Descent - Part 4
We found Kat's supply cache, tucked away behind a makeshift duck-blind draped over a concavity in the wall. Inside was a veritable smorgasbord of dry rations. Ara ate her fill, quenching it with clean water from Turanov's canteen. Afterward, she slept for a few hours, leaving me alone to brood in the fairytale parade of her dreams. At one point, she awoke long enough to kick her way out of Turanov's coat and coveralls. She tucked them underneath herself for cushioning and fell back asleep on top of them. The outside cold had given way to an unnaturally dry heat here, soaked out of the blazing conduits that coiled up from the bowels of the planet. Ara's new physiology tolerated heat far less than it did cold.

Every so often, a cool breeze found its way down from up above. It caressed Ara's skin with playful, spectral fingers, pricking up tiny hairs all across her body and sending exquisite little shivers through her flesh. Strange that she could find such pleasure in the same kind of sensation that had been so oppressive, just hours ago. She slept through it, but it jarred me each time it happened. Getting too close to the substrate. Getting to like its little quirks a bit too much.

Kat left us alone, leaving me to solitary immersion in Ara's subconscious. I entertained the thought of jacking out, taking a break, but decided against it. What if Ara woke up without me? She'd panic. No telling what she'd do if I left her alone in a place like this. Or so I convinced myself.

Truth be told, I wanted to stay for myself. Maybe I was suffering from some sort of separation anxiety. Maybe I was eager to be swept away and end this wicked farce. I tried to pin it down. Odd having to fight to dig my own intentions out of the landslide of confusion in my mind.

My thoughts kept slipping back to Turanov, to such an extent that the image of his final moments invaded Ara's dreams. I wondered if we were headed for the same fate, soon to be drowned in a sea of our own hopelessness. Suicide was not unknown on Covenant. Its existence alone disturbed me less than the realization that most cases grew out of the same root cause. That cause -- that cultural stagnation that strangled the ambitious -- was by some measure the fault of creatures like ourselves.

Technology deprivation does funny things to human societies. Face on, it would seem to be an untenable condition. Metastable at best. Innovation is as inevitable as the heat death of the universe. Sooner or later, someone is going to break the status quo. And so the Keeper upholds eir namesake. While the angelnets decayed centuries ago, the Keeper maintains something like them still -- something the lords of the Covenant disavow, but something all thinking, rational beings know must exist. It interferes. It breaks down the Things that Shalt Not Be. It returns to dust that which dared to come out of it under the ministry of human hands.

In its wake, science crumbles. Rationality depends on predictability, and the unseen agents of the Keeper are by their very nature unpredictable. Theory cracks along the fracture lines of its own forbidden applications, and investigatory minds are forced into delusions of demons and unseen harbingers of premature technological decay. The world poisons itself in uncertainty, and the march of progress grinds to a screeching halt.

No efforts may ever lift that shroud. No mind may grow beyond its natural bounds. Those that try are put to dust as surely as the Keeper maintains eir vigil. Such are the laws of our world. They are applied harshly to all who would aspire to rise above them, save those few who already have. The Keeper. The Tribunal. The transapients of varying scope and power who lived scattered about the planet, mostly independent and isolated, as per the Keeper's decree. Hands off the highest's experiments. Let them hang themselves. Some literally.

I wondered if Turanov had died knowing his own insignificance; if he had come to realize that the nation of the Covenant shared its name with the world only by coincidence -- that human beings were little more than a speck on its cosmic stage. The last paragraphs of their history had been written by the Keeper long ago, and now their book sat closed on eir dusty shelf, never to be reopened.

The Keeper had spelled out eir rules in crystal clarity long ago, and since then the consequences of disobedience had become equally apparent. E was harshly equitable in all things. If nothing else, the Keeper was a creature of law. E had stated as much, time and again, the few times e'd had anything to say at all.

When Ara woke up, we took some time to practice making words, shaping our mouth and tongue around sounds that should have been easy. After a while, I had her forming short sentences with decent enunciation. Between snacks, she'd pester me with halting, broken questions. Simple things she should have known already. She obviously remembered Kat and me, or remembered that she'd had some kind of relationship with us at some time in the past. But how much she remembered was anybody's guess. I started to wonder if there really was anything left of Ara here.

I wondered, by extension, how much was left of me.

She must have felt my discomfort, because after a while she stopped talking. She went to studying the sensation of the fur-lined coat against her skin, the rock wall under her fingers -- anything she could find, she explored with the naivety of a child. Getting to know her new senses. Settling in for the long haul.

"Zavier, you shouldn't cry," she said suddenly, out of nowhere. "Everyone has to die."

We'd have to work on that obnoxious rhyming thing. "I'm not upset that he died. I'm upset that you wanted to eat him."

"That's not what I mean. You know ... how I've been?" She drew the last word out to fit her compulsive pattern.

"No one has to die," I said. "We should have gotten past that kind of thing ages ago."

"It doesn't bother me. I understand ... if that's the way it has to be. Why would it bother you, if it's something everyone has to do?"

"It just does. I'm an avatar -- I have to talk to people, so I'm stuck with some built-in sympathy for their condition. You can't strike a good rapport with someone who thinks you don't understand them. And sometimes that understanding hurts. It hurt me. I don't like to think about the kinds of things make people want to die."

"Sometimes I think I want to die. I think I'm just afraid to try. There's something built into me, holding me back. I wonder what happened to him, to make him crack?" She played with the dog tag, shaking it to make it jingle on its chain.

"Don't think about that." There was too much sincerity in her voice. It chilled what little soul I had anymore. God, Ara ... talk about anything other than this. "Hey. What color's that light?"

"Orange...." She forgot about the dog tag. Just sat there looking confused.

"Doesn't matter anyway," I said. "I can't cry. I don't even have eyes. Outside the net and your brain, I'm not even real."

"Je pense, donc je suis. That's enough for me."

"Dammit, cut that out! You sound like an idiot."

"Sorry...." She bit her lip, looking down at the bare rock floor. Only through the bone conduction of her jaw did I hear her mutter, "....Charlie."

We found a map in the supply trunk, manually drawn and tattered by countless handlings. It plotted a vague course through the Wilds, with stopovers marked along the way. Each segment looked to be about a day's journey on foot. Making use of the migrants' trail would make getting through the Wilds easier, but it meant more contact with humans, along with all the difficulties that might entail. If the Covenant was serious about reclaiming us, they'd have put out word of a reward by now. But, on the flip side, going it alone might be just as dangerous for different reasons....

Ara dumped Turanov's backpack out in her lap and began picking through its contents. Fairly standard equipment for a Covenant field scout. Canteen, binoculars, some rations, a water purifier. Canned heat, a tarp for a rain shelter. Some climbing gear. A notebook. A sparkpin we could use to start a fire, if we could find something flammable that wasn't frozen to the core.

She came to a large bore chemical pistol and a handful of shells. Not much, but it might come in handy fending off wolves in the Wilds. Probably what it was intended for in the first place. I took special care in explaining to her what it was, what it did and what not to do with it. When she put it back in the bag, she handled it with the same kind of reverence one shows to an idol. You develop a different respect for things that can destroy you when you're accustomed to being immortal. At least there was some of that left in her.

Kat came back a few minutes later, announcing emself with a drum roll of crackling static. "Everybody rested? Wonderful. Look, I've contacted another friend in Zurin, a few days' walk northeast of here. E says e knows someone there who's a sucker for Covenant political refugees. I neglected to tell em the whole story. E thinks Ara's just a rabble-rouser. E'll give us shelter, in any event."

"Zurin?" The thought of going there made me more than a bit uneasy. Ara would be the only human being in a city of transapients ... but if Kat knew someone, maybe that wouldn't be so bad. It would keep the Covenant out. "Pretty swanky," I said. "How high on the food chain is e?"

"High enough. E'll keep things quiet, and I'm pretty sure we can trust em."

"You've got a lot of friends, all of a sudden."

"I get around. You meet people when you're not busy sulking your life away. Now get moving. E won't wait forever.

Ara got up, dressed, packed, and started out of the duck-blind, up the catwalk, following the trail Kat laid down for us in glowing footprints. Ara's footprints, I noticed, with stubby little claws on the toes. Cute. Occasionally, some of them would wiggle.

We ascended for the better part of an hour, moving around the circumference of the shaft more than we moved up. Finally, we came to a large cargo door. It stood open as if waiting for us.

"I fooled it into thinking a delivery was scheduled," Kat said, pride bubbling in eir voice. "Dumb thing has been like that for hours."

It unnerved me to think Kat could have duped one of the Keeper's toys -- even one of the dumber ones -- but I was the only one who seemed bothered. It might have been a good omen or a sign of greater favor. Ara slogged out into the snow, tromping big footprints in Turanov's shoes. Funny how much a full belly and a good night's rest can lift a person's spirits. I wished I could have been so easily uplifted.

The door let out from the northern flank of the spur into a shallow bowl formed by a rocky outcropping that looped out and around like the curve of a hook. The frozen lake lay hidden on its far side. A haze hung in the air over the bowl -- the remnants of the morning's pogonip, settled into the shadows and depressions along the flank of the spur where the sun's light had yet to fall. It didn't quite blot all visibility, but it made fine details blur together enough that it would be hard to spot anything you didn't know to look for. Good thing. It provided the only real cover I could see for the better part of a kilometer.

To the east, midway through a northward bend in the spur, the narrow cleft of a man-made pass gave way to the Covenant territories. Jagged teeth of rock and ice jutted from its sides. The top hung heavy with old snow. Ragged winter caps curved visibly out from the tops of either side, whipped into curled points at the ends by wind and melt. I was happy we hadn't needed to go through that. It looked like it only needed a minor excuse to come down.

About a hundred meters from the door, Kat rattled the alarm bell. "Hold up! Stop! Ara, hit the snow!"

Ara dropped onto all fours, arms and legs sinking elbow and knee deep. She lay there with her chin above the surface, breath eating away at the crust in front of her. She must have thought about how visible her dark jacket would be against the white of the snow, because she began flailing her arms, knocking powder up onto her back, burying herself. I couldn't tell any better than she could how good of a job she did, but the fact that we didn't start ringing Covenant alerts then and there said she'd probably done well enough.

Kat had given us ample warning. The surveyor e pointed out with a bright red arrow laid over Ara's vision had his back to us when we went down. Ara ducked lower when he turned. He stood up on the peak of the spur at the near edge of the pass, equipment iridescent in the late morning sunlight like the carapace of some large beetle latched onto his face. Ara squirmed for her backpack when he turned away again, pulled out the binoculars and peered through them for a closer look.

He appeared to be unarmed, but with the kind of equipment he was packing, he could have called down any number of incarnations of nastiness if he spotted us. He wore a Covenant insignia on his lapel. Recognizable even from this distance, gleaming through the haze. Special Forces. They were pulling out all the stops.

"Down to the right, Ara," Kat said. Ara's tunneled view swerved down in the direction e had indicated, looped back around when a flashing red arrow popped up to tell her she'd gone too far. It settled on the mouth of the pass, beyond which a mob of Covenant police forces milled. They were outfitted like a small army. Maybe twenty to thirty of them, depending on how many were hiding in the vehicles. Waiting to come through until they knew what they would find on the far side.

"Crap on a stick," Kat said. "Whoda thunk they'd have the guts to come all the way out here? They must want you bad."

Too many to fight through, and they had at least one spotter on the hill who would see us the moment we tried to move. It was at least five hundred meters out of the bowl, up over its rim and safely into the dark swath of trees marking the border of the Wilds. The intervening ground was flat and open. No cover. And those vehicles could easily overtake us.

"You sure they're after us?"

"They've got the whole damn region on alert," Kat said. "If they're not out here for us, they'll be more than happy to run us down just the same when they spot us."

"Dammit. Ara, a little to the left. Can you get a better resolve on that one sitting on the back of the crawler? There! Hold it!"

I waited for the blur to clear after Ara finished fumbling with the binoculars' zoom. Her arm wobbled under the strain of the odd angle she had it cocked at, and her field of view jumped and pitched wildly with the motion. But I recognized the face that stared back at us -- mercifully unseeing, but not for lack of searching.

"You know him?"

"Too well," I said. "That's General Kocyk. He's on the Council of Lords. Got a bit of a Napoleon complex going for him. Doesn't like it that the Covenant's operating under the jurisdiction of the Tribunal. Got a thing against transapients, I guess. If I remember right, he put in quite a bid for hosting Ara's stay. Nothing pleasant in mind, I'm sure. Something about a bargaining chip. Good thing he brings in piss for taxes. We'd never have gotten out of his guest suite."

"Sounds like a real peach. What do you want to do about him?

"You're the shell," I said. "You figure it out. I just draw up the profiles."

Kat took the better part of a minute bullying through the ICE of satellite monitors, prying into Covenant tactical networks, all the while buzzing with the effort of covering eir own tracks and eir feed back to me. Crunching numbers at a rate that made me dizzy. I felt the flow of data somewhere far out on the periphery of my consciousness. Kat liked to keep me informed of the scope of eir talents. Ara dragged her view around the pass, a little too haphazard and jittery to pull in any real information. Not that she could have done much with it anyway.

"Okay," Kat said finally. "I've got something. Might be kind of a long shot."

"Better than trying to wait them out?"

"Marginally. I need you to get back to that door if you can. About three and a half meters to the left of it. That red spot there. Doesn't really matter if they see you."

"That's better?

But Ara was already up and moving, loping over the plain in long, bounding strides. The spotter's back was to us once again, but he was already turning around.

"Gonna need that gun," Kat said, and then, "Ears down. This might be kinda loud."

The door to the power facility began to lumber down, clanking and creaking, ice shattering and falling from its tracks as the heavy metal panels slid down. It more than caught the attention of the spotter -- he almost fell down, spinning around to train his eyepiece on the closing door and Ara, scrambling around at its base.

She watched him through the binoculars with one eye, the other trained on Kat's big red X splayed over the snow. With her free arm she shrugged the backpack down, twisted her wrist into it and rummaged for the pistol. Her shoulder burned under the exertion. The muscle tear from earlier hadn't yet completely healed.

The sound of motors starting up was rolling out of the pass by the time Ara reached the middle of Kat's red X. She dropped the backpack and clutched the pistol in both hands, pointing the barrel toward the ground an uncomfortably short distance from her feet.

"Gonna spin some targets for you," Kat said. "I need you to pop me off three shots, as close to these angles as you can manage, exactly one second apart on my go. Ready?"

"I'll say! Let's play!"

Three floating red bulls-eyes popped up in Ara's visual field. By now the grumbling of cold engines turning over had become a high pitched whine -- snow crawlers coming up to speed over the crust.

"Go," Kat said. One of the targets flashed. Ara brought the gun up, aimed down the barrel with one eye and squeezed the trigger with both index fingers. The recoil nearly broke both of her wrists. Kat rayed out the path of the bullet, a little stray to the left, but mostly on target. Ara turned and popped another shot off at the now-flashing second target. I saw it had moved slightly from its initial position. Compensating for the first shot?

Closer this time. She soaked the recoil into her shoulders, holding her hands steady. The burning in her left shoulder turned into a dull, persistent throbbing. She fired a third time, right on target. And no more than a second after that shot rang out, the air in the bowl began to move.

It started as a low vibration, almost subsonic, barely above the low register of Ara's hearing. It rebounded off the half-closed facility door, which Kat had stopped midway down its track. Beads of ice began to jitter across the surface of the undisturbed snow crust around us. Ara whipped around to look through the binoculars toward the pass. We were at too steep an angle now to see the Covenant detachment, too close to the flank of the spur to see anything other than the opposing wall of the pass. That wall was vibrating visibly, rocks tumbling down its face, large sheets of ice bending and folding and breaking, all coming down. A single snow crawler shot out of the mouth of the pass, moving faster than I'd ever seen one of them move. A wall of rock and snow came right behind it. A fluid mountain pouring into the bowl. Its front caught the vehicle and, in a blink, it was gone. The avalanche kept moving, stretching out from the channel of the pass in a long white delta, sprawling hundreds of meters before it finally ground to a halt.

"That ought to keep the bitch busy," Kat said.

Ara and I stood there staring at the aftermath of Kat's handiwork. The three targets had morphed into cartoon faces, lolling tongues and leering in the direction of the buried detachment. They winked out one at a time, the last one lingering just long enough to grow a hand and flip off the smothered pass.

Ara dropped onto her knees, breathing hard, nursing her shoulder. I just stared through her eyes, unbelieving. "Kat?" I said after a while.


"How'd you do that? I mean ... what are the goddamn odds?"

"One, now," e replied. "Not that big of a deal anyway. I noticed it looked pretty loose. The gun has completely the wrong waveform, but a little creative reflection and interference can do a lot to fix that. Between it and the door, I just canceled out the frequencies I didn't want and reinforced the ones I did."

"Yah, but ... dammit, Kat! How did you...." I trailed off. E wasn't going to answer. It seemed pretty damn improbable to me, but some things a shell did, you just couldn't think about too much. Background processing to make all the pretty interfaces work. Looking at the toppled mountain ... this was one hell of an interface.

"Forget about it," Kat said. "Let's just get our pretty ass into those woods. There are survivors behind all that. They'll be looking for a way around soon. Can we move, please? I'm gonna go spoof some rescue beacons ... maybe make them think there's something still alive under there."

Kat departed in a chatter of static pops. For a while, Ara and I stood there, just staring. Finally, minutes later, we had collected ourselves enough to move on.

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