060: Heavy Are The Days
061: The Cliff Dwellers
062: Between The Mirrors: Reflection
Heavy Are The Days
He had now walked away from everything in his life for the fourth time. The first had been when he walked out of the Takiyoma facility; Aran had left behind his childhood--a period of time slightly longer than a week. This was how much time it took to grow a fully-functional adult from base materials, feed it, train it, and perform the surgery necessary to implant basic hardware.
It wasn't hard to walk away.
The second time had been when he decided to become a Technomancer. A complex and dangerous surgery that replaced over three quarters of his body with artificial parts. Further, it required him to abandon certain modes of thought in order to maintain the level of concentration necessary to keep his new body in synch with what was left of his physical frame.
The decision had been difficult, but he had no regrets making it.
The third time was when he had left Tyillion. In the year since she had taken him from the Vats, they had grown closer. There was an eventual conclusion to their relationship that neither one of them had wanted. They had both known that one of them would have to make the break. Aran took the responsibility for ending it and left. In the years that followed, the questions left by that decision wouldn't leave him. Not when he tried to lose himself in work, or at the bottom of a bottle.
It was not a difficult decision to make; but it was hell to live with.
Two weeks ago, this morning, he had walked away from everything for the fourth time. It hadn't been a single event, this time. There was no single thing he could point to that led to his decision. More difficult, this was not what he wanted. This time, it was what needed to be done. And the difference between doing what you want and doing what you need to makes the difference between the choices you have make. And the consequences you had to live with. Being honest with himself, because when you're forced to debate something in solitude you face your toughest critic, there was nothing in the decision he could take solace in. The Pure needed a better defense than even Tyillion could provide; and he had let them down by leaving. Tyillion needed him to be there as much as he needed her. As much as he needed her just to be nearby; and he had let both of them down. There were more words he wanted to say, but there hadn't been time. Retrospect had made him despise the words he had the courage to leave behind; and he had let himself down.
There would be consequences to all of his actions. But far less severe than if he had remained.
There was something inside of him. Perhaps, like Lattis had said, it had been there since his "birth." All he knew was that it was growing stronger, a tiny spark of thought that was growing into it's own. A voice, a whisper, inside of him that was yet unaware of its host.
And a decision would need to be made about that.
Aran climbed over the ridge, and his scattered thoughts were silenced. Below the rise of jutting earth there was a town. It had remained in better shape than the others he had passed through over the last few weeks. Buildings stood whole, their roofs undamaged and rooms dry. The two ridges running around the little two mile run had shielded them from wind and rain. He made his way slowly down the embankment and followed a stretch of unbroken asphalt down what, a rusted street sign declared, was once Vine Street.
He was able to scavenge some canned goods and water purifiers from the houses. Others yielded various trinkets or clothes that would prove useful, but the little brick house against the curve of the ridge had captured his attention more than others. There was a sign out front, on a piece of rough plywood that had been secured to a plank fence. It read:
The Harrison Family lived here, when things were better. Josh loved Clara, and they raised three kids. Susan, who became a doctor and married Gene. They had two kids. Mark and Thomas. Jim, who married Rachel, and Eddy who married Jessie. Eddy and Jessie had a girl they named Cloe.
Unlike the other houses, Aran had trouble walking through it. It felt like he was trespassing. But supplies were supplies, and the owners had all been given notice they had left who knew how long ago. Still, he took little from the house, at least physically. In one of the closets he found a duffel bag filled with photograph albums. Two hours passed as he flipped through them, sharing solemnly in the memories of a family that was most likely long passed. There were pictures of them, a mother and father and three children, a mixture of dark and sandy blond hair, blue and brown eyes, and all smiles. In the mountains, a wedding, birthdays. As the pages turned, and the pile of albums thinned, he watched them grow up. Graduate school. Vacations at the beach.
That endless blue water below.
That endless rolling sky above.
Aran remembered them all. Dedicating a portion of his memory to capturing those images forever in his mind. He couldn't think of a reason why he did it. Which was a lie. He couldn't think of a good reason, one he could justify. But he felt like there had to be someone to remember.
Someone had to carry on. Or really, what was it all for?
He stopped on one of the pages. The little boy had gotten married to the girl who had knocked him off his bicycle two albums earlier. There was a scratch of handwriting below the print.
No one can promise you it's going to be easy; or that it will be perfect. There are going to be times when getting by will be the best you can do. But you can do it. Because there will be good times, too. And joy. The days can be heavy sometimes. But you can both carry them, and together get through. Take care of her, Jim, and she'll take care of you. Take care of each other, and everything else will take care of itself.
Aran spent the night in front of a fire. One of the houses had a fireplace that hadn't suffered any damage, and he broke some already damaged furniture for fuel. He thought long and hard that night about what he had to do. When the morning came, without a moment of sleep, he gathered up his supplies. Using a butcher knife, he carved an addendum to the message on a wood in front of the little brick house.
Aran was here too, but he left. Because we all have to take care of each other.
Then, shouldering the weight of his days, he kept heading north.
The Cliff Dwellers
Three days travel took Aran only a few miles farther north, to a high wall of rock that jutted out from the middle of a deserted city. Almost a mile high, the ridge ran for miles in either direction. From the way it split the city he guessed the rift had happened during the Cataclysm. Another lasting testament to the legacy of Wormwood. Far above, silhouetted against the sun were the remains of buildings that had neighbored the ones below. Some were crumbled ruins, themselves split when the earth erupted. The wall was slick with water running from the ridge above; a mixture of thick, cold sludge that had given rise to moss growing in the shade of the cliffs. Climbing it was possible. The investment of time and energy to get himself and his belongings safely up the cliff without any kind of accident weren't worth the extra days it would take to go around it.
He had plenty of time anyway.
During the days he walked in the shadow of the ridge, between the city above and below. There was a permanent pool of water, only a few inches deep, cascading from the ridge above. Storm drains in the streets below gathered the water and, he guessed, returned it to a facility that cleaned it and pumped it back to the upper city. How the pipe structure had survived the rupture was a mystery. But then, how humanity had survived the Cataclysm was another mystery. That something so thoroughly destructive as Wormwood--its impact velocity only narrowly reduced by an incredible worldwide effort--could completely change the world so rapidly and yet leave mankind mostly untouched was still a matter of debate. The how and why of such bad luck wasn't openly discussed. There was not much room in this new world for philosophy at all, much less the philosophy of monsters.
Nights, like this evening, he would spend in buildings. Unlike the town days behind him where Josh loved Clara the occupants of these homes and business had for the most part, not moved on. The Cataclysm had hit them swiftly; perhaps a blessing. Most of them showed signs of immediate death. It took time to find empty buildings or houses, but it was worth the loss of traveling daylight. He couldn't bring himself to sleep in the houses of the dead.
If he was lucky, there was a fireplace or a heater. Most of the buildings still had power, and only a few nights did he have to eat cold canned food. Running, filtered water meant his purifiers would last longer. He didn't dare take anything from the houses however, other than water from the taps and power.
Not when he didn't know who was watching him.
They had been following him since he had found the city. Four, possibly more, people hanging a half mile ahead and behind him. Surrounding him, but keeping their distance. Two before, two after, and he was willing to bet there was at least one or two following south, in the forest. So far they had left him alone. He hadn't set up any traps, though he did find places to sleep that were easy to get out of in case of an attack. His first impression though, was that he was being sized up. In truth, unless they were armed with military grade hardware, the advantage was still in his court. That night he slept out in the open, leaving two open cans of preserved meat by the fire.
In the morning, they were gone. He found a pile of spongy steaks in their place, sealed in a battered plastic bin. They smelled like steak, they even (after he braved a sample) tasted like steak. But they looked like a scouring pad. The texture was unmistakable. Mushrooms. It made sense, with the high wall and the dampness. Somewhere nearby there would be an inset, possible a handmade cave. Mushrooms could be grown quickly with little effort. Almost no interference from wildlife, and little to go wrong with harvesting. Not a staple crop, but a definite boon. He ate a few of them for breakfast, packed the bin careful into his duffel bag, and continued east along the wall.
Aran saw the first of them around noon. A barefoot young man who was staring down at him from the gutted window of an office building. Aran waved at him. The young man frowned, nodded, and kept watching him. There were more signs. They were closing in on him, tightening the circle. Thankfully, they didn't seem aggressive. Or to be too much of a threat.
That evening he saw campfires around him. There were the close ones around him, the four or five he had seen. But there were many, many others, farther out. Pinpoints of flame too weak and too high to be a campfire. It was a show of numbers. The ridge above was lined with flame, the husks of buildings aglow with flickering firelight behind shattered windows.
Either the power grid was down above or. No, that's not it. If there was water coming from above, then there had to be some form of power still operating. Regardless there was power below, and in the time since the Cataclysm surely someone would have found a way to bring it up the cliff. In the very worst case scenario, there would be ladders or some sort of passage above and below.
The next night he had a visitor.
The man was older, perhaps in his late fifties. His salt and pepper hair was combed neatly and tied back in a ponytail. He wore a pair of worn jeans and heavy boots, with a bulky jacket over his shirt. Everything about him, from his posture and walk to the heavy lines in his face gave the impression of a man who had spent the better part of his life in hard labor.
“Evenin'," he said.
“Mind if I ask where you're heading?”
“North.” Aran nodded towards the wall.
“Why not just go over the wall?”
“Didn't want to risk it. I'm not in too big of a hurry.”
“Yeah,” the man scratched the stubble on his chin, “we noticed.”
“I'm Aran.” Aran extended a hand out. They shook, and the man stared at Aran's hand for a moment with his lips pursed.
“Harlin.” The man nodded. “Forgive me for asking a blunt question, but it's been weighing heavily on our mind. Son, just how much of you is metal?”
“Over three-quarters of my body.” Aran passed a metal cup to Harlin and put a pot of coffee on over the little camp fire. He didn't have much coffee left, but it seemed a good time.
“Technomancer, right?” The word came out of his mouth with a bit of a sting to it. Aran was forming a picture in his mind of the situation. He had seen similar groups on the island, though they were tiny factions on the outlying parts of the island. Not everyone was keen to jump to technology after Wormwood. More so after the fall of Cyberspace made it apparent how reliant all of mankind had become upon it. If these were a group of people--they called themselves Naturalists back on the island--with similar ideals then a Technomancer wouldn't be a welcome guest.
“What are you geared for? Combat? Data diving? Wetware specialist? From that arm, I'd say you're doing something that pays well. Haven't seen craftsmanship like that in since I was a boy.”
“Thanks.” He was relieved. If they knew enough about Technomancers to spot decent hardware, they would likely not be too hostile towards him. Though Aran wondered how long it would be before the craftsmanship in his hand would start creeping back up towards his shoulder. The change had come in small spurts, normally when he slept, since he had left the Pure. “I was mainly a data thief. Corp work. And it did pay well.”
“Been a while since I've seen one of you folk” Harlin pointed southeast. “Last group of Technomancers we had around here had a camp about a half days walk that a way. But they quit showing up decades ago.” The coffee pot bubbled, the lid snapping back and forth with escaping steam. Aran picked it up and poured a cup for each of them before setting it back over the flame. “Not sure what happened to them. One of them was getting a bit stir crazy since the Net went down. I'm guessing it wasn't pretty. So where are you from?”
“From the Island.”
“Island?” Harlin sat down in front of the fire and stared at him quizzically. “Ah. Florida.”
“What was left of it, yeah.”
“How're things down there?”
“It's gone.” Aran said. There was a silence between. Harlin nodded gravely.
“I'm not sure how it happened, but I don't doubt it did. We've seen as strange and worse ourselves. In fact, that's what we wanted to talk to you about.”
“Have a problem?” Aran asked, surprised. “What could you possibly need a Technomancer for?”
“Yeah, we have a problem.” Harlin pointed northeast. “About two days from here the ridge ends, slopes on down towards what's left of I83. Hit that and it'll take you north for about two hundred miles easy, give or take the spots that have been mined out by the Scrags. I'm guessing that's where you're headed, if you're going north.”
“We want to know if you'll help us with something before you go.” Harlin said. He sipped his coffee for a moment. “And we can pay you. Money's no good any more, but we have food. Even better, Crazy Joe's a wandering fool. He's been everywhere in a five hundred mile circle around the cliffs. He probably knows a few things that would be of interest to you.”
“Sounds good bu--”
“Like the location of a Takiyoma Biomedical Facility that's still fully operational.” Harlin mentioned it casually. There was the carrot, dangled before him. Whatever he was, the man wasn't a fool. “And before you play it off, I know that's at least one of the things you're looking for. Your clothes mark you son, you're not from anywhere near here or you'd be wearing something heavier. Those threads might have worked well in the city, but they're a liability out here. Razor Oaks, Ironvine, and a lot worse will tear that coat to pieces if you go any farther north. If you're that far away from a doctor, and days away from any kind of major city, chances are good you're going to need some work. And while you can take my word that no one else has noticed it, I have spent time around your kind, and I've seen how you look at that hand of yours before you go to sleep.”
“So what do you need?”
“We need, by great coincidence, a data thief.” Harlin smiled. For having an edge, he was congenial. Aran might have lucked out and found a group of genuinely peaceful people who carved a home out of what was left of the city. He had too many scars to put too much faith into such theories. “Because without one we're not going to survive much longer.”
“Tell me more.”
Harlin crossed his legs and finished the coffee. Aran poured him another cup.
“Reason we're here is because some of the grid didn't fall. Power isn't a problem here. We've got the city water purifier, limited atmospheric controls, and a stocked medical facility. If we don't do anything stupid, our little group can survive another two or three hundred years here. I'm hoping we won't have to, but civilization seems to be dragging its feet getting to us.”
“I'm assuming someone did something stupid?” Aran asked. “Or you wouldn't need me.”
“Kid named Nain, fifth generation farmer, grew up with some pretty heavy indoctrination about the evils of technology. That same evils that allowed him to grow crops without breaking his back, mind you. Not wrong for people to have their own mind of something, hell, it makes for better people. But when they endanger others...”
“What did he do?”
“Smashed the climate control system. Bad enough except whatever he did, it fed back into the grid. It's been going down slowly ever since.”
Aran had dealt with similar cascade failures a few times before. It was an intrinsic danger to being a data-thief. If you damaged a system trying to copy information the corrupted data could be the domino that tipped, causing a chain reaction that made a system wide failure. And if you were trying to be subtle, it stuck out like a sore thumb. He had actually caused a fairly severe cascade failure in the Utopian closed grid once. But that was another story, regardless there would be the standard failsafe devices that every large system employed.
“There's a backup.”
“Yeah. That's where you come in. It's underground, with most of the grid. But a human won't be able to make it. Probably not a cakewalk for a Technomancer either.”
“So grab the parts, get the backup and bring them back?”
“For the most part, yeah. But there's something else down there that most of them don't know about. And this is a perfect time, and a good excuse, to finally see if we can bring it up.”
“Back before the Cataclysm a lot of our family, if you go back a couple of generations, were working in the Geoscience industries. Part of the reason why we survived; makes for good farmers.”
“Exactly.” Harlin said. “And I know for a fact that there are at least three crates of nanotransformers down below the surface.”
Aran thought immediately about The Pure.
“I don't care what else you offer.” Aran said. “I'll do it if I can get one or two canisters for myself.”
Harlin stared at him for a moment and sipped his coffee. “And just what would you do with them?”
“Friends.” Aran answered. “I left them about two weeks ago, to the south. Not far from the ocean. Most of them have been sealed up since before the Cataclysm. Not a farmer amongst them, but plenty of tech workers. Nanotransformers would make things a lot easier on them.”
“New arrivals? From the Island?”
“So we can call this a mutual benefit?”
“Agreed.” Aran poured himself another cup of coffee.
“Being honest with you, that makes me feel a good deal better about the whole thing. If you've got a reason to want to do it, well, that sets my mind at ease. To be fair, Aran, I think you should know about why this is difficult for us to do; more so to ask for help.” Harlin said. Aran saw concern in the old man's eyes. “Because it's especially dangerous to a Technomancer.”
Aran listened as Harlin told him the other secret about the town below.
Between The Mirrors: Reflection
Harlin lead him back along the wall, almost a half mile, to a spot he had looked over without a second thought. Carefully hidden behind a wall of rubble was a tiny hole carved into the wall. Further in, a ladder climbed up through a narrow shaft lined with damp timber. Following, Aran and Harlin made it topside. There wasn't a warm welcome.
“A lot of us don't hold well with the concept of outsiders,” the old man explained. “I don't think that will get better with time. But if you can pull this off, it would go a long way to preventing them from sinking farther into xenophobia.”
Aran had an idea that Harlin wasn't a typical member of this little city, no matter how rough his appearance. If he labored day in and day out, it was because he chose to. There was something old about him. Beyond old. Something touching on ancient, a sense that there was something to him that he should notice; whatever it was, Aran couldn't put his finger on it.
The upper city had fared far better during the Fall. Years of hard work had made it look, perhaps, better than it had before. The streets were clean and unbroken, though patches could be seen--evidence that great effort had been placed into restoring the pavement. A few streetlights flickered, indisputable proof of the rapidly failing grid. What had impressed him most, however, was not the functioning power grid or the immaculately kept city; it was the farms. The tops of buildings were overflowing with greenery, it cascaded over rooftops and down walls. Ivy, climbing from the irrigated waterways below (made from pavement and concrete he guessed had been gathered in the lower city), met the soft greenery trailing down. People bustled about, though he and Harlin had an ever present bubble of space around them. If anyone had to move through, they did so quietly with their head down.
Perhaps it isn't me at all. The thought touched the forefront of his mind briefly, and faded. He continued to walk and listen to Harlin explain about the farms. Most all of them were the result of generations of families working together. They had no concern for food. Practical botany and a history of biomedicine gave them a wide range of simple medicines. Power kept them safe and comfortable.
“But I'm just dragging my feet.” Harlin sighed. He punched Aran on the shoulder. “Let me show you where you'll be going.”
Three blocks past the little paradise, they entered the crumbling remains of the business district. It reminded Aran of the island. Large walls of stone and glass rose up into the sky. Some of the windows were lit, the same flickering dim light of the street lamps. Monitors lining storefronts bleated static into the empty streets.
“When Wormwood hit, we got everyone back into the garden district. Seemed the safest place to be, with the wall and the woods. Planted some Razoroak and kept a watch out, we could be safe.”
As they moved farther in, the city fell farther into ruin. It was a fragment, Harlin told him, a piece of Wormwood that broke off in the atmosphere and hit the city. There were nearing the point of impact.
“So there is a fragment of Wormwood down there,” Aran said. The implications of this hit him fully only now, as he climbed up the ridge of broken, asphalt ruptured earth that led to the crater's edge. Harlin had told him about it last night, around the campfire. Then, he had marveled at it. A wonder, that a fragment would break off that could survive burning through the atmosphere. Now, as they drew nearer, the only emotion he could draw upon was uncertain fear. Wormwood had twisted organic life beyond the limits of man's concept of science. It fused into the earth an element of the unknown.
Great and terrible. The words repeated themselves in his mind. The buildings near them seemed to have melted, like wax. Glass didn't blister or shatter; nor did it scorch. All of the matter, be it metal, stone, or glass, had simply slid and pooled. He was standing in the puddled remains of a revolving door, the metal and glass swirled together smoothly.
This was Wormwood, great and terrible.
This was the fall of man.
“And that's where you're going.” Harlin pointed.
The impact point was a puncture in the earth. It looked like a bullet hole, a single shaft that bent the world around it gently. An inverted hill leading to a dark peak. All around it, the world had twisted, swirling and twisting. The dark, reflective glass of an office complex, stretched around and warped.
There were mirrors everywhere. He saw himself in the reflections, a thousand different Aran's, none the same. Flickering lights cast shadows that would change. A reflection would disappear as the room behind it lit up for an instant. When the darkness reappeared, his image had changed, illuminated by a different window nearby. The eyes. All of the eyes staring back at him.
“Haven't heard that one in a while,” Harlin growled. “I'd prefer not to hear it again.”
Aran forced his lips to stop. He didn't know what the words he spoke were. Couldn't remember speaking them. The spark is stirring. Run, Aran. As far as you can before it awakes.
“Good luck.” Harlin said. “I'm going to camp back about a block or two. There's a hotel that's still got a solid line to the grid. I'll wait three days for you. If you're not back by then...” Harlin shrugged. “...I can just promise it will be a nice service.”
“Thanks,” Aran muttered. He stepped slowly down into the crater, feet resting on impossibly smooth asphalt that sloped gently into the open wound of the earth. Overhead, endless Arans stared down at him, with all their eyes upon him now.
A few yards into the tunnel, Aran had to switch over to low-light vision. There was enough faint light coming from the walls that his optics could easily amplify. He ran his fingers over the wall and felt a faint slick residue, the path of his touch leaving dark streaks against the rock. The substance was faintly luminescent, but exactly what it was eluded him. Certain lichen and fungi were able to provide faint light, but not enough to see by. And this was ultraviolet. He didn't know of a single plant that could emit UV light, on the island or otherwise. Aran rubbed his hands together. His fingers, still slick, did not glow. Behold Wormwood, great and terrible.
The temperature plummeted as he kept moving down the tunnel. It was a steady decrease, but was getting to a range that would be uncomfortable for a normal human. He could see better, too. Whatever the substance on the wall was, it seemed to thrive in the cold.
There is nothing natural here. The thought came suddenly, a stroke of cognitive lightning. Fear was trying to get a hold on him, but it was distant, deep within him. And perhaps I'm not the one that's afraid.
Aran's all too human right arm felt fine. It still registered as artificial to his internal systems. He was still getting pressure feedback from non-existent microhydraulics. Missing servos were, to his system, still spinning. But his right arm was reporting an internal temperature of 87 degrees Fahrenheit, thirty degrees warmer than the rest of his body.
“I wonder...” Aran cleared his mind and thought, concentrated. Focused on the feeling in his right arm, and let it spread. His synthetic skin tingled, as ripples of warmth shot across his body. The cold of the tunnel fell away gradually and Aran continued walking, disturbed that his idea had worked.
A few yards down the tunnel, he saw a patch of the wall that was brighter. Aran adjusted the sensitivity of his optical filters. Letters, scrawled clumsily on the wall, spelled a sentence.
EvERy MAChiNe Has A PurpOSE
Aran pondered it for a moment, and marveled as the letters changed. The flowed, slowly, rearranging themselves into another message.
EveRy CrEAturE Has A PlaCe In ThiS WorLD
The words faded, leaving the flat rock wall. Aran stared at it for a while before moving on. Every machine has a purpose. Every creature has a place in this world. The message was simple, and arguably childish. Machines didn't have to have a purpose. The island was proof of that. Thousands of machines that did, in essence, nothing Built and designed simply because they could be. True, the best machines had both form and function. The very best were a perfect combination of the two. A work of art.
Like his body. Technomancy was the highest form of art. The marriage of man and machine.
The tunnel emptied into a vast underground cavern. The light from the walls was to dim to illuminate the entire space. He moved forward with cautious steps.
YoU Can StoP RighT TherE
The words were massive, shining off the far side of the cavern wall.
“Hello?” Aran's voice echoed in the cold.
HellO, LittlE AbominatioN.
“Your getting better with the letters, let's hope the manners get better too. I have a name, it's Aran”
A NamE DoeS NoT CausE YoU To Cease BeinG An AbominatioN.
Aran started to retort, but thought better of it.
“And what makes me an Abomination?”
Every Machine has a Purpose.
Every Creature has a place in this World.
The sentences erupted on to the wall, fast, heavy. Drawn by a heavy, unseen hand.
“Yeah. I got that.”
And underneath the two sentences, scrawled hastily.
You are both.
“Man and machine? Yeah. Technomancer. Best of both wo--”
And yet you have neither place, nor purpose.
The chill that stole across Aran wasn't from the temperature. The fear that was so mute inside of him found a foothold. There was nothing natural here.
“Wait a minute...”
Let me show you mine.
The words disappeared, and the walls fell dark. Aran was alone in the cave, almost a half mile below the surface of the earth. He fumbled through his pack, rummaging for the flashlight stored near the top. His fingers, suddenly numb, couldn't seem to find anything. Echoes filled the cave as little items from his backpack spilled out across the floor. Finally, he found the light and turned it on, swinging it across the wall.
There was nothing but blank rock. No residue, no letters, nothing but the rock and soil.
He turned back to the tunnel, only to be unable to find it. Every wall was solid, none showing a trace of the passage back to the surface.
Aran waited quietly in the darkness, in the strange place below the city. Somewhere, further down perhaps, there was a fragment of Wormwood. Something would have claimed it, he should have known. Something that would guard it.
Something that would come for him.
He prepared himself for attack from any direction. Which is why he was caught off guard when the earth swallowed him.
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