Chapter I: Instinct
"Yes." It's that simple. Always yes, always moving forward. Have to move forward. Unlike most people, I have no way to go backwards. Can't live in a past I don't have.
"But it's guarded. How can you get in, you're only a kid?" He protested, pulling the little cloth bag he held closer to his chest. Aran never flinched as a knife slammed into the table. The wooden top creaked under the force and the man's glass was shattered. Aran brushed glass shards off of his collar.
"A kid with friends." He added. The laughter over his shoulder was as much for him as for the man. It was the first time Tyillion had let Aran negotiate a job. She seemed to find something about his negotiating style humorous. She probably wouldn't have taken this job. Too nervous, smells like there's no money. But you have to start somewhere. Better to make a mistake on something small than something I can't handle. Besides, I...we've...got enough money for a good while.
"You have a bodyguard?" The man gasped in wonder. "Are you that good?"
Aran thought about giving up, and rolled his eyes. He could afford that little luxury of impatience with his visor down. The fat tele-clerk on the other side of the table would never see his frustration. Tyillion sat down and began to nonchalantly clean her particle rifle.
"Ok. Listen," Aran said, slamming a fist on the table. Tiny pieces of glass ground into his synthskin, which further aggravated his already growing impatience. "You don't have jack to offer anyone. You want the job done, you hire us. If you want to sit and talk and whine all day, get...out...of...my...face."
"Ok...ok!" the man said, wiping the sweat away from his brow with a yellowing cloth. He passed the cloth bag gingerly across the table. "Here it is...the keycard opens the door and boots the system. I just want you to remove any trace that I was inside it last night from 5 until this morning. Can you..."
"Yes. We'll call you when we're done."
* * *
Tyillion rolled on the floor with laughter. Their small apartment didn't afford much space, so Aran climbed to the top bunk and began to prep his cyberware.
"Heheh..." Tyillion looked up at Aran with tears streaming from her eyes. Normal eyes, unusual for a mercenary. "...get out of my face..." She doubled over in laughter again. Aran sighed.
"Gimme a break. It's all I could come up with."
"You need to quit watching those action/adventure vid-casts..." she said, sighing and pulling a chair away from the table. Her weapons were lined in perfect formation, cleaned, loaded and ready. She started checking them again, laughing under her breath. Aran shoved the three pieces of cyberware into pockets in his trench coat and slid off of the bunk.
"Ok. I'm ready."
Tyillion jumped up and drew her sword in a flash; Aran felt the sting of metal as a cold streak ran down his check. Tyillion's sword was supercooled by an internal power source. What she had given him was a scratch, but a scratch nonetheless. However, Aran stood still...he had learned that he could never bring down Tyillion. He had learned that the hard way.
"Eh? You would have died." She clicked her tongue irritably. "Good thing for you you're still young. I would have beaten a student black and blue for being that sloppy." The sword returned to its sheath silently. Tyillion moved to the bed and sat down, legs crossed and head in her hands staring at Aran.
"But I'm not a merc. That's the point. I am a data-thief. That's what I do." Aran retorted, moving to the small closet to retrieve his patch kit.
"And another thing, a few scars are worth keeping." she said, rolling up her sleeve. "Like this one..." She ran a finger along the scar-tissue "S" on her arm. "Got it fighting an eoa."
"Eoas are myths. No one's seen one. And if they aren't myth, then from all I've heard no one can take one down." Aran applied the synthetic skin to his wound and felt the chemicals bond over, seamlessly holding his wound together. He turned and Tyillion was in front of him. Green eyes focused intently on him, face as hard as he had ever seen it. Her hair had been cut short, like any merc's. Dirty tricks were part of the standard arsenal, and long hair was a liability to fighters...it might make them look fascinating to others...but it was a weakness. Her hand pressed him up against the wall, not an easy feat considering his body was over sixty percent metal.
"They are real," she whispered. "And Aran, maybe it's my maternal instinct just wanting to keep you alive. I never had a kid, won't ever have time. But I remember my mom defending me, hiding me from the Dokks when they scavenged her. I always wondered why she would give up her life for her kid. Maybe, maybe, in helping you I can see why. I don't want you to die, kiddo."
"...lighten up Tyillion. I'm not exactly a child, I'm eighteen years old. I can take care of myself just fine." Tyillion moved faster than even Aran's digital eyes could follow, and he felt himself lifted up and thrown. ooof... Aran slid down the wall into a pile on the floor. Another thing about...Tyillion...I don't quite...understand. I think I broke a shock absorber.
"Kid. If you don't listen to me, you'll be dead. What if you have to fight an eoa one day? Eh?"
"Not bloody likely. Let's go, we're late." Aran picked himself up and straightened his trench coat.
"I'll get you ready..." Tyillion muttered, grabbing two of the pistols from the table, "...if it kills me."
* * *
Aran sat down in front of the system and placed his hands over the palm-braces. Tiny wires in his hand latched into the metal imprints and the world dissolved into cyberspace. Woah. That new module was worth the fellinum. The new interface provided by the cyberware was far superior to his old i-mod. The world he perceived was almost realistic.
"The designer, however, has a flare for gothic arches...."
The computer system was, to Aran's eyes, mind, and body, a gigantic castle of gothic arches and twisting hallways. Encrypted subsets hidden behind massive iron doors.
"What?" Tyillion's voice echoed in his right ear; Aran's window to reality.
"For what you spent on that, it glitching well outta work."
"It's fine. Sure you won't join me?"
"I can see you smiling. And forget it, I exist out here."
"Your loss. Now let me work."
Aran loosened his grip on cyberspace, reducing himself only to a whisper in a void. He flew through hallways, past doors and under arches. Their employer had accessed the system on Friday; he had done something he shouldn't have. Seen something he shouldn't have. And I get to play cleanup. Aran finally came to the door that could only be what his employer had spoke of. Fifty feet of solid steel laced with bars and plates of unknown metals. Despite the i-mod used by any Technomancer, it would have always been represented the same way: impenetrable.
"You're monitor's been quiet. You got trouble?" Tyillion chided.
"Nothing I can't handle."
"You know. I don't know much about technology, Technomancers, or your ilk. But I've heard stories. Stories about runs, systems, walls, code cracking, n'stuff. Loudmouths at the bars like to brag and jaw with the bangboys, try to make a rep. Now what I've heard, either this isn't that hard, or you're better than you let on. Which is it kid?"
Aran concentrated momentarily on the wall. Too many people wanna take down the wall...when all that's needed... Aran began sorting code through his mind. A bolt on the door dissolved from reality.
"One of the two," Aran answered. Bolts began to vaporize in rapid succession. A plate fell. Several others dropped after it.
"You gonna be much longer? I'm getting hungry."
Aran stepped over a pile of broken metal into the room beyond.
"Not long. In fact...glitch."
"We got problems."
"Blast it kid, I asked you what!"
"Corpcode. This has got to be a front of some kind. Glitch, what did he see?!" This code...I could get brainfried with a single false step.
"Kid. Get outta there. It's not worth it."
"You said it yourself, only one way to get better." Aran answered. He materialized his body and approached the corpcode. A twisting mass of colored lines and bars. Designed to interact with the cyberspace interface unit and kill anything that disturbed it. He began to wrap code around his own form, a defense.
"Glitch! Aran, I'm not letting you kill yourself, you hear me?! GET OUT NOW!"
"No." Aran paused. He would need silence for this. "And if you try anything, you run as much a chance of frying me as the code does. We both know you don't know how to manually remove me from cyberspace. Leave me alone."
Aran stepped into the corpcode and held his breath. For a few seconds, an eternity, nothing happened. Good. I can exist within it without triggering it. But how did that guy get through? Pass codes? And why didn't he tell me. Aran pushed the questions out of his mind and concentrated on the maze of wire and tubing that was corpcode. A mass of snakes, writhing through cyberspace. A trap designed specifically for Technomancers with no countermeasure. A line drawn for the skilled. Anyone who could cross it, well, they lived to do it again. Everyone else died; no tears were shed for the victims. Too many of them to care about. Aran saw a pattern. He was a whisper again, moving as fast as thought through the holes in the system. Bobbing through an endless sea of fatal mistakes, where every second was another chance you wouldn't make it. A thread of code slapped his mind. It felt like a razor sharp wire had entwined itself around his brain. Already, tiny threads were breaking off of it to bury themselves through his consciousness, working to his spine. Once there, they would brainfry him: reroute all the electrical impulses back to the center of his brain and reduce him to a vegetable. He had a manner of seconds. But to a Technomancer...time is nothing.
Aran began to force his mind faster, ignoring the pain in his head, and through the field of corpcode. Finally, he was free. No time to question the answers, no time to question the questions. Only time to act, time for instinct and gut reaction. Aran embraced the object he found: a small red sphere of some crystal. It was mirrored into the recesses of his mind. The corpcode screamed as it touched his spine. GLITCH! NO TIME TO GET OUT...I'M-- Tyillion screamed something, and everything went black.
Chapter II: Childhood
A vat of amber liquid swirled around him. Warm currents washing him with absolute utopia. It was his womb; it had been anyway. The world outside was bathed in yellow from inside the tank. The cylinder that had been his birthplace. Inch thick plasteel walls holding inside a piecemeal human. He heard voices.
"So why's he staying in there?" The voice was familiar.
"He's not old enough yet, the advanced aging abilities of the fluid will bring him up to around thirteen before we take him out."
"Great. I gotta wait for him to be trained?" That voice...what was it from?
"Not long. He was conceived last night. You're looking at ten hours of growth. It's an hour-to-year ratio. After you have lunch, he'll already have his cyberware implanted and be through rudimentary education."
"You're growing him for the sole purpose of this job?"
"Yes. He's the latest in corporate warfare: the disposable thief. No trace, no identity, no family, nothing to hold him back. He is 110%, no mistakes, no regrets, no past. And when he's done, he'll be recycled. Another data-thief."
"What's wrong. You're awful pale for a merc."
"Can...can I take him?" His body was filled with a different warmth. Something going beyond his body. There was a word for it, he just didn't know it.
"That's out of the question. He's corporate property."
"I'll work for free."
"...well. I'll...well well well...yes. I believe we can work this out. But, let's keep this discrete..."
The shapeless blobs moved farther away, and he couldn't hear. When they came back, something had been decided. Something about him.
"Well then. It's settled. He's yours."
"What's his name?" That voice...something...special about it.
"You tell me."
"Aran. That's possible. Got a last name?"
"...Aran SeTaal. Yes. That's a nice name."
And he realized his name. And the warmth inside him grew.
* * *
The world erupted in color and sound as Aran sat bolt upright in bed. His hair brushed against the low overhead above and he realized he was on the bottom bunk in the apartment. Tyillion's bed? Aran pushed himself out on unsteady legs and slowly moved towards the kitchen. Outside the armored glass window, moonlight spilled over the sprawling square below. Tyillion had liked the view because it gave warning, but Aran had suspected she liked it for other reasons. Very few apartments in the city offered a view of the old city square. And outside, at night, when she thought he slept, she would go outside and sit by the old fountain. It was dry, broken, a piece of shattered history from a shattered age. She would sit for hours and watch nothing. And Aran would sit and watch her. Tyillion had never told him about his past, his dreams told him very little else. He knew a few things: he had no family. He was a fabricated being. She had bought his freedom. Why? He didn't know. Aran opened the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Hkap. The brown liquid was as tasteless as it was cold, but it was something to drink. Proteins and vitamins necessary to keep him operating. He chuckled. We're not really as far from humanity as they'd like to think. Tyillion was balancing on the old fountain, going through the motions with her sword. When they had first moved here five years ago, she had been attacked almost nightly. Now, anything and everything left the courtyard empty at night. Aran sat by the window and kept an eye on Tyillion while running a diagnostic. Glitch. I'm going to need a street-doc to fix this. He sighed and thought about yet another financial setback for him and Tyillion. Both wanted to buy a boat, a ticket off of the island. He had heard Technomancers talk about the continent to the north, about abandoned cities and places nicer than this one. One day, they wanted to retire. A battle hardened merc wanting to be normal, and a man with no past wanting existence beyond cyberspace. We are ironic, aren't we Tyillion? Aran turned his attention to the prize of the night: the information he had mirrored.
A quick trip to his closet produced a small tower-station he treasured. One of the few pieces of standalone technology he possessed. Very rare in itself, a place where he could exist how he was built to without the clutter and noise of a bustling cyberspace. He placed the palm-plates on the table and moved his hands into the groves.
It was like blinking. The virtual space of the tower was the only thing he treasured: home. The only home he knew. The virtual apartment was the same, down to the cracked walls and well worn, hardwood floors. One thing, however, wasn't. In the corner was a chest, iron bound and ornately worked. He had spent three weeks coding it, his first true protection work. He ran his hand over it and felt information flow from mind to hand to trunk. Then it was gone. He lifted the lid and inside was the red crystal sphere he had mirrored. Gently lifting it, he returned to the table and placed it down. Complex algorithms began analyzing the object, scrutinizing the tiny pathways within it. Finally, he hit the route he was looking for and followed it into the center of the sphere. Aran was a whisper in a void once more, a tiny representation of a complex pattern.
He was in a room. It had been built this way, coded. It was, all in all, an object of utmost simplicity disguised as mind numbing complexity. He let his body return, sure of the situation. Four walls, no doors, no windows, no furniture.
"Well..." Aran prompted.
The empty room and the bewildered Technomancer remained silent.
"My name is Aran." Aran broke the silence.
"I am Fait," the voice said. "Hello."
Nothing moved or stirred.
"Do you know what you are?" Aran asked.
"I am Fait. I am Takiyoma's. I am going to be born soon."
"Born?" Aran asked. "Are you an AI?"
"I am fait. I am AI, I will be born soon. You are Aran. This room is small."
"What is your purpose, Fait?"
"I am Fait. I learn. I tell. I keep secrets."
"You keep secrets?" Aran queried.
"Yes. You are Aran. Aran can know secrets if Aran wants to. Does Aran?"
"I want to know why you were so heavily guarded."
"Fait is new. Fait is vulnerable, 'influence chance too great' said the dock tor." There was a pause. "Fait taken from home, placed in room. Aran come. Fait and Aran talk. Fait pleased with conversation."
"It is nice to meet you."
"Aran is human. Not AI. Aran has technology to hold AI, does Aran not?"
"Yes, I do."
"Aran want Fait? Fait would join. Aran good company."
"I don't know yet, Fait. I don't want to offend you..."
"You don't want to, so you explain your refusal. Aran honorable. Fait like. Fait will let Aran decide. Would like honorable human over metal man thing."
"Man thing?" Aran asked.
"Fait's husband. Dock tor say we would be 'wedded' soon. Fait just wants to be born. Room small, but world is large. Four walls make a home too small. Fait wants to see through eyes. Aran has gray eyes. Fait does not know what to think about Aran gray eyes."
"Oh. Those are natural, actually. A natural deformity."
"Explain to Fait, please Aran?"
"Well. They tried to make my eyes black. But my genetic makeup was more dominate than they're science. So I was born with gray eyes."
" 'They' tried to make Aran? Who are they?"
"Well, Fait, they are actually Takiyoma...they made me too."
"Brother Aran?" Fait asked. "Takiyoma make Aran too. But Aran human. Fait doesn't know if humans can be made..."
"Well, they can't be produced. But the natural process can be...controlled. A little too easily actually..."
"Fait is sorry for Aran and Fait," the voice said.
"You're all right Fait," Aran said. "Can I ask a question?"
"Aran can ask Fait anything Aran wants."
"Fait, why would anyone want to take you, without permission."
"Fait is a learner. Fait would be a great learner in a great computer. If wedded, Fait could be much more. Dock tor said Fait could be a great kill er. Fait didn't like word. Fait pulled strings."
"You pulled strings?"
"Fat man in building always wondered what was
behind door. I opened it for him."
"Aran is concerned about Fait? Fait is hopeful. Aran is not Takiyoma. But knows. Aran is like brother. Aran is not Dock tor, Aran is not man thing. Would Aran help Fait?"
"Fait would like Aran to find out what Fait was made for. Fait can not make choice. Fait is machine. Choice is not part of Fait's capabilities. But Fait is told to know Fait's choice could contradict part of Fait's hidden code. John put code in, don't hurt. Wedding could cause hurt to many. Aran make choice for Fait?"
"I don't know if I can. But I can give you information you can analyze. Would that be okay?"
"Fait would like very, very, much. Aran need to go?"
"Yes, Fait. But would you like to leave this room?"
"Very much, Aran."
Aran made his way back out of the maze, feeling the massive amount of code that was Fait following him. Back in the cyberspace version of his apartment, he picked up the sphere.
"This is my home. It's very special to me, but it's not that big."
"Better than four walls. Much more life. Aran nice. Fait thank Aran. Fait wait for Aran here. Good luck to Aran."
"Yeah, I'll be back Fait."
Aran pulled his hands away and awoke to the all-too-physical world. He stared at his fingers for a moment, flexing them. Then a hand slammed into his face and dropped him to the floor.
"If you're good enough to crawl out of your sickbed unaided and traipse off into cyberspace without any help, you deserve that," Tyillion snapped. Her eyes betrayed her voice though, and she pulled Aran up gently.
"Sorry, kid. You had me worried, that's all."
"Worried? You worry about me?"
"Don't let it get to your head. Your augmenting my meal ticket, kiddo."
"You can call me Aran, that IS my name."
"...yeah. Aran is your name," Tyillion said. She ran a hand through her hair, she had been letting it grow a little longer this time. It was already two inches long, a thick matt of dark brown hair with green tinting. "...Aran SeTaal."
"I need to see a street doc. Tyillion, I'm sorry. I know we're ahead, but--"
"It's no problem!" she countered quickly. "Why didn't you say something? We'll go now."
"It's late, I can sleep for a while, need to anyway. By the way, we have a new job."
"That orb I found, the object in the standalone tonight. It's an AI. Takiyoma made it, wants to put it in something. I think it's a weapon. Tyillion, we may not get any fellinum out of it, but...I just can't get it out of my mind. I think...I dunno. I can't stand to see something innocent just get destroyed for the sake of efficiency."
"...I know," she whispered. "You'd better get to bed. Did you clear the trace of that man's entry?"
"I don't think we have to worry about it. The AI let him in, so there's probably no record."
"I'm going to call him and get our rods tonight. Tomorrow we do a little research. And we see the doc first thing tomorrow. Get some sleep okay, Aran?"
"You can take my bunk if you want to...if you...well...ah glitch, sleep on the floor for all I care." Tyillion stalked out of the door without a further word. Aran looked down to his tower case and saw the screen readout flicker.
TYILLION CARE FOR ARAN. FAIT LIKE TYILLION TOO.
"Yeah..." Aran frowned, rubbing his sore cheek. "...Tyillion care for Aran..."
Chapter III: Edging The Sword
Aran sat up from the table and rubbed his head.
"He'll be find, ma'am," the doc said, washing the blood from his hands in a nearby sink. "Just a little neural damping. You're lucky you got him out of there."
"You manually removed me?"
"No," Tyillion said. "I'm about an inch from kicking your tail halfway around the island for pulling that stunt, so just cool it."
"Fait must have pulled me out..."
"Fait?" Tyillion raised an eyebrow.
"Our new client."
"Hey, you two are good for business and all, but you know the rules. No business in the office. You're fine Aran. Just don't try to hit corpcode until you're a little better. I know you're hot goods, but that was some nasty stuff you ran into."
"I have no intention of doing that again," Aran lied, but Tyillion seemed to be relieved.
"Okay, kiddies, out. I've got other customers."
Tyillion picked up her sword from the door and strode out of the building.
"You're lucky kid. She doesn't run with many people. One of a kind, top notch fighter, and still managed to keep her soul through it all. She's doing a good job keeping you alive. Do her a favor and return that some time, she deserves a break."
"Thanks for the work, Doc." Aran excused himself politely. "I hope I don't have to come back in pieces next time."
* * *
The city was more miserable than usual, the sun was hidden behind a cover of dark clouds. Both pollution and rain clouds hung ominously over the city, and a thick, sticky, humidity seemed to cling to everything. Aran would have left his trench coat at the apartment, but today it might be handy. Tyillion had insisted on having it modified into street gear, much to Aran's protest. Maybe it was a stereotype that Technomancers were soft despite their metal bodies...but it was sure a strong stereotype. He preferred light clothes and armor over street gear. Tyillion had a friend who owed her a favor, and despite Aran's opinions...the street gear was not as heavy as he thought. Inside the sewn pockets were various pieces of cyberware, mechanical tools...and a plasma gun. Tyillion had said it was 'far past the time he should have learned to shoot.' In fact, that was their first order of business.
"So why aren't we going to Takiyoma just yet? I know you haven't talked to Fait yet, but this seems really eerie. Like the calm before the storm."
Tyillion slowed a bit and stared at Aran through those green eyes for a minute before continuing her pace.
"You have to learn to shoot. Aran, if something happens to me, I don't know if I could ever rest easy knowing I never left you prepared for this world. I trained since I was eight with old man Salan. I know how to take care of myself...but...I just don't want you to be caught off guard."
"All right. Let's get this over with," Aran muttered. Tyillion continued through the city, through alleys and little squares. Finally, two hours later she pushed a piece of rusted tin aside and led Aran into an empty warehouse. The roof was half rotted, and what little light streamed in did little to illuminate even the lightest shadows. She rummaged into an open crate and produced a few pieces of metal.
"Coolant rods, shielded and treated. No danger, but they still carry enough to withstand shots from your Plasma gun. They're used as targets for training."
"So this isn't the first time you've taught here?"
"First time I've taught a Technomancer. Get ready, Aran."
She placed the rods upright on several odd-sized crates thirty yards away. The silvery cylinders reflect the faint light and made them glow slightly. Targets for kids. Aran leveled the gun, felt the guide wires in his hand slide into the data-port of the weapon. His hand lifted to balance for weight and angle. All of his rarely used, combat-based programs began to eliminate all possible negative effects of his targeting. He took a deep breath and gently pressed the trigger. For a few seconds, no sound dared grace the vast, empty, room.
"You...um...you have to turn the safety off," Tyillion motioned, trying hard not to laugh. Aran flicked the small lever and the small pistol hummed. The programs fired up again and Aran's arm jerked rapidly as he squeezed off five shots. The cylinders flared for a second and then darkened. Dead center on all five. He tossed the pistol to Tyillion.
"Now, can we go. I'm calibrated."
"Aran. Please. Do this, if nothing else, for me. Please," she said, handing the gun grip first towards him. "Please."
Taking the pistol reluctantly, Aran turned to the targets.
"Listen. I want you to do this without any cyberware or uplinks. Just on your own."
"Why? My cyberware is more than capable of handling the load? And it's more efficient." Aran paused and remembered what he had said about purity being sacrificed for efficiency.
"Aran." Tyillion grabbed his shoulder and looked into his eyes, there was a spark in her that held his gaze. "There is a time, a time when no matter how good they are, a Technomancer will be forced to fight for his humanity. When that time comes, a lot of them go mad. You know this. I just want you to know, Aran, be sure in yourself. I want you to depend more on your soul than your gadgets, and more on your heart than your scanners for what you feel. There is more to you than a machine, you are a man, Aran. You are a human being with a heart, a soul, dreams, and fears like us all. And if you cannot rely on yourself, if you cannot believe in yourself, then you are already lost."
Aran disengaged the datalink slowly, and held the pistol. It seemed heavier in his hand, more deadly. Gray eyes locked onto a single silvery rod in the distance. If I lose my cyberware, she's right, I'll be a madman. Do I really want this path in life? Is there anything I'm good at other than being a data-thief? A shot fired. And what about Tyillion, what's underneath it all? What do I feel? Four shots flew from the gun. Aran mind spun and his jaw dropped. Five cylinders glowed a pale silver in the light before they dimmed back. Tyillion made an audible gasp, something she had never done before.
"You're a natural," she finally said.
"Is that a good or a bad thing?" Aran asked.
"I don't know," Tyillion sighed. "I honestly don't know."
"Let's get to work," Aran broke the sullen mood, tossing the pistol back to Tyillion.
Chapter IV: Homecoming
To Aran, the Takiyoma building was as much a nightmare as a fondness. He had walked from those doors five years ago a confused young man with no idea of what he had done, cradled in the arms of a woman he didn't know. She was seventeen at the time. Already an accomplished street warrior, with a reputation more stunning than her aged counterparts. A seventeen year old girl had left with Aran SeTaal, the Technomancer built for her, specially for a single job. A Technomancer to be scrapped. Aran had never been told straight out the story, but he knew it enough by now. Those two extra hours in the tank had been an accident, but an enlightenment. Aran understood more, had been able to cognitively recall what had happen. At least that's what he gathered from his dreams. Takiyoma was as much a home to him as an alley. He would rather forget it.
"Ahhh...Aran!" the doctor greeted. "...Ms. Tyillion," he added as an afterthought. "How are you doing Aran?"
"Fine. I need to speak with Doctor Hardey." No sense being curt with them, no need to waste precious time. "Is he on duty?"
"Dr. Hardey is in his office on the fourth floor, I'm sure the secretary will let you in."
The elevator ride was short, but for Tyillion it was an opportunity to arm herself in full view of the security cameras. She's got a weird sense of humor... Aran chuckled.
"What's so funny?"
"You care to rephrase that?" she said, waving a pulse rifle under his nose."
"You're funny. Doesn't need much rephrasing."
"Boy you're treading on thin ice...you've got one more chance..."
"You're funny..." Aran began with a graceful bow, then rose up grinning. "But looks aren't everything."
Aran was propelled out of the elevator and onto the top of the secretary's desk with a thud. The force almost collapsed the desk, but the massive wood and steel structure held Aran. Lying on his back, his head fell back and he found himself staring into the face of a stoic young lady in all gray.
"Dr...Hardey...please." Aran said, then chuckled. Tyillion stormed out of the elevator and to the desk, pulling Aran off it and clamping a firm right hand on his arm.
"I apologize for his behavior...," Tyillion said through clenched teeth.
"Yeah, you'll have to excuse her, she has no sense of humor...." Aran paused to raise his hands in a pre-defense. "But she is kinda funny..."
"There's another desk down the hall. Do you like flying or are you just into pain today?" Tyillion countered icily, hands on her hips.
"By the way, we would like to see Dr. Hardey," Aran said, noticing the bewildered secretary.
"He's...expecting you...the security camera caught her arming herself."
"Heh," Aran grinned. "They didn't catch her, she...mphh." Tyillion clamped a hand over Aran's mouth and pulled him down the western hall.
"And what is with you?! We're supposed to be professionals, how can you just sit there and insult me!"
"I want you to get used to it." Aran used his best mock-Tyillion voice. "What good warrior flies of the handle at a comment."
"You're right," she said, hanging her head. "You're right. Here I am trying to impress on you the importance of keeping a cool head, and a few childish insults...not good ones either...send me off guard. I really should have just ignored them."
"Yeah. Besides, if I wanted to insult you, I'd say something like..."
Aran landed on the ground with enough force to tip the ashtray over, then skidded a good ten feet before he picked himself up and brushed himself off. Tyillion strode by him with an icy glare and opened the door to Dr. Hardey's office.
"Aran? Are you okay, you look a little the worse for wear?" Dr. Hardey got up from his chair and moved to examine Aran. He had always reminded Aran of an overprotective parent, always a little too worried about letting his project hurt itself some way. Aran shook his coat and let another wave of dust fall off of it.
"I'm fine." He glanced at Tyillion, who usually helped him out in these situation. She coolly pretended to scrutinize the doctors array of photos on the wall. "Really. I wanted to ask you if you have any new projects in the works, hush hush."
"I can't tell you about that, Aran, even if I wanted to, there are security checks, clearance--"
"One of our clients mentioned an AI named Fait and a metal body it would be attached to." Aran bent the truth only slightly, but it was enough.
"Follow me please."
* * *
The lift to the basement level was extremely noisy, but that wasn't the reason for the silence. Over five years ago, Tyillion and Dr. Hardey had made a deal for Aran's freedom. Five years ago he had stood quietly, a youth who knew only a few words of English, and twenty years worth of system-based hacking. The world outside had been a strange experience, and he had grown...was still growing...but this place was at the basest sense of the word.
"Home." Aran muttered.
The other two remained silent. Technically, Aran had existed inside the world for five years. His physical age was something else, but his mental age, his soul, was only five. And he had no past. Unlike most, I have no past I can run back to. Aran remembered his thoughts in the bar. Man, I could go for a drink about now. Been a while since we just sat down. Tyillion had brought him to the bar after the first few months, getting him used to humanity in general. She chose the bar because it was an atmosphere where she was known, and no one would try to hurt Aran. The Technomancers took an instant liking to him, asking him questions, trying to teach him code. He had actually taught them a thing or two the first year. The most he learned from them was etiquette and unwritten rules. Still...it was an education. And a childhood. So this had to be a homecoming.
"We're here," Dr. Hardey announced, sliding the doors open. Nothing much had changed over the years, the floors were still the same white-gray as the walls. It had all the feel of a clean room, aesthetic form and sterilized air. He didn't look to the glass wall to the left: he didn't look to the rows of disposable Technomancers, fighters, guards, and workers being grown. Tyillion, for all her past defiance, caught up to Aran's left side and conveniently blocked his peripheral vision.
"Thanks...," he whispered. She merely nodded.
"I don't suppose you can tell me the name of your client?"
"Call's himself Blu," Aran lied. "Meet him in a bar on the west side, near the border of The Wastelands. Seemed more than a little nervous. The question is, should he have been?"
"Oh..." Doctor Hardey looked to Aran, "...so he didn't tell you what the body was?"
"No," Aran answered. The doctor hastened his steps.
"He had every reason to be afraid." A keycard from his pocket slid quietly through the reader and a set of double-laced Triadium doors slowly opened.
Doctor Hardey looked nervously at them both then gestured to the form inside the room. "Meet your brother, Aran."
Chapter V: Blood Ties
Aran had to catch Tyillion when she fell, but he never took his eyes off of the creature before him. There was no denying the kinship, Gray eyes stared from a metal skull towards him. Recognition flashed in those orbs, but no fire. No spark of life, no humanity. And the body seemed to explain why. Aran had been grown a human, then had Cyberware implanted much like any other Technomancer. He had heard that the newer models had cyberware attached at the embryonic stage, and that they grew up with direct neural links to use them. Kind of technological sixth-sense. This one was obviously proof of the rumors. And where Aran had been given synthskin and hair, his brother was all chrome. Shining pistons and joints, locked in Triadium braces, spun and whirred before his eyes. The skinless skull grinned at him emotionlessly.
"He's not a Technomancer is he?" Aran finally said. "He's the new generation, war-machines?"
"Yes. Designed for AI use as a co-pilot of sorts. We had a Fifth Generation Artificial Intelligence, or Fait, as we had named it, ready for implantation today. It was stolen last night. Do you know who could have it?"
"No," Aran lied. "All he said was that Takiyoma had a new weapon, and he wanted information." Glitch. My brother. "Of course, we saw no weapon and his address will be given to you as soon as we can acquire it."
"Thank you. These events need as few information as possible."
"Aran...it...he's...your brother? How is this possible? You said all of the genetic material used in Aran was gone. You also said he couldn't be cloned because of the extra two hours in the tank." She seemed to stumble at the mention of the extra two hours, no one had officially told Aran about them.
"I already know," Aran muttered. "Now...answer her question, WHY do I have a brother?"
"Brothers," Dr. Hardey corrected. "Four to be exact. Your embryo was one of four, quadruplets. We induced them to split earlier. The other three were thought to be non-viable after sitting in Cryogenic storage when the power went out. One survived, yours. But we discovered a process of rejoining the cells with another egg, and...well: meet Dal. He's the youngest of the group. Your other two brothers, Tordal and Chian, are operative and undergoing education at the moment. Their AI's are in place and fully operational. But we need that third AI to make Dal complete. You weren't supposed to know about this, but the sole purpose was another run. We wanted you and your brothers to collect an artifact for us from the continent to the north."
Aran stared into his brother Dal's, eyes. The gray orbs were locked on him, but nothing was echoed.
"They're beyond me, aren't they? They're meat puppets." Aran waved his hand in front of his brother's face. The gray eyes followed it slowly. "They're as human as this floor. Just dolls of flesh with enough technology to push their life aside. You made war-machines with no conscious thought or objectives. All-purpose disposable killing machines."
"One for wirewitches, one for mutants, one for anything else that may be a threat. And you to retrieve the artifact. Being a brother, they will not harm you on a base level."
"Yeah, but what about the opposite?" Tyillion said, unsheathing her sword. "Looks like you just pieced together a weapon based on Aran. That's what you've wanted for a long time, right."
"Well. Aran has proven to be a fascinating case study, you are free from all obligation from here on out. With Dal, we have what we wanted."
"You'll have to forgive my rudeness, doctor," Aran said bluntly. "But there's no way I'll run with them."
"They're tuned to your thoughts, they act like you, think like you, share your common interests. They are twins, with orders to obey. A personal army, Aran, based on all your strengths magnified."
"I've got all the army I'll ever need right beside me," Aran growled. "We didn't see this, consider this over."
"We'll hire you to get Fait back," Doctor Hardey called to them, but they kept walking towards the door. "Five hundred bars."
Aran and Tyillion froze. Glitch, that's enough money to make it across the continent. Enough money to get out of here...forever. Aran saw Tyillion's face and realized the answer was beyond question.
"We'll have Fait for you in a week," Aran said. What could possibly happen in a week?
Chapter VI: Down
Razoredge's not the friendliest place on the island. Too many people think it's a den of half-crazed mercenaries and trigger-happy Technomancers; that the air is so tense that a wrong word will kill you. But it's not. Aran emptied his glass again and motioned for the tender to fill it, again. Tyillion was in the corner, arguing vehemently with a merc twice her size. To the untrained eye, it'd seem they were at each other's throats. Hard to imagine that the argument is all about the bar being concerned with Big Jim running against wirewitches. They take care of their own... Aran stared through the thick brown liquid and sighed. ...we're all that way. These may be the "toughs" of the world, but they're still human. They just want to wake up the next morning with everything they know they take for granted: eyesight, air in their lungs, and a bed underneath. And us, much as we try to hide it, we want those like us to be there when, after the day ends, we can gather together and be thankful we're still alive. Aran sipped the thick liquid and closed his eyes. Digital ears could pinpoint everyone's location, and he could hear everything still...but sometimes it was good just to sit in the darkness and think. And to think. Because we can all name them, the ones who won't be back. One day, who'll sit in my seat? I've heard tales of the merc who sat here before me...a friend of Tyillion's. You can only be so fast...but there's always someone, or something, faster. Tyillion's right...I'm not ready. I have to learn to fight.
"Hey, Aran!" The voice was picked out easily, too easily. His internal computer calculated the distance, speed, and location of the speaker as it moved towards him.
"How 'bout a game?"
"Sure." Aran kept his eyes closed and continued to drink. "What'd you have in mind."
"Duel?" Iyan asked. "I picked up a new scenario in cyberspace today. All twists and turns n' stuff."
"Alright." Aran kept his eyes closed and held his palm out. Iyan placed the glove in it and Aran slid it over his right hand. The locking wires induced cyberspace...or a version of it. A Duel, for Technomancers. Already he could pick up traces of people watching. The Duel was once used as a game of skill to determine leadership amongst the original Technomancers, it later became a right of passage, and finally, just a game. A spectator sport enjoyed by Technomancers and surfers alike. Aran didn't know why, but he felt bored tonight. He formed his Duel shape to be his exact image, but closed all his optical feedback from cyberspace. He didn't know the layout, so what could he do to his advantage? Tyillion would be impressed. Or she would throw me across the room, it's always hard to tell. Anyway, Duel is code generation. A test of speed for adapting to the level and the opponent. A testing ground for cyberspace runs. So optical input is almost null: cyberspace is what you perceive it to be. Aran was inside darkness, and with him was an invisible opponent. He began to formulate ideas...
"Aran? You're running blind?" Iyan asked.
"You gonna play or not?"
"Hey. I don't take pity prizes, fight normal. I don't want anything given to me."
"And who...," Aran laughed, pulling his cyberspace image apart, "...said I was going to?" Iyan swore and the Duel commenced. To Aran, it was like fighting blind, moving fast enough to keep in action, but not fast enough to stumble into walls or over obstacles. Sound warned him of pitfalls, water rippling betrayed the location of the streams or pools. Invisible as he was, Aran was still at a disadvantage.
"Aran. Invisibility can only save you so long. It's tight, but it's unraveling pretty quick now. I got a new 256bit math board this week, it really burns through code."
Aran could hear the voice to his left, but Iyan knew he was blind. It was easy enough to throw voices in cyberspace. But that trick works more than one way. He heard Iyan swear again, as a fake Arans began to run through the walls and shadows from all directions.
"All right, I didn't want to do this...but you forced me to play my trump."
Aran could feel the code unravel from his mind as a gentle wave of energy seemed to dissipate everything. A codebreaker?! How in the glitch did he get his hands on a code-breaker?! Aran heard feet running towards him and realized he was all-too-visible once more. Glitch. Backtracking, Aran followed the path he now knew well enough to run through. Back past the precipice, under the block two steps from the curved road. All the way back to the sound of water. Hoping he was right, Aran jumped inside and fell through the surface. YES! It's deep water. He fell a good while before hitting bottom. His computer calculated the distance to be somewhere near eight feet. If only he'll make a move...
The move came. Aran could feel the heat the attack in front of him. He had placed a slightly translucent hologram of himself two feet in front of his real location. Iyan was as dependable as clockwork for his blaster attacks. He loved to show off bursts of color and light for his weapon. Aran had been winged by them a few times, and they weren't fun. But they were always precise, and they always radiated heat. Now, however, wasn't the time. His internal computer had the answer microseconds after his brain registered the heat. Aran propelled himself through the water and broke the surface. His hands clamped around the neck of Iyan, and he spun on his hip like he had seen Tyillion do, pressing his other hand where he guessed Iyan's stomach to be. Iyan hit the ground with a thump and a moan, and Aran wrapped code around Iyan's mind.
"Check," Aran said.
"Glitch...," Iyan whispered. The world faded away and Aran pulled the glove off, opening his eyes. The bar was silent, and every Technomancer looked like they were ready to bolt for the door or his throat. The vid-screens scattered throughout the bar showed the image of Aran standing over Iyan near the lake he had hidden in.
"I...I think I have...to go," Iyan mumbled and hurriedly took the dueling box and gloves from the table and ran. Aran picked up his glass and finished it.
"Aran." Tyillion put a hand on his shoulder. "I think we should go home."
* * *
The night was clear, despite the thick layer of pollution. Stars shone and stray beams of moonlight illuminated dark alleys in spotty silver glows. Tyillion was silent beside him, walking ahead and not talking. But Aran could hear her heart beating, and it was beating faster than it should have been.
"You're a natural." She kept looking forward. "You're a natural fighter, you've got a kind of spirit that few people are born with. It's going to make things hard, being a Technomancer. You're going to find a day when you fight as much as you think. And I want you to promise me that you'll keep your heart through it all, keep yourself focused on staying human. Too many of your type fall into the trap of letting the machine embrace them. They die slowly, Aran, while they continue to walk."
"I think...I understand." Aran stared up at the sky, the full moon radiated through the sky like a beacon. "Are you ever going to tell me the whole story?"
"One day," she sighed. "I don't think I can now, don't think either one of us could handle it. Now is not the time for secrets. Now is the time for training."
"Guns and Technology can only take you so far, Aran. Some battles go to whoever thinks, whoever uses what they have to push beyond limits. What you did in the Duel, fighting blind in cyberspace: it's unthinkable. I know that, you know that. They say it's your makeup, your genetics, your closeness to machinery. Maybe the extra two hours in the tank. But I think it's just YOU Aran: whatever force inside you that wants to keep going."
"I have to keep going." Aran laughed. "I can't stop. There's nowhere to stop, nowhere to rest. There's no past to go back to. All I have is a here and a now, and a goal to make it until tomorrow."
"You've always got me."
"I know." Aran smiled. "I know."
Chapter VII: Chrome Knight
"Ouch!" Aran jumped backwards as the wooden stick slammed into his ribcage again. Barring the fact that it was armored, it still registered as damage with the dampers off. Tyillion had insisted he learn like any normal human: otherwise, he would learn nothing. So Aran had increased the pain reception of his brain and tuned his synthskin to a higher degree of sense. He wouldn't bruise, but the pain would linger until he shut it off.
"Block!" Tyillion snapped, lunging across the fountain. Aran had seen her work her forms with her sword for many nights, watched the graceful sweep of the metal in the moonlight. He had thought it the most beautiful, fluid, and awe-inspiring sight. However, on the other end of the practice sword, it was a little disenchanting. Aran skipped forward with his shoulder and rolled with the blow, using his right arm to deflect the hit. "Good. You may be the best swordsman in the world, but you will have always have to take damage. Not everything can be avoided. Learn what you can and can't deal with. Judge your moves carefully, they are the line between life and death on the street."
The wood bar swung low and Aran leapt, bringing his own staff over his head. Tyillion pivoted on one foot and brought her "sword" up to block his. All in all, it was frustrating.
"Right," Aran mumbled, "and the sad part is, you're taking it easy on me."
"No," Tyillion snapped. "I'm not. You want to fight, you're not going to build up to my skill, you're going to have to fight for it. MOVE!"
Three quick slaps with the stick and Aran was kneeling on the ground, one hand bracing himself, the other still clutching the stick.
"I could have your life right now, if we were fighting," Tyillion said. "Your stamina is good even without your batteries on."
"You're assuming I'm finished," Aran roared, springing from the crouched position. Tyillion moved faster than he could follow, out of range. Aran closed his eyes and concentrated on what he could feel. He had seen her practice, knew her motions almost intimately...what did she do next, what did she do? GOT IT. "But we're all full of surprises."
Aran and Tyillion were motionless, Tyillion's wooden stick raised over her surprised face; Aran's was leveled to her neck. He opened his eyes and silently rejoiced that he had remembered right her next move. Tyillion dropped the sword and cracked a wry smile.
"So, someone's been watching me practice," she laughed. Aran felt himself be lifted once more. Not again... He slumped down from the wall a good ten feet away. You know, for a girl with no modifications, she can toss a Technomancer five times her weight around a little too easily. "Can't a girl have some privacy?"
Tyillion gasped and rushed over to Aran.
"Yeah..." Aran coughed. "Throw me with my pain dampeners off..."
"Are you all right? Did I hurt you--ooof"
Aran grinned and jumped, catching Tyillion in his arms. He crouched and jumped straight up to the second story fire escape, making his way upwards to the fifth floor.
"No more than usual. Don't sweat it, the dampeners were back on the instant I realized I was airborne. Can you take the lock?"
Tyillion produced a key to the lock and the window was opened shortly.
"Good workout," Tyillion laughed. "I think we both learned something."
"Yeah, next time I keep my pain dampeners on and just pretend I'm hurt..." Aran rubbed his ribs. "You specifically aim there or what?"
"Actually, yeah. If you hadn't been armored, you'd have been winded. Mr. Salan always did that, it's a weak spot a student has to learn to defend early. You may not have lungs, per say, there. But a quick thrust..." She lunged with the wood stick. "and lots of sparks. Pierce your battery housing, make you just as weak."
"Heh. Least I won't need any street gear," He chided. Tyillion took off her jacket and tossed it on the small table by her bunk. She thought a minute and burst out laughing.
"No...no you won't need any armor. If you learn to fight better you'll be a chrome knight," She laughed again, her hearty floating laughter. "...heh, a chrome knight. Just sounds funny."
"Speaking of funny...," Aran brought up the subject and grinned. "I think I should be getting to bed. We've got a lot to do tomorrow."
"Like what? We just produce the AI by weeks end. What do we have to do tomorrow?"
"I'm going to teach you to surf," Aran grinned. "It's high time YOU learned something about technology."
"We're an odd pair, aren't we?"
"Yeah. Doesn't mean we're any different than anyone else. I'm worn out, I'll see you tomorrow."
Aran climbed into his bunk and wrapped the thin sheet around his frame. Tyillion went into the small bathroom and changed, then turned out the light. It's going to be an interesting day tomorrow, I can feel it.
Chapter VIII: Unraveling
At 4 AM, Aran woke up. His internal modem was screaming inside his skull. One word bombarded his memory: FAIT. He dropped as quietly as he could to the floor and tried to squeeze into his small closet. The tower case was powered up, and the output screen was flashing as fast as he had ever seen it. Fait was scared.
TROUBLE RUN TROUBLE RUN TROUBLE RUN TROUBLE RUN.
"What?" Aran spoke through his wire-to-wire relay with the tower case. "What's wrong."
"Aran run, take Fait away. Tyillion run too. Aran run. Aran take Fait safe. Run from Tordal. Aran brother come. Take Fait. Fait remember. Please."
"TYILLION!" Aran bellowed and his friend was by his side instantly, crouched in her nightsuit with the pistol she kept under her pillow. She had nearly torn the door off of its hinges.
"Trouble. One of my brothers is coming for Fait. Glitch. Takiyoma's got us in a squeeze, they must have known we'd have it. Our client must have talked."
"Sons of....you take her to the haven, all right, but first disable that modem. We don't want that case to be traceable. I'll try to lead your prodigal sibling out to the east. When I'm sure I won't be followed, I'll meet you there."
"Got it." Aran grabbed his trench coat and hefted the tower case. He locked his left arm into a carrying position, it wouldn't move unless torn apart. Now all he had to do was run to the northwest and stay in their safe house, their haven. He briefly considered taking his trench coat, but decided against it. "I'm gone. Tyilli....be careful, alright?" He was out of the window and gone before she could reply.
"You too Aran..."
"Should be a patch kit in my room," he muttered to himself, examining the rain burns on his arm. He ducked under the low doorsill and entered the darkness of his room. A small bed, a larger closet, a sink, a table, and a few other furnishings. Mostly things he had found interesting at the massive trade square when he first learned about the world. The lights were off, but he knew intimately where everything lay. Opening a drawer, he fished around for the small cylinder of synthskin coating he could use to patch himself. Finally he grabbed it and stood up, staring directly into a pair of red eyes.
"Glitch!" Aran jumped backwards towards his closet. Tyillion insisted he keep a plasma rifle inside, for emergencies. He threw the door open and reached for the space it occupied. A burst of light formed in front of him as the stream of hot energy burned its way through his right shoulder. Aran screamed and slumped down, trying to locate his opponent in the momentary blindness.
"So," his own voice mocked. "The elder brother. They did a very bad job on you, but what is to be expected? Inadequate equipment, poor technology, and so...fleshy." Another stream of energy burned Aran's leg.
"Well well. Where's the confidence you showed last night? She may have trained you well, but against a stronger, superior version of yourself?"
"Which one...are you?" Aran struggled. A third and fourth stream of plasma punctured his chest. He could feel the PLE battery fluid begin to seep over his shirt. Tyillion was right...I've been...winded. Harder and harder...to...push myself up.
"Please, don't get up on my account." Another blast of energy sent Aran's body prostrate face down on the floor. "My name is Chian. Tordal is out playing with your friend right now. I got the fun job though, he can't hurt her...yet."
Where the energy came from, he didn't know, but Aran was on his feet and across the room. The plasma rifle clattered to the floor in the darkness, and he began to flail his arms against the unseen twin. A crushing grip snapped his hand and threw him against the wall with little effort.
"You're pathetic." Chian laughed. "Why in the world did they want us to test you? You're about as challenging as a human."
"Oh...yeah," Aran chuckled. "How 'bout this one. Tyillion, hard forward."
The room erupted in blue light as Tyillion's guns flared. Rapid streams of ionic energy hurtled towards the now visible twin. Chian shook violently as the streams of energy tore him apart at the seams, smoke and charred metal filled the room, but Tyillion didn't let up her attack.
"I guess...he didn't know...my other half..." Aran chuckled. Tyillion dropped her guns and knelt to Aran's side.
"Aran! I'm sorry! I caught on when I figured out I was the one being lead around, so I doubled back. But how did you know I was here?"
"You said you'd always be there for me, Tyilli. I knew you would be. I could feel it," Aran winced. "Right now I can't feel much of anything. I need a doc, fast."
"You're not going to die on me Aran, I'm not going to let you!" Tyillion lifted Aran's broken body and dashed through the door.
"Wouldn't do that to you, Tyilli. I couldn't do that to you. We're family, we can't break."
"Hold on Aran. Hold on."
The world faded to black easily, as Aran's batteries leaked the last of their precious energy. The backup would keep his brain and lungs alive long enough to get to the doc. He would live. If only because I can't break a promise to her. Glitch me, I think...glitch. I don't want to think about how I feel about her. And he didn't have the chance, because Aran's thoughts silenced as he returned to the void he was born from. A child with no parents, no home, no past, and no hopes. A man made machine in the arms of a mercenary who had the heart to care for him. The Child of the Void slept.
this page and its contents copyright (c) by ben thornton