lied to Doc. Right now he had the strongest defense possible in the storm, with Tyillion near him. Two concrete, solid, immutable truths of his own life to concentrate on were keeping the discontent voices inside his mind at bay.

Doc was right, though.

The rain wouldn't last.

But he would deal with that situation later. If the weather reports Ta-Kyn had calculated were correct, he had a few more days. He intended to enjoy them, these few days with the Pure, being with Tyillion.

His last few days as Aran.

  Post: 04.18.2004
Date: Unknown
Time: Unknown

Admissions

I

Aran woke up to the sound of women swearing. Tyillion sitting on her cot, legs crossed, watching Soldiers on the panel. He could smell coffee.

“You finally awake?” she asked. Aran ran his fingers through his hair, shaking the sleep away. The coffee smelled really good.

“What time is it?” he asked. The rain was still pouring outside, creating a staccato drumming on the roof that was almost drowned out by the panel. He didn't need to keep to a schedule. In fact, most of his life had been spent in complete ignorance of what day it was. This never bothered him, but there were certain deadlines he did need to keep.

“It's probably around noon or so.” Tyillion picked up a battered metal coffee pot from the table beside her cot. She had kept the pot ever since their days on the island, though it was far worse for wear. After so many years of making coffee day in and day out, it made a fantastic cup. The coffee it made had personality. She poured Aran a cup and handed it across to him. The pungent aroma itself seemed to revive some of his energy. Power cells, PLEs, generators—all could keep the body functioning for days on end without rest...but all Technomancers did get tired eventually. Not in the physical sense, but in the mental and emotional. The soul, Tyillion said, needed rest as much as the body. Either way, the coffee helped. Most Technomancers would spend 10-12 hours a week in a downtime mode to keep their hardware running smoothly. Some even kept to the sleep schedules they had before the operation.

“Good coffee.”

“I don't remember you drinking it that often.” Tyillion smiled. “How can you keep surprising me, Aran? I think I have you figured out, then it's like I never knew you at all.”

You have no idea.

“What do you want to do today?” Aran asked. He had spent the last few days thinking about what he was asking. Since their time together on the island, they hadn't seen each other outside of pitched combat or mortal peril. Now the island had sunk beneath the sea and with it their apartment, swallowed whole by the dark sea. Everything they owned could now be stuffed into a small satchel or worn on their back. Aran had treasured the apartment, even after he left, because it was some place he could call “home.” Now they had a tent, which leaked. But it was, too, a home. Or at least, he wanted to make it one in his mind. Something he could always keep in this thoughts, something to keep him anchored. Something, maybe, to come home to.

“Didn't you say Ta-Kyn was going to work on your arm?” Tyillion asked.

“Yes. But that won't take any time at all. I'll be back in an hour, and we can do whatever you like.”

“It's raining. There's not much to do.” Tyillion poured another cup of coffee.

“You could make another pot of coffee and think about it.” Aran downed the last of his coffee and set the cup down gently on his bed. He stood up and stretched, finding that the few muscles left in his body were all sore. Tyillion watched him out of the corner of her eye, a brief flick of a glance that was almost impossible to notice. She was worried about him, or curious, or worse, both. Aran smoothed the rough blanket laid over his bed of metal crates (the only makeshift surface that could support his weight) and flexed his right arm. The muscles underneath moved freely, devoid of any implants.

“You want me to come with you?” Tyillion asked, her casual drawl implying the underlying question of: I'm going, are you going to stop me? Aran shook his head. There was no reason for her to be there though it might, no, it certainly would help to have her there. There was too much that could go wrong, especially if she saw the crawling patches of skin his back.

“No. Besides, this isn't like the modifications you watched before in the city,” he said. Aran forced the expression from his face. “This is going to be like the Body Format. It's not going to be pretty, Tyill. Only way to describe it is like an engine overhaul and open heart surgery combined. I want you there, but...I have to do this alone, I'm sorry.”

“Ok...” Tyillion swung her legs out from under her and stood up in a single, smooth, graceful motion. She was moving the same way she did when she fought, covering a lot of ground between them with simple movements that hid how fast she was. There was ten feet between them in the tent when she was sitting, but in an instant of movement she was in front of him. Moving quickly, lazily, like a cat. It had been hard to follow her. “But only if you do me one favor.”

“Name it.”

“Touch me,” she said.

All the real flesh on Aran's body went cold.

“What?” Aran was backing away, tactically losing a battle he didn't want to fight. Tyillion leaned in towards him slowly, her hair spilling over her shoulders down toward him. She reached out and pressed her fingers gently against his right hand, moving over the skin.

“You've always been...cold, ever since you became a full Technomancer,” Tyillion said. She curled her fingers around his and brought his palm up to her face, resting her head in his hand. “But...you're not like that right now. Part of you, anyway. And now you want to throw it away again. Would it be so bad to just let it—”

“I have to,” Aran said. He tried to pull his hand back, but couldn't. It was hard to tell if it was him not wanting to pull his hand back, or if she was unwilling to let it go.

“We were going to leave the island,” Tyillion whispered. “You promised. I'd quit fighting, and you would get rid of your technology, and we would find somewhere to go, far, far away.”

“It's not that simple, Tyill. This isn't something I can just ignore, and...I can't tell you why it has to be this way. Do you trust me enough to take that on faith?”

“I quit fighting,” she whispered. Tyillion ran her fingers over his hand, tracing unseen shapes in the warm, living flesh. Aran's mind raced, a flood of memories battering down his defenses.

“Tyillion...you have to—oh...glitch...Tyillion, please, don't—”

“We're far, far, away from the island, Aran.” She tilted her head, and uncombed strands of dark hair covered his hand. “We don't have to keep doing this.”

“Tyillion! Let go!” Aran saw the world shudder, like the earth was rocking gently back and forth. It was like the sea, the Rusted Whale lurching on those dark waters that night. In his mind, a thin blue wire of memory began to uncurl. “For the love of God, Tyillion will you let—”

“I'm not going to let you go!” Tyillion looked up at him, crying. Aran's heart sank as her eyes grew wide. “I never knew...you're eyes...they're....”

Aran closed his eyes and swore he would never forgive himself.

 

I I

“Is it ok?” Doc asked, looking at his arm. Aran flexed it, opening and closing his fist. It still burned. It would burn forever, if only in his mind.

“It's not ok. It has to go.” Aran held the arm out, staring at Doc. “Do it now, or I don't have much time. This is the only chance I have, and you know it.”

Doc nodded and clamped the Triadium bands around his arms and legs. Aran was strapped to the slab again, going under the knife. He had been born with most of his implants already in his body, comprising almost 15% of who he was. Later, despite Tyillion's pleading, he had undergone the full Body Format, converting 80% of his total body to hardware. The slab then had been metal, smooth and cold against his skin. This time it was a collection of crates, like his bed.

Ta-Kyn came in carrying the new arm. It was wrapped in a thick layer of waterproof fabric, still beading water from the rain off its slick surface, but Aran knew what it was.

“Where you able to make it like I wanted?” Aran asked. Ta-Kyn laid it down on Doc's table and peeled the layers of cloth back reverently, like an artist unveiling his opus. The arm was solid metal, even the sinews and leads had been fabricated. Despite the lack of materials, Ta-Kyn's workmanship was on par with some of the best hardware he had ever bought. He saw the glittering blue-black strands that twined together to form artificial muscle. Long strands of Kreep's hair, which whatever it was inside of him was unable to properly digest.

“It's a 9.8.” Ta-Kyn nodded at the arm. “ I've never made one before. I didn't even know they could be used.”

“9.8?” Greasy asked. He had trailed into the tent behind Ta-Kyn. They were becoming inseparable.

“98% technology, relying on 2% organics for integration to the body. Every ten percent is a point on the scale. Human beings, pure humans, had a technology tolerance of around 2.3. Which is more than enough for basic implants or modding. Certain ladders, that's genetics, and the current strain of impure humans have a greater acceptance of technology in their bodies, around 4.6. Vat-grown humans, like Aran.” As Ta-Kyn nodded to Aran, Greasy's eyes got wide. “Well, they can range from 4.6 on up. Though, 8.3 was the highest ever achieved for any stable amount of time. 7.2 to 8.2 total is the general range for a true Technomancer.”

“What are you?” Greasy asked.

“I was a 7.2, but I keep having to make modifications on the fly, so I guess I would be around 7.9 by now.”

“What is Aran?”

“Aran is an 8.1,” Ta-Kyn said. He looked down at the hand. “If this works, he'll be an 8.4.”

“It will work,” Aran snapped.

“I really hope it does,” Ta-Kyn said. Aran flexed his hand. He could almost feel it spreading, moving down his arm.

“Go ahead, let's do it.”

“All right. I'm going to administer a local anesthetic. It'll take a few minutes to take effect.” Doc reached for a small syringe on the table.

“No,” Aran said. “No anesthetic.”

“We have to remove the entire dermal layer before we can remove the bracings in your elbow.” Doc made a motion across the back of Aran's wrist. “Your software can't override the real skin's nerve impulses.”

“No anesthetic,” Aran repeated. His right hand burned, still tingling. Tyillion's last request of Aran had ended with the sharp crack, the sting of pain in his finger as he slapped her. Let them pull the skin off his fingers, it wouldn't hurt as much as her expression. Aran closed his eyes. She hadn't hit him back, she had just sat there, staring at him. That had amplified his guilt a thousand times over.

“All right.” Doc sounded sober. Aran heard the syringe click softly down onto the table. “Greasy, I'm afraid I have to ask you to leave. This won't be pretty.”

It wasn't pretty, but then no part of the Body Format had ever been as graceful or elegant as surgery. Aran fought the pain until he cried, crying until he didn't have the strength to keep on, screaming until he passed out.

 

I I I

Aran woke up suddenly, remnants of a passing dream evaporating as he sat up. The restrains were gone and he was alone, laid out on the rows of crates in Doc's shanty, a single thin sheet draped over his frame. The storm outside was raging, the roiling clouds blotting out even the moon. His low-light optics, capable of amplifying even trace amounts of light, were almost useless. His head was throbbing, a dull headache that he had experienced only a few times before. The blissful static of the camp was gone, the power was out. Aran raised his right hand up. From the middle of his forearm down to the tips of his fingers was solid metal, the polished Triadium alloy catching what little light there was and reflecting it back, streaks of blackened silver. Moving his fingers made a grating sound as servos and joints moved for the first time, his software mapping out system responses and range of motion limits. Each successive fist he made was easier, smoother, and eventually quiet. Buried beneath the layers of metal were thin ribbons of flesh, the real flesh, trapped beneath technology. It hadn't even begun to absorb the new arm, simply rested within it, locked safely away. In time, whatever it was lurking inside him would win, and even this arm would be absorbed. But it gave him time.

“Doc?” Aran looked around in the darkness. Even Doc's fire was out. The fireplace's embers were cold to the touch. How long was I out?

Aran pushed himself off of the crates. His right hand screeched as it was drug across the metal. It hung heavy at his side when he stood up, almost pulling his shoulder down. His calibration software made adjustments, but the weight of the arm was still present. A solid reminder, something to anchor him.

“Ta-Kyn? Kreep? Hello?” Aran staggered out of the tent into the rain.

The rain pelted against hard against his body, a heavy downpour that hit heavy against the exposed metal of his body. The drumming rain against his skin creating the only sound, the entire camp was silent. His vision was limited by the rain, but he didn't need to see beyond a few feet to know the camp was empty.

“Something's wrong,” Aran whispered.

Behind him, a guttural growling answered. Aran tilted his head slowly, glancing behind his shoulder as best he could. Coiled on the ground only a few feet away was an eoa spawnling, its small body riddled with jutting bone shards. A second growl joined, creating a threatening duet. If there were spawnlings loose in the camp, the Pure had most likely been herded into the hall. The hall wasn't finished, and it leaked like sieve, but it would be their only defense. Aran realized he was unarmed, but against spawnlings he wouldn't need anything more than his wits. He sorted the situation in his mind: Kreep and Tyillion would be taking out the pack of spawnlings, Doc would be guiding Ta-Kyn and Greasy into quick-and-dirty fortifications of the hall.

One of the spawnling’s growling became a howl, and it leapt. It was the one from behind, trying to get him to spin around so the one out of his field of vision could side swipe him. Aran ran forward, as far afield of the growling as he could. Luckily, he soon heard both of the spawnlings lumbering behind him through the mud. The slickness of the mud would have been an obstacle if the added weight of all his hardware didn't give him leverage. Unfortunately, the spawnlings body limbs were able to slice through the thick mud as easily. He heard gunfire to the east, Tyillion dealing with one of the spawnlings no doubt. The gunfire made them falter, he heard them splash to a stop in the mud. Aran took the opportunity and spun around, sliding through the wet earth until he could get enough leverage to jump. He brought his right fist down onto the head of one of the spawnlings, the cracking sound of breaking bone synchronized with an earsplitting whine. The creature dropped to the ground dead, its neck broken, while the second leapt towards him. Aran barely had a chance to hold up his hands in defense before the spawnling sank its tusks into his arm; or, it tried to. The bones made a sharp splintering noise. The calcareous material wasn't yet strong enough to pierce metal, leaving it splintered and the creature’s jaw clamped around his hand. Aran saw it staring at him, glaring through its yellow eyes. He bashed it against a rock until it stopped moving, though it took an additional five minutes to pry his arm out of its jaw.

“...two more over here.” He heard Tyillion's voice in the rain.

“One of 'em got hurt.” Kreep appeared, he was moving in a running crouch, his razor sharp hair flicking in the wind.

“They're gone,” Aran said. Tyillion appeared out of the rain, like a ghost. She stared at him coldly. Was it his imagination, or was the right side of her face red? Could he see the outline of his own hand against—no. He couldn't help things by making them worse in his mind. They stared at each other for what seemed like forever before Kreep interjected.

“Bashed 'em good, Aran. They're gone. That makes all of 'em I saw. But they may just be scouting for a larger group.”

Tyillion dropped her eyes to stare at Aran's right arm. He averted his gaze.

“Tyillion?!” The new voice was female, frantic.

“Ma'am, you need to get back to the hall” Tyillion moved to intercept the woman, one of the Pure. “We don't know if there are more out here.”

“They got my baby!” she shrieked. The woman was cradling something in her arms. Aran's heart sank. “They got my daughter!” The white cloth was streaking red in places.

“Oh my God.” Tyillion slung the rifle across her back and went to the woman. “Get her to the hall, Doc can help her.”

“Let me carry her,” Kreep said. The woman looked down at him, horrified. “I can get her there fastest of any of us here. She'll be safe, I promise you.”

“I can't....” The woman cried.

“Do it,” Aran said. He felt the rain fall over him and realized for the first time why he had liked the rain so much. It could wash things away. It was hope that he could wash away the past, his bad dreams. “Get her back to the hall, but don't give her to Doc. Get a place cleared, out of the rain. Have Greasy get everything that's left from the medical crates out.”

“Aran, what in the hell are you thinking?” Tyillion shouted.

“You stay here,” he growled. “Kreep, take the child to the hall. Now.”

Kreep bowed his head slightly before grabbing the woman, still clutching her child, and carried them both through the rain into the white-gray noise beyond.

“What are you doing, Aran? That child will die.”

“No she won't,” Aran said, softly. He gave up fighting everything inside of him. “We won't let that happen.” He could already feel it beginning. Looking at the cloth had been enough to start it. There are certain memories that can be counted on to trigger a response. Deep inside his mind, one of the many collections of memories that had belonged to so many different people was reacting. The thin blue wire, the one he saw when he slept, was burning inside him somewhere.

“What's going on.” Tyillion must have seen it. He could hear it in her voice, the intake of breath, she was seeing the changes. Aran wanted to see her face, but at the same time, he didn't want to see the expression should would be wearing. “Your hair...what's....Aran?! What's going on!”

“You told me once that there were two things in the world that mattered: truth and consequence. That betraying a truth, telling a lie, would always bring about a consequence. Well, Tyillion, I'm tired of lying. And now it's time to take on the consequence of that.”

“What's going on Aran, what's happening to you?”

“The truth is, I may have never existed at all, Tyill. There may be nothing more to me than a body, a housing for all these memories. Do you think that, enough memories could combine, maybe they could have enough spare parts left over for another personality? A piecemeal soul? I think that's a nice idea.”

Aran felt the change deep inside. He used the injured child as bait for the memories, drawing one of them out, one he knew enough of to control. A memory that was connected to him deeply, one he had even dreamed of back on the island. Or maybe this was the dream. Either way, he could feel the two separate forces: the memory pulled from behind the wall of his defenses, and his own tiny core of thoughts. He reached out and grabbed the thin blue wire, burning like liquid fire, and bound the two together.

Memories merged, swam together. Aran fell into the mud, hands pressed in up to his wrists. His mind flooded with the knowledge, wisdom, pride, vanity, and ego of someone who had died half a century ago. Dr. Tsano's memories had been in Aran's mind, Chian's mind anyway, back on the island. Every dream since then should have been a revelation. The memories were trying to talk to him, tell him things. Aran could feel the tainted flesh inside him, the gift from beneath the ocean, erupt. It covered him, spilling out across his body, except for the right arm. Cyberware ceased to respond, being pulled into the mass of flesh that crawled across him. Aran was disappearing, and something else taking his place, a hybrid self that was at the same time familiar and alien.

“Oh my God. Oh my God. Aran? Aran?!”

“I am Aran, but I am not the Aran you know,” said the man crouched in the mud. Black hair, tightly cropped, hung loosely over his head. His voice was cold, precise, and devoid of any emotion. “In fact, I may be closer to the real Aran than ever before.”

The man stood up, fierce green eyes piercing into Tyillion.

“Who are you?”

“I'm a baby grown in a tank a thousand times, injected with countless memories. I'm a young Technomancer who was rescued by a beautiful mercenary. I'm a brilliant surgeon who pioneered genetic research. I am a thousand disjointed memories filtering into a single body, pieces of a puzzle that have begun to assemble.” The man moved closer. “I am also the only hope that young girl has. So either take me to her, or hold her death in your hands, Tyillion.”

  Post: 04.26.2004
Date: Unknown
Time: Unknown

Master's Test

Part 1 – Fourfold Path, The Second

“My lord. He has passed through Fear. The transformation of the crystalline body was successful,” Sahris said. ”You were correct, my lord. When another was in danger, he surrendered himself willingly.” He was kneeling before The One, knuckles pressed firmly to the cold steel floor.

“He has moved through the first part of the fourfold path,” The One said. There was an extended pause, a heavy moment of silence so unusual from The One. “We are still unable to monitor his brain directly. What manner of change was it?”

“Aran has merged with one of the Chorus, a doctor from before the fall.”

“Tsano? How interesting.” The One laughed. Rather it was what Sahris had come to call laughter. The One's cold, hollow voice echoed through the chamber devoid of any real mirth or amusement. “Have any more joined the Chorus?”

“The construct PYLE deviated from his design, so there are a few stragglers inside. We attempted to get Chian to filter them out, but we were unable to. He transferred all of them into the datawire.”

“His cyberware. What has happened to it? Did it integrate into the frame properly?”

“There is a 98.4% integration of the technology into the alpha cells. Based on current feedback the Inorganic Reintegration Phase has a better than 85.2% chance of success.”

“If he can reach that critical phase. His body may still fall apart before then.” The One stirred, moving from his throne slowly. Sahris heard the hiss of hoses and pumps as the machines attached to The One began to churn and stir. “Come here, Sahris.”

Sahris kept his head bowed and stepped forward towards the throne of The One. An ashen hand touched his face.

“Look up at me,” The One said. He spoke like an annoyed parent dealing with a petulant child. Sahris raised his face, knowing the unconcealed hatred blazed in his eyes. The One chuckled, a low guttural choking that was as horrible as his laughter. A grizzled finger traced the design burned into his brow, tracing through the circle first and then the triangle it was inscribed within. The One whispered a name he rarely said, and with a reverence reserved for rarer things yet: “N'eelas”

“I am sorry, my lord. I have failed you.”

“No, you have not failed me,” The One said. He snapped the words out, landing in sequence like leaden stones. “Your crystalline body was imperfect, but it will more than adequately handle this wound. Did you find out where the old fool is?”

“In the eastern continent, though after we fought I could no longer find a trace of him. I was searching for him again when you summoned me.”

“So you were. Very well. Leave him for now; we can deal with that particular thorn at our leisure. For now, let us return to Aran. You may stand back, I cannot hold myself up for long these days.”

Sahris bowed and stepped back to the center of the room while The One lowered himself back into the shadows of his throne.

“Your weapon was made by a master, did you know that?” The One asked. The weariness in his voice was obvious, and The One made no effort to disguise it. “An art long lost to this world. The metal was folded thousands of times before it could be finished, did you know that?”

“Yes, my lord. It is a magnificent weapon.”

“Did you know that the blade you wield was actually the fifth made? After the initial bonding process to make the alloy, the metal must be folded twice in rapid succession. They refer to it as a 'Master's Test.' Great stress is placed upon the metal, and it will either buckle and break, or it will endure. If it endures, it can be made stronger.”

“I had always heard of the Master's Test in regards to martial training, my lord.”

“Of course. The term came to symbolize the breaking point students were placed under. But for Aran, it is better to think of him as a weapon. If he can endure this strain, we can hammer him into what he must become. If he cannot, well...” The One paused again. “...if he cannot, then you will have a brother in arms.”

“My lord!”

“I spared you.” The flatness of The One's voice held Sahris down, kneeling against the floor with the weight of those words pinning him as surely as any restraint. “When you could not pass the second test. I spared you because you, of all the others, were unique. Now, he must be tested. He, too, is unique. If he cannot pass the test, I will still have use for him.”

“I... understand, my lord. I do not question your will, or your judgment.”

“Think of it,” The One gently cooed. “You and your best friend, reunited at last.”

The One's hollow laughter rung through the halls again. Sahris clenched his fist until the nails dug into his palms, until the blood began to seep through. He kept his eyes lowered and focused his rage on the one who would pay for his humiliation.

“N'eelas.” Sahris ground his teeth as he whispered the name.

 

Part 2 – Tsano

“Where did you learn to do that?” Doc asked. Aran washed the blood from his gloved hands in the rainwater basin. A few of The Pure were gathered around them, standing in the rain. Tyillion and her mercenaries were eying him. Incorrect. They were surrounding him, each lurking in the doorway of a tent or shelter. Their eyes were on him like he was one of the spawnlings.

“Learn to do what, Doc? The impromptu repair of the arteries? Even something as remedial as cellular reconstruction should be child's play to you--”

“I'm not talking about that!” Doc hissed.

“Then the individually engineered antibodies?”

“No!” Doc was shaking. Aran managed a smug grin.

“Then what might you be referring to, good doctor.” Aran tacked the last word on with a slow slur of sarcasm.

“The girl was dead,” Doc said. The Pure took a breath as a single group. Aran laughed, he couldn't help it. After he had merged with Dr. Tsano's memories certain things had become hilarious.

“Dead? You call that dead? Perhaps that is why this generation is bumbling through the mud like a bunch of primates. You have given up, tossed away all our accomplishments.” Aran snapped the gloves off and tossed him aside in the rain. “You lost a pulse, you lost readings on your equipment, and you give up! This coming from the same man who pushes Technomancers to believe they can supersede their own built-in, man made limitations. But when it comes to the natural marvel of engineering that is man, you simply let them pass into the cold night with no more than a passing concern.”

“What you did was impossible!”

Aran slapped Doc across the face with the back of his fist. Doc's skeleton was Triadium reinforced while his own body has become all too fleshy. The pain was something he should have expected, but he tried to recover and make it seem a symbolic wound.

“Impossible?! You gave up! There was still life in her.”

“She was dead!” Doc roared. Kreep was rocking between Aran and Doc, his loyalties warring openly. Ta-Kyn shrunk back when Doc's temper flared.

“She was dead to you, because you chose her to be.” Aran was filled with a righteous indignation that was unfamiliar to him, yet he could not resist the words that were welling up inside of him. “I knew she was still alive, and I was not going to dismiss her life so easily. Maybe it was too late, maybe all my work could have been in vain. But I did everything in my power, and now she's sleeping inside that tent.”

“I do not think it is that simple. You simply cannot change the way things are.”

“That is where you are wrong!” Aran roared. He threw his arms out to his side, fingers flared. Deep inside his mind he searched for another memory. He found his own, a singular and small swirl of light in the torrent that spun through the depths of his mind. But he was cocky and headstrong. Aran dissected his own memory, tearing it into threads and sewing them back. If you knew how to manipulate the here and now, if you had the power to fuel a moment, Time held no boundaries. Aran found what he was looking for, a single memory to thread a life around. He embraced it and merged with it.

The elegant arrogance of Dr. Tsano faded, though it did not completely abate. All his knowledge remained with Aran, but his egocentric personality unraveled. Then came the part he had predicted: His cyberware was coming back. It began as pinpricks of pain in his limbs that grew. Tiny plants of technology had taken root in his skin, spreading out and latching around bone, soaking up mineral and turning it into metal. An alchemy he did not understand, the gift from the CORPSEREND, began to transform cells into metal as his cyberware came back.

“Things can be changed.” Aran felt the hardware inside him began to initialize, the joyous noise of technology filling his mind, the completeness that came with being thoroughly wired and connected. He wasn't as tall or as wide as he had been before, because this body had not undergone the countless surgeries and body formatting necessary to support his prior massive frame. This body was still almost a third organic, smaller and less muscular. His hair was longer, down to his shoulders. The way he had come out of the vat that day years ago.

He looked at Tyillion.

“Things can even go back to the way they were, if you want them to be. Nothing is impossible.”

 

Part 3 – Vat Born. And?

It had taken the camp no time to distance themselves from Aran. Only Doc, Kreep, Ta-Kyn, Greasy, and Tyillion remained around him. After the last transformation, Aran was feeling a little unsteady. Dr. Tsano had an immense amount of confidence in his own knowledge and skill, increased by his ego. Aran, however, especially in his younger body, was finding that all of Tsano's drive had slipped through him, like water through a sieve.

“Wow, that feels bizarre.” Aran laughed. He flexed his arms, stretching his hands out in the rain. The majority of both of his arms was still organic, laced with only a minimal amount of cyberware. “I had forgotten what this felt like. It's so light. I feel like I could fly.”

The ground lifted up from Aran and he hung weightless for a second before crashing to the ground. He looked up to see Tyillion staring down at him, nursing her fist. The dull pain in his torso came an instant later. She had punched him; hard enough to lift him off of the ground.

“You're lighter. But who are you?” she asked. Aran pushed himself up on his arms.

“It's me, Tyillion.”

“The hell you are. What are you? What did you do with Aran?”

“It's me, really. Tyillion, ask me anything, I can answer any question.”

“You can answer a lot of questions, apparently, a lot of them you shouldn't be able to answer at all.”

“No, wait!”

“Wait? You're right. Maybe I was wrong. Answer me a question What happened to you under the ocean?”

“I told you, I told you! It gave me...” Aran froze. He couldn't remember if he had told Tyillion. He couldn't remember...what had they talked about those nights after the ocean. It was missing, gone. No, not gone. Aran could feel the information on the tip of his mind, sliding just beyond his reach. A horrible realization hit him. Every time I change, do I lose a bit of myself? Does something stay behind of the people I'm borrowing, and part of me just...disappears?

“I think you killed him,” Tyillion said, ice dripping from her voice.

“N-No...” Aran fumbled backwards in the mud, stumbling into Doc who did not budge, staring down at him.

“I thought the change in your cellular structure and technology was from the CORPSEREND,” Doc said.

“I...” Aran had told Doc? Of course. He would have had to; there had to be someone he trusted, but what had he told him? What happened?

“I think you killed him,” Tyillion said. She leveled a pistol at Aran. But he only saw it out of corner of his eye.

“No...” Aran whispered.

“I think you murdered him and took his place.”

“I have to tell him...” Aran shouted.

Tyillion was visible stunned. She moved closer, pointing the pistol closer to Aran. But it was not her, nor the pistol, he was staring at.

“What did you say?” she asked. Aran was trying to stand up in the mud, but his limbs were shaking uncontrollably and he kept floundering in the mud. His hair was also turning jet black.

“I won't die this time. You can't kill me! I have to tell him!” Aran was staring above her, his eyes wide with fear.

Tyillion turned to stare up at the shelter behind her.

Black fabric whipped in the wind, what she first thought to be part of the canvas. But it moved too fluidly, to rapidly. It was light and rippled in the storm. The fabric was attached to a figure kneeling on the roof of the shelter. Tyillion had fought him once, on the deck of the Rusted Whale. But the only weapon that could counter his war scythe was in her bunk, two hundred yards away.

And the only man who had beaten him was now cowering in the mud. There was no doubt in her mind now that it was Aran. Sahris's presence had answered that question.

“You can't kill me again!” Aran laughed. She heard footsteps moving through the mud.

“I don't know how you got into the Chorus, Lattis.” Sahris leveled his scythe towards the fleeing Aran. “But I am going to enjoy removing you from it permanently.”

The dark clad Sahris sprung from the roof of the shelter and was off, rushing past Tyillion without a glance, and pursuing Aran. Tyillion chased after them into the rain. Aran was heading for their bunk.

For, she hoped, her sword.

It would be their only chance.

  Post: 05.04.2004
Date: Unknown
Time: Unknown

Release

Tyillion lost Aran and Sahris after only a few minutes in the heavy rain. The maze-like layout of the tents coupled with the haze from the rain and evening fog limited her visibility to only a few yards at best. She couldn't even see their tracks in the mud after all the commotion of the camp had churned it into a mess. Her tent was the only place Aran could have gone. Her Triadium reinforced sword was the only weapon in the camp that could counter Sahris's war scythe. She hoped there was enough of Aran left in whatever form this was to be able to use it, or at least stall for time until she could catch up.

Before this form he had looked the same as the first day she saw him. He had just been Aran, the young man whose freedom she had bought, before he became a full Technomancer, before they fell apart. Before he left her.

Part of her wondered if she could get him back into that state and lock him there. Keep that person she had fallen in love with forever, unchanging, unwilling to throw away his humanity.

Maybe.

If he lived.

Tyillion half expected to find one of them in their tent. Instead she found her cot overturned and mud splattered everywhere. Sitting on the footlocker at the end of her bed was her sword, sheathed neatly atop her cleaning kit.

“They came through here, but if he didn't get the sword--”

Her question was cut short by the answer. A thundering clap of gunfire rang through the air, a loud cracking sound that made her wince. Tyillion moved her cot aside and knelt beside her weapon locker, which was open. Her revolvers were gone, as well as both ammo belts. The revolvers were the most primitive of her weapons, useful only because they required no cells or energy to work and were unaffected by dampening fields or Weaponlock systems used in buildings to suppress more modern firearms. The cartridges were a far heavier caliber than those used two hundred years ago. But they would be of almost no use in pitched combat against an enemy like Sahris.

A louder shot rang out, followed by the splintering sound of timber. Tyillion ducked out of the tent in time to see a tree fall through the haze, crashing towards the ground. Sahris leapt from the branches before it hit the ground, sliding backwards through the mud. Aran emerged, running along the trunk of the tree. He had also grabbed her assault cannon, which explained how he managed to fell the tree. The assault cannon was slung over his back, both pistols stretched out towards Sahris.

“I won't die this time!” Aran roared. Flashes of fire erupted from the barrels of the revolvers. Sahris did something that surprised Tyillion. He ran. Aran began chasing him back through camp, the pistols repeating after him. How is he reloading them that fast? Even the reloaders take a few seconds to snap in.

Tyillion heard the communication towers screeching as they fell. Aran was shooting the support wires out from under them, from a distance of over two hundred yards. In the rain.

She thought back to the warehouse on the island where she had taught him to shoot, remembered how he had hit five targets with four shots without the use of his targeting software. Was this Lattis lurking inside him, even back then? What inside him made him so unique? It had frightened her then, but it terrified her now.

Was this person, this Lattis, lurking inside him as far back as that? Maybe there was no way she could hold on Aran after all. Her instincts were telling her that it was only going to get worse; that all that was happening now was just a prelude for something far more sinister. She caught up with them, squaring off in the middle of the camp, almost running in between them.

“Catch!” Sahris flicked his free hand outward, it seemed to sprout dark shards. Throwing knives. Aran braced himself in the mud and crossed his arms between his chest and his head. The knives hit, with enough force to push him back through the mud, but each bounced off of his arms with a metallic ping. Through the shreds of cloth she saw glints of metal. Overlapping dermal plating, a modification some gunfighters used both for stability and armor, covered Aran's forearms.

Aran didn't retort back, he just began returning fire. The bullets tore through Sahris's loose clothing, but none of them seemed to make contact. Or if they did, Sahris made no notice of the fact.

“Those guns can't hurt me, Lattis, you know that. Embrace the inevitable!” Sahris leapt forward through the gunfire towards Aran.

If they can't hurt him, why was he running? If he's not scared, why is he fighting like he's cornered?

Aran changed his stance, no longer bracing for shooting but moving forward with the guns outstretched, Sahris was too close for him to miss, the shots had to be landing.

“I told you, those weapons don't affect me!” Sahris brought his war scythe down hard. Aran dropped the pistols, raising his left arm to block it. The scythe made a grating sound as the blade locked in between the plates of armor along Aran's arm. Both Aran and Sahris strained: Aran struggling to hold the blade up and remain standing, Sahris to drive the scythe through Aran's armor.

“I know you can't be hurt by surface wounds. I learned that when I died.” Aran grunted. He threw the other pistol down into the mud, but as he did Tyillion heard the scratching of metal on metal. A single, thin spike sprung from Aran's wrist, a blade popping smoothly from between the armor plates. Sahris's eyes went wide. “If you want to live, you have to learn to adapt, right? Didn't you say that right before you killed me?”

Aran brought his right arm up, the blade piercing into Sahris's chest and then slowly moving upwards. Aran's strength managed to open the wound almost a foot, lifting Sahris to his toes in the mud. The wound didn't bleed, it simply hung open, a dark gaping hole against the pale white flesh. Sahris wheezed, staring at Aran bewildered.

“And never let your enemy know your weakness, Sahris.” The blade popped back into Aran's wrist, Sahris body dropped a few inches as the blade left, planting him back down into the mud, his hands still trying to drive the scythe through Aran's arm. “But you told me yours, didn't you?”

The assault cannon was unslung from his back in a fluid motion, jammed into the gaping wound in Sahris' chest.

“Catch,” Aran said.

There was a muffled explosion.

The force of the blast threw Aran and Sahris apart, sending Aran into the mud and propelling Sahris back through the air, screeching in rage. Sahris landed so hard he bounced, rolling down the hill into the trenches Aran had dug. Tyillion ran to Aran, who was pushing himself up off of the ground.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine,” Aran snapped. He fumbled for the assault cannon and ran for the trenches, stopping at the edge and looking down into the water.

“Cover him, I'm going to get my sword.”

“No need,” Aran said. His voice was slow, drawn out and dreamy. “He's not coming back now. He needs to run away. Run, run, run, with your tail between your legs.”

Aran was laughing softly. He threw the assault rifle into the ditch and turned back to the camp.

“I've waited so long. So long. I just wanted to be forgiven, to finish my task.” Aran stared into the ditch. “He looks just like his father, you know.”

“Sahris? You know Sahris?”

Aran started laughing louder.

“It's not time, I'll go back to sleep.”

Aran stood up suddenly, turning to Tyillion with an expression of great sadness. His eyes were dull, tired, like a man who hadn't slept in days.

“Tell Aran I'm sorry.” The words sounded funny coming from his mouth. “I'll bring him back from the Chorus, please take care of him.”

“What--” Tyillion began the question before Aran smiled at her sadly.

“He really loves you, you know? But it's hard for him. You'll see in time, just don't give up on him. He hasn't given up on you.”

Aran fell to the ground, this time with a dull splat into the mud, splayed out like a marionette whose strings have been cut. Then, in the rain, he began to change again. The young Technomancer she had found in the vault slowly came back to her, the body shifting back to the state it had been before Lattis had appeared. She reached down to check if he was okay and heard him snoring. Aran was deep in his dreams, maybe the only true release he knew.

  Post: 07.08.2004
Date: Unknown
Time: Unknown

Eternal Truths, Eternal Consequences

Aran's dreams had never been pleasant. In the vat, before he even knew he was alive, he dreamed constantly of war. There were countless battles, filled with faces that he could never quite remember. When he was with Tyillion in the city, he dreamed of the city like it was before the fall. The city was not an island in his dreams, land stretched all the way to the continent. From the highest buildings, you could watch those shining silver lines run back and forth carrying people and material. He also dreamed of The Fall, though he never told Tyillion.

He also had other dreams.

Tyillion would sometimes declare something a cause for celebration. The completion of an assignment, the end of a campaign, or simply the fact that they were alive or bored. Celebration was more easily translated as splurging on food, supplies, and liquor. The first time he got drunk, Aran dreamt he was five years old, running through the woods looking for a mother he could vividly remember. He never made it through the woods; he woke up in a cold sweat. After that dream, he could recall all the details. It felt like his life.

Every time he was drunk thereafter, other people's dreams came. Warriors, Technomancers, average citizens. He lived moments, shattered fragments of their days. Some good, some terrible.

When cyberspace fell, he crawled into a bottle so that he could find a good dream. A good enough dream that, hopefully, he wouldn't have to wake up from it.

But the blue-haired girl had changed that.

She changed it all.

Which is probably why now he was dreaming of her.

Before him stretched the ocean, even more beautiful than his dreams before the fall. The water around the city had been a deep navy blue, where the waves crested white and created the stark contrast the marked the movement of the waves. In this place, the water was a pale blue green, and the crest of the waves were light no matter how high they rose. There was movement on the water, but it was far more subdued. The blue-haired girl was standing in the water.

“syl?” Aran asked. He moved towards her, but she never responded.

“syl?” he cried out again, but she remained with her back to him, staring towards the horizon.

“She's not here. She's just a memory,” came a voice.

Aran spun around, drawing pistols he didn't know he had, but the man in front of him disarmed him by smiling. Aran thought he was looking at himself except for the not-so-subtle differences. The man in front of him was thinner, his hair longer and darker. The silver gray hair was peppered with jet black, and his eyes were brilliant blue.

“You really are the final product, aren't you?” the man asked. “You're in my little sanctum for only a few minutes and you've already picked up my skills, haven't you?”

“Who are you?”

“I am you. Or, I was the you that came before you. My name is Lattis.” The man said the name with pride. “They didn't name me. I earned my name honest.”

“What do you mean?” Aran asked. He put the pistols away slowly. “What are you talking about?”

“You know. You're not stupid. I know you know, because I can see through your eyes. I'm just one of the ghosts that haunt you, brother.”

“You're not my brother,” Aran said. Lattis laughed, but it was a gentle laughter. He laughed the way Tyillion used to laugh at him the first few years, when he didn't know about the world.

“I am truer to being your brother than Chian. Or Delcraux. They were made at the same time you were...but we. We are the same flesh, the same bone. Probably some of the same cyberware, too.”

“I was vat grown,” Aran snapped.

“Vat 32, Takiyoma West Biomedical Facility. I was grown in that vat, and so were the ones who came before me.”

“Wha—the dreams?”

“I had them too. But you've had more than any of us so far. I'm proud of you, brother, you have had a fortitude none of us ever had. I killed the voices in the first year, you learned to deal with them.”

“You know,” Aran whispered. “You know! You know what's going on! Tell me what's going on! Why am I changing? What is with the voices in my head?!”

“I can't answer all of your questions. Even the answers I have will be delayed, you can't stay here long. Your body is empty, if you don't take control back soon...one of them will.” Lattis sat down in the sand, leaning against a tree and staring out at the ocean.

“But we have a few minutes,” he said. “Sit down, pull up some sand. I'll answer what I can. But make sure you think quickly, we only have a few minutes.”

“What's wrong with me?” Aran asked.

“Nothing's wrong with you. You are, oddly enough, very right. We, all of us Arans have been an ongoing experiment to create a new kind of body. One that can adapt as quickly as technology can, one that can grow and evolve on its on. Congratulations, you're a success.”

“Why am I changing? What's going on? How can I control it!”

“Slow down. We don't have much time, but it has to be used well. That's the answer to the last question. If you want to have any hope of controlling it, relax. Discipline is the key, and you can get there. As for why you are changing? I don't know. If it was part of the plan, I should have been able to change like that too. It's one of the answers I don't have.”

“Who is doing this to me?”

“The One.” Lattis spat in the sand. “The One. Sitting up there in space, watching everything. You're going to have to confront him sooner or later, brother. But he won't come after you like he did me--you're too close to perfect.”

“How can you be so calm?”

“Because I have faith in you, brother.”

“My name is Aran,” Aran said. Lattis looked up at him, his blue eyes piercing and cold.

“No. It's not.”

“What?”

“You're name isn't Aran. We have all gone by that name. Only one of us ever earned a name of their own, and that was me. You'll have your own name one day, and on that day I will call you by your name.” Lattis began tracing in the sand with his finger. “It's time to go, Aran. You need to wake up now, or you won't be able to regain control.”

“But I have more questions! I need to know so much more!”

“I'll talk to you again, but not for a while. I need to regain my strength. Don't worry, I'm not finished.” Lattis gestured to his drawing in the sand. It was the symbol on the medallion Aran had found in the sunken city off the coast. “Find him, and he can help you.”

“But...”

“Go...NOW!” Lattis snapped his finger and Aran blinked. The ocean disappeared and was replaced by the roof of a tent. It was drizzling lightly outside, and he could hear Tyillion's snoring. He closed his eyes, hoping to find himself back at the beach. Instead, he only saw darkness and only heard the sound of rain. Aran thought long and hard about what he had to do. The time had come.

* * *

When Tyillion woke up, Aran was gone. One of her duffle bags was missing, as were here revolvers and the ammo belts. Moving through the camp, she found out her tent hadn't been the only one ransacked; there was food missing, and a lot of alcohol was unaccounted for as well. Taped to the remains of the communication tower in the middle of camp was a waxed envelope addressed to Tyillion. Inside was a short, simple note that had been hastily scrawled.

Dear Tyillion,

     I love you. Goodbye.

Aran.

p.s. If you leave The Pure, they will die. Wait here. Sorry about the stuff I knicked, consider it payment for getting everyone across the ocean.

And with that Aran was out of her life again, for the second time leaving only a short letter behind. The only difference was that this one was longer by three words and a postscript.

 

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