Descent - Part 3
Ara dreamed.

Strange, disjointed things. The nonsensical ramblings of an animal mind. I used the accompanying anabolic brain activity to consolidate my control, netting neurons into my mesh and orchestrating the growth of new connections. But the dreams were a constant distraction. They wouldn't quit, and as I'd feared while planning this crazy rescue scheme, I felt myself slipping away in them, losing myself in Ara. Odd that it should be so terrifying, when it was really the one thing I wanted most. But this was far from the right time. If I gave myself to Ara now, there would be no one to guide her home.

So think like the thing you are, Zavier. Think like an agent, a tool, and work for your master. Damn you! Try to bridge that gap of consciousness between a thing that thinks for itself and a thing that thinks for another. It would be taking the easy way out, to let the whims of greater minds guide me. But here I was the greater mind ... and the absence of purpose was appalling.

When Kat returned, e came in the visage of a large jungle cat, something between a leopard and a lion, lounging on a sun-speckled rise under a canopy of leaves the color of robins' eggs. "Good news," e said, licking a paw and combing it through a grizzled tuft of whiskers. "I found out what that dynamo is. Or rather what it isn't. It's not Covenant, and it's not manned. Not manned by humans, anyway. Better yet, there's a passage to get to it from here, if you don't mind a bit of a hairy climb."

E flicked a scaled tail, rolled onto eir back and stretched, yawning wide. Eir back legs became like a salamander's, slick and mottled, olive green and brown. The leaves around us faded to a soft pastel and began falling from their branches, spiraling to earth on a soft warm breeze out of the west. The sun began to set. The air took on a golden hue.

I pranced around Kat, goat-like ... trying my best to ignore the contortions of reality around me. "How far?" I asked.

"An hour," Kat replied. E belly-walked over to a young tree and slithered up its trunk, eir feline fore-body distending into a furry caricature of a serpent. "I can't guarantee what you'll find out there. It's not on any registry. Officially, it doesn't exist. But, unofficially, some friends of mine have heard some rumors ... and owed me some favors. It's a particle accelerator, involved in some kind of power experiment -- something to do with Planck-scale interactions in shallow gravity fields. Or so my sources think. No doubt it's some toy of the Keeper, so they're probably light-years off. But ... it makes the occasional waypoint for travelers passing through the Wilds. The Covenant doesn't dare touch it, and the robotic staff doesn't give a snit about human presence as long as they aren't mucking things up."

"What happened to all that concern about tipping off the Keeper?"

Kat inspected eir claws, naturally now a sloth. "I thought about it," e said. "You're right. No sense second-guessing something that could unconditionally screw us any time it wanted to."

"So you're opting to tempt fate instead?"

"You'd rather deal with the Covenant?"

I let the question hang -- I didn't need to answer. Scylla or Charybdis. E was right -- it didn't matter. The sun had set, and we were standing in aquamarine twilight. The fallen leaves had become a burgundy carpet on the ground. Fireflies rose out of fissures in the rocks and trees to flit about the gilded, naked skeleton of the canopy, shimmering in moonlight from a nonexistent moon. Covenant had no moon, but Ara's dreams bathed in its pale glow still -- the echo of some vestigial race-memory of a world abandoned long ago.

"Quite a trip you've got going here," Kat said. "I never looked so good."

E was preening like a peacock -- was a peacock -- and I could do nothing more than smirk and look up at the sky. I recognized the place. It was Ara's place, Ara's realm, the foundation of personal truth she had constructed her reality upon. I recognized it not by appearance, but by feel. We had been here many times before. Every time it looked different -- but every time it felt exactly the same.

"I don't think I can do it, Kat. I feel like I'm dissolving. There just isn't enough substance to last in all this...."

"Bullshit. You grab that substance from whatever you can find floating around in there and prop yourself up on it. You know I can't do this. I'd fry every neuron in her head without you there acting like a filter."

"What if I can't? Shouldn't we have a backup plan...?"

"Listen to yourself! For God's sake ... bellyaching about getting your butt kicked by a meatsack."

"You know it's not like that. It's Ara. We used to be a part of Ara ... makes a hell of a lot of sense we should try to be again, regardless what she is."

"What she is. Why don't you think about that for a while. And while you do, get going to that dynamo. You'll rot here if you don't.

E vanished in a burst of dragonflies and bubbles. I stood there feeling as alone as I could in this place. Regarding the dreamscape from the perspective of a frog on a stump.

"Can you hear me, Ara? Please, wake up. It's time to wake up now."

A thrum of diamond fingers on a delicate neurological harp, and she came awake with a jolt, roused as if by a thunderclap. I gave her a moment to catch her breath, to become readjusted to the harsh face of a new reality, and then coaxed her gently. "Time to go, sweet."

Grudgingly, she started to move. The dull, persistent throb of every muscle in her body delivered a clear reality check. Fragments of the dream still hung in her senses, bubbled up from a sleeping memory that believed itself more real than anything around us now. There, too, was sense of unreachable vastness. A freedom lost to some calamity, so far beyond Ara's current comprehension that it was frustrating only to realize she'd comprehended it once.

Kat obliged us with a visual trail through the catacombs, dumping data through me into Ara's visual cortex. E plotted our path in glowing, lime green footprints meandering into the darkness. We backtracked from the egress-pipe, following them to a break in one of the catacomb walls a hundred meters or so back toward Covenant territory. Halfway there, the dark became so impenetrable that Ara could literally only feel her way along. Even so, she seemed unperturbed. Strange that she so completely trusted the guidance of these whispers in her mind. Guardian angels, manifested ages after the last of the angels had been struck down.

It was heartening. There were holes in her memory a mile wide -- holes in all our memories, excised from our thoughts by the Tribunal's mind surgeons. But still, she seemed to remember us. She was us ... even now, when she felt so distant and small.

Kat outlined the borders of the break as we approached it, but eir estimations were all wrong. Eir sensors could not penetrate with any precision through the tones of rock above us, but e fudged it well enough to keep us from cracking our head against the jutting edges. Ara felt her way along the breach, down a ragged staircase of fallen rock and into a larger chamber. From somewhere far away echoed the sound of dripping water. The air was warmer here. Almost pleasant.

We picked our way along Kat's trail. It seemed to me we'd looped back on ourselves a dozen times before we came to the second break. This time, the light that limned the edges was real -- a soft, orange luminance from somewhere deep across the far side of the granite cleft. Ara wriggled through the gap. Heat ebbed from the passageway, and the sound of distant machinery buzzed along its walls.

Our gap opened up into a broken pipe -- one ripped open by a cave-in long ago, and never considered for repairs, having so long been out of service. The walls here were different -- not the rusted metal of before, but a brittle black ceramic, rough to the touch with little chinks of material that glittered in the orange light from ahead. It seemed to suck the heat out of Ara's skin. Superconductor. A heat pipe. Once intended to dissipate the inferno of whatever this facility was intended to produce. Evidentially no longer needed, or perhaps just sufficiently useful still despite its decrepit state.

It dropped out of a wall onto a kind of catwalk -- more a broad rail for machines that moved like snails, bristling with arms and sensors -- to wrap around a massive twisting column of ducts and cabling in the center of the chamber. That column thrust upward toward a brilliant gap hundreds of meters above, rising out of somewhere so deep below that its end couldn't be seen. The room was bathed in orange light. Radiance from other heat pipes, glowing with their load, running to and fro across the volume of the chamber. Odd angles. A mind-bending, fundamental asymmetry. This place was very obviously nothing of human design.

Someone else was there with us.

At first he looked like just another fixture of the place. He hung a few centimeters off the catwalk from a black cable wrapped around his neck, strung down off a support strut a half a meter over his head. He hung there rigid, straight as a plank, head slumped, chin against his chest, looking as dead as everything around him.

"Covenant worker." Kat's voice was tinged with a bizarre amusement. "Guess the poor bastard couldn't take it anymore. Dandy place to do it -- no one would find you for weeks!"

Except that he was still alive. Ara's eye caught the flicker of a pulse on his temple, magnified by the glint of a bead of sweat trickling out of his dark shock of hair. She grabbed his foot, pulled him closer to the catwalk and strained up the length of his body to slash the cord around his neck. She barely caught him as he fell. The two of them ended up in a heap on the catwalk, her legs and his head dangling over the edge. She scrambled into a crouch and hauled him upright, examining the mean bruise the cord had banded around his neck.

His eyes flicked open, jittered and tracked her vaguely for a second before they focused on her face. "The hell did you do that for?" he choked. And before Ara could react, he had her by the hand -- her fingers were still sharp from cutting the cord -- and used it to slash his own throat.

Augmented reflexes. Ironic application of what should have been a powerful survival mechanism. The life surged out of him, black in the ruddy ambience. His face set in a horrible rictus, and his eyes glinted a brief flash of what looked like satisfaction before they glazed and dulled. Ara sat holding him by the collar of his jacket, her knees behind his back, supporting him in an awkward sitting position. Slowly, she shifted out from under him and lowered him onto the catwalk. His head tilted back at an unnatural angle. Ara's fingers had slashed nearly halfway through his neck.

"I'll be," Kat whispered. "I wonder what was eating him?"

A sick feeling worked its way through me, through my interface, into Ara's limbs. It felt like an ache, though of a significantly different sort than the ache of exertion it replaced. Ara stared at the body -- I couldn't get her to look away. A horrid feeling of mortality crept over me. Avatars are built with a knack for pathos.

The worst of it was that I was the only one who felt it. Something in the pit of Ara's brain was thoroughly revolted, but her mind, far from native to this physiology, misinterpreted the queasy sensation in her stomach as a reminder of another nagging distress signal she'd been getting from there for a while now. Her fingers resharpened, and she reached out to touch the corpse....

I froze her muscles, a split second before Kat's voice echoed in our ears, "Wouldn't do that. See those lumpy things around his groin? Drug delivery system. Big vein there. Good for fast introduction of all sorts of nifty stuff. He's probably got all manner of stimulants and coagulants bubbling around in whatever is left of his blood. You get that in you and there's no telling how you'd tweak."

I snapped her arms down to her sides, overriding the gnawing, desperate instinct that had taken over her mind. I channeled every sense of revulsion I could package through my interface and crammed it into every corner of her brain. It washed over her like a breaking tide. She pitched over and dry-heaved over the catwalk's edge. Nothing to throw up, but her body made the point for me anyway. I backed down slowly, returning control by deliberate measures to make sure she'd put it to proper use.

"Take his boots," Kat suggested. "And that coat. And anything else reasonably warm or useful you can find. Those underoos look nice, but hell if I know what you might catch from them..."

Respect for the dead. Have some goddamn respect! We took his boots, his jacket, his backpack and his insulating overalls.... It's just out of necessity ... you understand? Ara neglected the dog tags dangling down the unbuttoned front of his long-johns, but I saw them well enough to read them in her peripheral vision. "Turanov Michaile Zolevski." Either I reached for them, or she took them on her own, brought back to them by the weight of my attention. She dropped them carelessly around her neck, and I felt them come to rest smooth and cold between her breasts.

"There's a traveler's shack up on one of the rim walls. You can get there if you climb this catwalk about a fifty meters and bear left. I'll bet you can find some provisions there. Gypsies are a conservative lot. Like to leave lots of caches along their way, just in case..."

Ara struggled out of her nightgown, wadded it up and used it to scrape the filth off her arms and legs. The coveralls she wriggled into smelt of wet hair and artificial musk. The faint twinge of urine lingered around parts of it, though it was self-cleaning, and already well engaged in its work. The coat was a miracle of synthetic furs and fiber heating elements. Their power supply was still near full charge. Turanov had set out to meet his maker well supplied. I told myself it was a fortunate find -- that we wouldn't have made it much farther without it. But it felt like robbery just the same.

She sat there for a minute afterward just staring at the body, fingering his dog tags. Finally, she clutched them -- broke them over her middle finger and reached out to cram the free tag under the corpse's tongue. She patted the slack jaw shut, smiling. As she stood, she nudged the body over the edge of the catwalk. A second of silent freefall, a muffled whump as it hit a ledge and bounced off, tumbling ... spinning into oblivion. Burial by circumstance. This shaft probably reached halfway to the core.

Rest in whatever peace you've found, my luckless friend. Perhaps it's a better place than this.

Ara seemed to cast a final, maybe reverent look after him before she set out in search of Kat's supply cache. I had to convince myself of that to keep from thinking it was just disappointment at having walked away still hungry.

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