Descent - Part 1
Image from Scott Dellinger
A flicker in the dark as the interface kicked on; phosphenes lit up across my visual field, peppering the blackness with pinpricks of evanescent starlight. Ara was sleeping -- a state e hadn't known in quite some time.

Bad sign.

For an instant, I hesitated, dreading that descent into a sea of biological chaos. For an instant, I doubted what I knew had to be done. Maybe the Tribunal had been kind. Maybe this sentence was something to be thankful for. They had meted out worse fates to others. And I knew that, by showing us this mercy, they had only set us up. They already knew what would happen. They knew the instant they split us apart. The Keeper had never tolerated interference with humans under the Covenant. And now Ara was human, caught up in the snare of the Covenant - and we were about to interfere.

For the first time since our fission, I knew fear. Raw. Unfiltered. Not the abstract sense that trickled down to me through the layers of Ara's consciousness, bound to the antiseptic outpouring of words and images. It felt real. Immediate. A sensation wholly my own. It was never easy changing substrates - and this time I was doing it alone. Empty. A hollow thing without Ara's whole to give me substance. I told myself it didn't matter. The Keeper knew as well as they did, and e hadn't done anything yet. E had always been a preemptive thing. Never do today what can be done yesterday. And if e hadn't acted yet, it was a good bet e didn't care. Maybe the Tribunal had something else in mind, or maybe they'd misjudged. Maybe this, maybe that. All the maybes in the world wouldn't help to resolve the next few seconds; not as long as I sat here brooding.

I gathered myself, arrayed the body of my consciousness along the razor edge of my reality. One by one I tipped its pieces off the smooth calm of the net. Down into the well of Covenant. Down into the prison of Ara's brain.

I took my time, settling in, inundated by the otherness of eir being. This would take getting used to. I gave eir latent consciousness a wide berth -- waking em up now would just cause problems -- and tapped into eir autonomous systems. I ratcheted open heavy eyelids. Ara's vision was foggy, eir color perception much more saturated than what I was used to. Getting into the hindbrain was an easy hop from the visual centers. One by one, I hooked into eir senses. Vision, taste, smell ... the room was dank, the air laden with the musk of mildew. And what was that god-awful taste? A few hurried connections later, I was moving Ara's limbs, still numb with sleep. I hauled eir new body into a sitting position, awkwardly, like a puppet master maneuvers a broken marionette. I looked around with eir eyes.
Our room was small, warmly decorated, furnished in cherry wood and green velvet. (Or maybe that was aqua?) Wood panels lined the walls, rising to a vaulted ceiling from a thick carpet the color of mud. It felt more like a guest room than a prison cell -- but under the circumstances, I guess that made sense. They'd be understandably wary of a transapient, even a cut-down, carved out transapient in human flesh. They'd try to keep Ara happy until they'd had a chance to assess eir abilities. Maybe they thought we didn't know what they were planning. At any rate, it wasn't a real prison, and if we could get moving fast enough, it wouldn't turn into one.

Look for a way out. Not the door -- there would be too much resistance that way. What about the window? Down at the foot of the bed, about two meters square, framed by frilly silk curtains. Frost encrusted its corners. Beyond it lay a stark gray courtyard, a concrete wall ... and beyond that a dark plain and a yawning, starless sky. The window was double-paned and looked thick, but Ara's vision was good enough to pick up the feathering of cracks along the window's edges -- the result of flexing stress from extreme swings of heat and cold. It could break along those lines, if I could hit it hard enough -- just right. A cold draft licked off its surface, raising goose bumps on Ara's arms. Discomfort had begun to draw em back from sleep.

Take stock of our assets. Not much, by what I could see. Beside the desk stood a full-length mirror. It was a chore getting Ara out of the bed and over to it. The activity roused em more, but e still wasn't awake enough to be concerned that eir limbs were acting outside of eir control. I hoped it stayed that way a little longer. The last thing I needed was a puppet battle with the person I'd come here to help.

I hauled em in front of the mirror and took a moment to get to know em. Homo superior. Female. Certainly less than a hundred years old, but probably much, much younger. Eir skin looked soft and smooth. Unblemished. No signs of damage -- our hosts weren't complete barbarians. A lot of hair -- kind of a blonde mahogany. Bad color for blending in. Skinny, but not quite emaciated. I'd have to keep an eye on that. Otherwise, sleek and efficient. But that might be a double-edged sword. Small. Frail. Too many single points of failure.

Ara ... what have they done to you?

I tried to twist em around to get a look at em in profile, but at that point, e came fully awake. With a surge of horror e -- she now? -- realized her body wasn't working right. Panic charged like lightning through her blood. The accompanying blast of activity in her hindbrain came like a kick in the gut to my tenuous network of control. Rather than try to fight it, I let her have her autonomy. Almost immediately, her legs buckled and she collapsed.

I realized that she was even less settled-in to this new body than I was. Damn. That's going to complicate things.

She ended up with her face against the carpet -- an itchy, abrasive synthetic that smelled like mold and burnt dust. It tickled her nose, but she didn't know what to do about it. I let it be her problem -- it would be interesting to see how she handled it. She'd have to learn sooner or later. Meanwhile, I turned my attention to tapping her auditory system. I had to start up a dialog, if we were ever going to get anything done....

"Ara? Can you hear me?"

She jerked. Startled. At least she'd heard something. The room was ringing, and her heartbeat pounded loud in her ears. Her frequency perception seemed skewed toward the high end, a little broader than I'd expected. It might come in handy later, but for now it was a nuisance. Every gust of the wind outside registered a persistent, drawling groan, punctuated by the pings and creaks of the building's superstructure setting. Somewhere, out in the hall, someone was talking.

Too close for comfort. And Ara wasn't helping things any. She tried to push herself up with the heels of her hands, but her angle was all wrong, and she wasn't getting anywhere.

"Ara, if you can hear me ... I'm here to help you. It's Zavier. Do you remember me? I'm coming off the satellite network through the implant in your brainstem -- same thing they used to dump you. You're in a Covenant compound on the outskirts of City Six -- don't know how they got a hold of you, but whatever they want, you won't like. So we're going to get you out of here. Can you walk?"

No response. But she did manage to get her face up off the carpet.

"You're going to have to talk to me. I can read your body, not your mind. Understand?"

She coughed; made a "hrumph!" sound that I assumed meant she understood. There was plenty of activity in the speech centers of her brain -- she comprehended something -- but there was nothing like coordinated activity on her tongue. She probably hadn't figured that out yet. Producing speech is much harder than perceiving it. The physical interface is less intuitive. What I wouldn't have given for a good wideband gestalt.

Sensation had crept back into her limbs, and it seemed like her efforts at coordination were paying off. Maybe what I'd taken for incompetence at first had just been the overestimated aftereffects of broken sleep. She pulled herself into a sitting position and knocked away a face full of hair. She stared at her reflection, visibly dumbfounded. Or maybe she just hasn't figured out how to work her face. Either way, the voices in the hall said we didn't have a time to figure it out.

"Ara, I need you to try something for me. See that chair over there? I want you to pick it up. Look at the window. See those cracks along the lower left edge?" She glanced at the window, and I prodded her vision centers to lay a highlight over the features I wanted her to notice. "You need to hit that green highlight with the foot of that chair as hard as you can." God, I hoped that was really green.

She stood up, wobbly, uncertain, and took a few tentative steps toward the desk. She put her hands on it, hesitated for a moment -- distracted by the sensation of the rough wood finish on her fingertips. I gave her a jab in the amygdala to reiterate the grave nature of our circumstances. The voices outside were coming closer, and I could hear the subtle click-click of steel toes on hardwood.

She picked up the chair -- caught off kilter by its unexpected bulk -- and hauled it around with an awkward twist of her torso. That put her feet in a worrisome tangle. I was afraid she was going to trip over herself at first, but she stumbled out of it; caught herself. She swung, arms crossed, towing the weight of the chair around with an unnatural surge of strength. H. su muscles surged hot with a burst of effort. Most of the way through her inelegant pirouette, a heel of the chair hit the window pane. Right on target. Cracks blossomed from the point of impact. Trails of blazing green etched across its surface. It shattered, spitting shards of glass into the room.

The chair kept going, its force dampened but still sufficient to dislodge the outside pane from its rotted caulking. It popped and swung free, dangling by threads from the top. A blast of cold air rushed in -- far colder than I'd expected. Ara finished her whirl in a clumsy, staggering crouch, legs splayed beneath her, chair on its back in front of her and her forehead less than an inch from the sharpest corner of the bed frame. She looked dazed -- probably as surprised by her performance as I was.

The voices in the hallway rose to shouts. Footsteps began to thunder toward our room. Ara looked up as the locks began to rattle.

"Go, Ara! Run! Now!"

I began pounding full bore on her sympathetic nervous system -- all I could do as she vaulted toward the window. Her heartbeat hit 290 as she plowed through the wreckage of the inside pane, arms over her head and knees drawn up in a protective tuck. She tumbled, caught herself by the tips of her fingers on the window ledge outside, one knuckle away from a ballistic plummet two stories onto icy concrete. I felt the warm sting of fresh cuts along her flanks and the cold, fluid sensation of dripping blood. She glanced down, attention snagged by a sprinkling of tiny red droplets, glinting like gems in the light of a courtyard lamp as they tumbled off the tips of her toes.

"There's no time, Ara! Look left! No, left! See that gutter pipe there? Climb down it. Once you're on the ground, head northeast along the wall of the courtyard. There's a drain pipe there you can use to get off the house grounds and into the catacombs without being spotted. Go!"

She slashed wildly a few times for the pipe, slipping and catching herself on the fingertips of one hand or another. I cringed each time her grip loosened. No telling what they'd do if she fell. Probably wouldn't bother re-embodying her. I don't know if she realized it or not, but her body knew it was playing for keeps. It wanted to keep itself intact. Its instincts had taken control from both of us. When she finally snagged the pipe and hauled herself onto it, I noticed that her fingers and toes were more than they'd first appeared to be. She had polymorphic implants all over, blended innocuously with her flesh when they were inactive, but worlds more capable when required. Her fingertips hooked into the metal, tips as sharp as razors, slicing into the soft tin of the pipe. She slid down, drawing long, jagged gashes along the length of the gutter as she went. The smear of blood she left on the cold metal should have frozen there, but somehow it stayed fluid, beading and trickling down after her in her long, gentle slide to the ground.

Heads poked through the shattered window, and the gold fingers of flashlight beams flicked out along the ground. They spotted her right away -- pretty obvious, really, clinging to the side of the building like that. They ducked inside and were gone, a split second before her feet touched the concrete. The cold was numbing, but I was no longer as worried about frostbite. The Tribunal had been kind to her -- they'd given her everything she needed to survive here.
She was running by the time the front door opened, pouring warm light and the shrill baying of hounds out into the courtyard. They cut the dogs loose, and they came loping across the yard, eyes gleaming, tongues lolling and teeth flashing. She was at the drain hood when they reached her, and with one well-placed kick she sent the forerunner of the pack reeling. His companions plowed into him from behind. Tweaked dogs, but still as dumb as bricks. She dropped into the well of the runoff pipe while they were still squirming and thrashing in an angry, bewildered pile. Their owners came running up behind them, cursing and yelling as their quarry quietly slipped away.

It was only then, when we were safely away from the drain hatch, that I indulged myself in the speculation that maybe -- just maybe -- we had a chance of pulling this off.

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