Descent - Part 6
A flicker in the dark as the interface kicked on; phosphenes lighting up across the visual field, peppering the blackness in pinpricks of evanescent starlight. I was sleeping. Odd, I didn't remember falling asleep....

"Ara? Zavier? You guys okay? Wake up!"

One at a time, my senses came to life. An odor like mildew and char ... something damp and cold on my face.

I opened my eyes.

All wrong. The color saturation was all wrong -- too vivid. Details popped out of the darkness around me. Dark everywhere. Treetops silhouetted black against the night. Stars glittering. Everything in shades of coal, too dark for color. And yet there were colors, swimming in my vision. Eating at the monochrome lines of the world.

I sat up. Dizzy. Confused. My sides ached, and an odd, numbing tingle flittered along my spine. Something clicked and popped in my ears. Kat's static, barely audible over a jumble of other sounds. Thudding pulse. The rush of blood through my ears. The ragged sound of my own breath.

"Ara? Can you hear me?" Kat's voice came out of nowhere. A real voice. Not the blazing gestalt e usually used. Something that came pouring into my mind through my audio cortex. A message made for the medium. Something not right....

"Kat?" I spoke with Ara's voice. I hadn't even tried. Like she had read my mind. Strange, forming words straight out of your mind with a real mouth. Sound encoding thoughts, a new layer of abstraction skinned over the deeper symbols of meaning, their translation seamless and automatic, carried out by something unconscious in the base of my brain.

My head pounded. My skin crawled. Every tiny hair tugged taut against a deep, biting cold. And what was that god-awful taste?

"Ara, dammit, talk to me. I can't read your mind, you know. Can you feel Zavier? What the hell happened?"

"Kat? Where are you?"

"In your head, idiot. I'm hooked in through Zavier's interface. Are you okay? This thing's a mess. Your neural nets are almost totally fused together. It's incredible you're still alive."

"Not just me. Both of us. I can't seem to decouple myself...." I wasn't really sure who the word "me" was supposed to refer to, anymore. It seemed to work for both of us. I looked down at myself, at my hand. Skin like phosphorescent ivory in the dark, glowing in the light of the stars. I lifted it up out of the dirt, feeling the flow of my own kinesthetic sense. I rubbed a smear of mud off my forehead. Out of my hair. A stray lock tickled the bridge of my nose.

"Stop it, please. You're going to make me sneeze."

Ara that time. I thought it at the same time I said it. She thought it and said it, and I just went along for the ride. I was rooted in way too deep. I tried to assess the condition of my interface, but it felt like it wasn't even there. I'd become lost in the depths of Ara's mind.

It clicked. The shutdown. It had done what I'd hoped it would. Ara hadn't fried. But I wasn't where I should have been. Something felt ... muddled.

I felt Ara in the midst of my own being, like I'd wrapped myself around her. I'd become like her second skin -- like it had been before the Tribunal had raped the life out of us. It felt like the world had snapped into focus. The discontinuity of my existence had been filled in, smoothed over. I felt whole again ... or at least as whole as two thirds of a person could. I smiled, not sure if it was Ara's doing or my own. A surging warmth rose in my chest....

I threw up.

Vertigo washed over me. I sat there, elbows locked, knees bent underneath me at an awkward, aching angle. Time slowed to a crawl. Everything hurt. Nausea worked its way in slow pulses up my throat. I'd had no idea something living could experience so much unpleasantness. Shivers played across my skin. I'd been used to this! I could control this! But somehow, the last few second had blown away days of progress. Now here I sat, mired in a sea of sensory hell.

"Where's Ezra?" I choked, swallowing an acid lump and struggling to keep it down. I squeezed my eyes shut to stop the world from spinning. It didn't help.

"Dead," Kat said. "Or as near it as I can tell. Might have been a few pieces of em got away. They'd be scurrying to reinstate a backup, if e's got one, so we'd better not be here much longer. Can you get up?"

"I don't know...." I trailed off. Ara snatched up the thought. The compulsion to rhyme it was overwhelming. I tried to fight it down, but she won, and I felt my mouth mutter, "Need to take it slow."

"You keep going as slow as you are and we'll be here till the sun burns out. Quit screwing around and get up."

I pushed myself onto my knees. Wobbly. Unsure. I stretched a fusillade of pops out my spine. The rush of endorphins saw me upright. I was hard to balance. The world was still spinning too fast. I spotted Turanov's jacket a few meters away, a little scorched but for the most part intact. I crawled over to it and huddled into it, drawing my knees up under the faux fur and shivering. It was as cold as the mud it lay in. I sat there, curled into as small a ball as I could make myself, until the coat had trapped enough of my body heat to stop the frozen aching in my bones.

"What happened?" I asked. I had to try twice to get the words out through the chattering of my teeth. Again, that overriding compulsion to rhyme. Holding it was like holding my breath. But both Ara and I were too disoriented to think how to do it. It was easier just to pluck the rhyme out of her thoughts and let it fade away in mine.

Reading her mind. That should have been impossible ... but it was happening. I couldn't stop it. The crashing intersection of our thoughts was almost paralyzing. Every little coincidental whimsy collided head-on in the rapidly shrinking namespace of our brain. She was thinking full- force with my interface hardware, as much as I was thinking with her neurons.

Neither Ara nor I heard much of Kat's flailing attempt at explanation. It trickled in like a buzz of conversation in a dream. Inarticulate, but somehow still meaningful. "...Ara's mind is still put together like a transapient's. It's just the substrate that's different. The Tribunal made her body su ... practically built the neural interfaces into her. A mess of neurally inclined stem cells, some grossly overactive brain plasticity, an adaptive rig to build on.... Damn, Zavier!"

There might have been a hint of admiration in Kat's voice. "She's been thinking with that thing since they made her -- you just bumped her out when you showed up. You started putting your hooks in her, and she put them right back in you. Then you flip out and damage her ... and she heals right over you. Not bad for a meatsack. You've been busy gobbling each other up, Zavier, and it looks like she was a hell of a lot hungrier than you. I'm surprised you even still know who you are."

"I'd forgotten," I said. Reflexively. I stared at my own hand. Delicate bones. Taut ridge of tendons across the knuckles. Graceful knots of muscle and sinew. Pretty hands. "But I'm starting to remember now."

I bit my tongue to hold back the deluge of nonsensical rhymes that flooded my head. The more time that passed without one of them slipping out, the more and more they piled up in my mind. I realized how distressing it really was for her to forgo the compulsive little ritual. Maybe she really didn't think that slowly -- she just tied up her brain with the wrong stuff.

"Wow." It slipped out when I let up on my tongue, tasting blood. "Ezra, Kat? How did you kill Ezra? For God's sake ... do you have any idea what you just went up against?" Hold it. Chew it back....

"Wasn't that tough. E practically did emself in. Arrogant bastard."

"But you killed em. Dammit, Kat, it doesn't make sense!" Hah! Proud of myself for that one. It seemed to make Ara happy, too.

"You hope I killed em. Maybe I just pissed em off. Now are you just going to sit there and ask me stupid questions? Cause I'd really rather not stick around and find out."

"I'm going! I'm going...." Repetition was cheating. It didn't work nearly as well as I'd hoped, but it was better than nothing. I stood up, experimentally, fully expecting to fall back down. My knees wobbled -- I had knees! -- as I took a step. Awkward. Lurching. Plodding over to the coveralls, the backpack ... its contents strewn across a radius of several meters. Damn.

My tent hung in tatters from a tree limb about six meters up. While I thought about how to get it down, I went about collecting my other things, moving as quickly as I could. I'd been missing a lot, sitting on the other side of my interface. With as much of my mind as Ara would let me, I wished I could have gone back and missed some more.

In a flash, I realized the dog tag was gone. A hard lump jumped into my throat. A surge of horror. "Oh, no. Where did it go?"

I threw the backpack down, dropped onto all fours and started sifting through the mud and pine needles, sweeping wide with my hands, completely ignoring the searing cold of the ground on my fingertips. I felt panic. Horror. Rage. A seething mix of emotions, all of which I'd felt before, but that somehow seemed far less abstract now. Pumping synapses and surging hormones. It overrode everything, resurrecting some deeply buried animal ancestor that played puppet master with my mind. Ezra had been right. All sorts of fascinating, awful things....

My fingers crossed something metal. I snatched it up, not even looking at what it was. I felt the chain brush across my forearm, and clutched the whole handful of dirt and rotting plant matter to my chest. My heart pounded. My lungs felt like they were turning inside out. But the touch of that cold metal on my skin soothed the beast in the pit of my soul. Scorned it, chained it and sent it slouching back into its lair.

"Now that we've had that pathetic display of sentimentality, can we please get moving?" Kat said. "We should find some friendly civilization soon -- you look like you need a doctor."

"Just sit tight. Now I'm alright." It was a lie, and e knew it. I hung the dog tag back around my neck and picked up the backpack. Then I went looking for Turanov's boots. They were tougher to find. They'd been thrown much farther, and one of them was filled to the cuff with mud. I dumped it out, put it on and started slogging in what I hoped was the right direction.

I decided to leave the tent. Even if I could have pulled it down, from the look of it, it wouldn't have done me much good.

Kat burned a compass needle into my vision, leading me through the darkness. I could see well enough in the starlight to keep from tripping on a rock or smacking my head on a tree branch, but my distance vision wasn't anywhere near sufficient to tell where I was going. So I had to rely on Kat's directions -- regardless of how uneasy that made me.

As long as I was going where e wanted me to, e left me alone. For once I was glad e did. In a subtle, wordless way, Ara explained the nagging signals of her anatomy to me. I was afraid of Kat. Ara had been afraid of em for a while. The nagging suspicion that had been growing for both of us since the avalanche in the pass had blossomed into a full-blown canker of mistrust. E was hiding something -- something massive. God knew how long e'd had this terrible power. A rage that killed transapients. And I couldn't come up with a satisfying reason why e'd kept it from me. At least, none that weren't steeped in paranoia.

I walked. After a while, I stopped feeling my footsteps. The motion became automatic, unconscious, my legs carrying me onward even though my mind drifted somewhere else.

Suddenly, I felt unbearably lonely. Since leaving the compound, I'd always had Ara's presence to keep me company. Now it was gone. It had become me. One less degree of separation between its presence and my own. Ara didn't count anymore, and I didn't count for her. The bedlam of our thoughts had begun working its way toward some order. Less cacophony than symphony now, belting out the worst of the atonal experiments of history's most avant-guard composers. But at least they followed some underlying sense of order.

It had started. I was dissolving into her, and she was becoming me. It should have been the same. Mathematically equivalent, the same two beings in a different configuration. Minds commuted, didn't they? Complementary pieces. But it felt so savagely different.

Even with Turanov's clothes between the frigid air and my skin, I felt cold. Mud caked the inside and outside about equally now. The heating elements had shut down to avoid overheating themselves under the pack. No help there.

My nose itched. I wondered, with some cynical fascination, if I was getting sick. Ara had been wondering the same thing for a while. I felt feverish, but it might have just been the overactive interface. Fused, Kat said. Wonderful. I just hoped it wasn't fused in a state that would kill us. If it did, I couldn't blame it. It would be my own damn fault.

The sky above the tree line was just beginning to show the first hints of dawn when I decided I couldn't walk anymore. One step, and my knees gave out. I don't remember falling -- just suddenly being face down in the dirt. Ara's thoughts strummed out a chord of smug satisfaction. "You didn't take it slow. I thought I told you so..."

Kat's voice crackled in my ear. "Get up. You're not done yet."

"Yes I am," I said, spitting out a mouthful of dirt. "Too tired. Gotta sleep. I don't feel good, Kat. I'm in too deep...."

"Suck it up. You want me to do it for you?"

E tried. I felt the surge of eir will over the interface -- my interface, dammit -- digging into my motor cortex and sending twitches through my limbs. Clumsy, uncoordinated twitches. Kat had no idea how to move my muscles, or the interface was in a worse state than I'd thought. Or maybe they just wouldn't do what e wanted, regardless of what e told them. They'd certainly stopped listening to me. E kept trying for a minute or so, and then gave up. Something like frustration came sulking out of eir link.

"Piece of crap substrate," e said. I could only grunt agreement.

"You're going to have to get out of the open, even if you don't get very far," Kat went on. "Try for those trees over there. How bad do you think you are?"

"I don't know. I can't just run a diagnostic on myself. Don't really have any way to assess my own health."

"Why the hell not? A million years of evolution and all you can do is lay there? No wonder you're not the dominant species anymore...."

"You wouldn't even exist if it hadn't been for me!" Ara blew past me in a surge of anger. She crammed the unspoken rhyme into me, letting me deal with the discomfort of keeping it down. Trying her best not to seem cute.

She hauled us onto our hands and knees -- we couldn't find the balance to stand upright -- and worked her way into a dugout at the base of a tree a few meters off. The weather -- or something else -- had carved a pit under its roots. I tried not to think about the something else. The recess was just large enough to hold us. The ground cupped our body into a cozy little ball. I pulled Turanov's coat up over our head and buried our face in the musky fur of its hood.

It warmed up quickly under there. Within a minute or so, it started to feel suffocating, but I was too afraid of popping our little bubble of warmth to try and do something about it. Ara liked it for a different reason -- something about the faint smell of Turanov's hair and the twinge of satisfaction it produced, somewhere deeply primitive. "You knew what you were doing," I said to the dog tag. I twisted its chain between my fingers, pouring my attention into the smooth reassurance of its touch. "You knew damn well what you were getting out of. Must be somebody's cruel joke that I still don't get it."

"Not so bad when you get used to it, really. Just feels worse when you try to stop it, silly."

"That was terrible. And, anyway, you've had more time to acclimate than I have."

"I did; you will. Not likely, the way things are going. Don't be such a pill...."

We must have talked like that for hours, conversing in that schizophrenic monologue. She cooed and comforted, I griped and grumbled about all the little things I couldn't seem to wrap my mind around, but hated just the same. The faint buzz of static in my ears told me Kat was listening, but e didn't say anything. E just listened. It was familiar ... but hardly comforting. E wasn't nearly as good a companion as I had been.

Something about that struck me as deeply wrong. Thinking of yourself as two separate entities. Ruminating about your own relationship with yourself. It had worked once, but human brains weren't built for it. I wondered, on the verge of sleep, just how screwed up I'd be if Kat managed to wind eir way into my skull, too.

I don't know if I really slept. The closest I came to dreaming was a few jolting bouts of hypnogogia. I fell a few times, had something try to dig me up once or twice. More than once I thought someone was there in the hole with me, talking to me. He looked like Turanov, but he had Kat's voice. He kept asking questions I didn't know how to answer, and telling me things I didn't understand. His words bled together in a meaningless babble, but his voice was soothing. Probably just some figment. Sometimes Ara talked to him. Sometimes she just listened. In either event, I couldn't follow the thread of their conversation. Even if, a few times, she seemed to be speaking through me.

Each time I blinked, the light above our hole grew brighter, seeping through the openings of my coat. Before long, I started to get very uncomfortable. Sore, stiff and nearly smothering in the muggy reek of moist dirt, I shifted up against the roots, trying to stretch out the knots that were kinking up my legs. I had to stand up before it did any good. I leaned with my back on the tree trunk, holding myself up with my elbows on the roots. Ara and I took turns standing there and ogling up at the daylight, groggy and confused. Not really rested, but not quite exhausted anymore either.

The sun was up, but showing little more than a bright splotch behind the gray mass of rain clouds choking the sky. The woods had seemed to change overnight. The stand of trees we'd wandered into was much sparser than those we'd seen earlier. There was more to the understory here. Ground cover. Something that looked vaguely like manzanita. Warmer weather growth. I must have found my way over the edge of the Covenant's plateau during the night, and had strayed far enough down its skirt that I'd dropped out of the harshest climate zone.

Maybe things were starting to look up.

Ara didn't want to eat, but I made her anyway. Turned out, a few minutes later, that was a mistake. We ended up another ration down and no better off in our nutritional intake. Turanov's backpack still held plenty ... but I had no idea how long it would have to last.

About an hour later, it started raining again. By then we were moving. The sparser canopy here made lousy cover. Big rolling droplets broke over my head at maddeningly consistent intervals. A little warmer than the cold air it fell through, but not by much. I heard a peal of thunder in the distance. We were coming down out of the plateau rain shadow. From here on out, it would only get wetter.

And it did. A few minutes later, the rain started coming down in torrents. Warm torrents -- probably a good 290 absolute. Strange. I wondered, off hand, if maybe Kat had a friend in the weather business. Nothing would have surprised me anymore.

Despite considerable protest, I managed to persuade Ara out of Turanov's jacket and coveralls, hoping to let the rain rinse away the filth of the last few days. She got used to the temperature eventually -- better than anything she'd been in since leaving the power station -- and before long seemed to be enjoying herself. Or maybe I was enjoying myself. It was getting harder to tell the difference. Something about the brisk touch of the raindrops ... the little crick that developed in our wrist from holding out Turanov's soaking, mud-caked clothes.... It felt right. Odd to feel so suddenly at home in a body so completely alien. But it was Ara. Bright, playful ... starting to get less so now that she was clean and just pointlessly freezing her ass off.

We beat as much mud out of Turanov's clothes as we could to help their built-in cleaning mechanism. Then we dressed again with the resignation that, on an immediate basis, we'd probably be wetter clothed than not. That wouldn't last long, though. The coveralls' heating elements kicked on now that they could breathe. For a while, it just made things damp and itchy, but eventually they dried most of the interior, and things got much more comfortable.

Simply being clean again was a boon to both our spirits. Creature comforts made up for creature pains. About damn time there was some offset.

It continued to rain through most of the rest of the day, alternating between spitting, sprinkles and torrents. We tried to walk under cover wherever we could find it. We talked to ourselves -- to each other -- and tried to ignore the indignity of our situation. Slogging through mud sometimes ankle deep. Forging streams that had sprung up out of nowhere and that always seemed to find a course in some way perpendicular to ours. Kat remained silent throughout, though the occasional popping in my ear told me e was listening. Or maybe that was just an artifact of the rain.

Close to nightfall, we came to the edge of a road that cut across the slope, running east to west. Nothing like what the Covenant built, but still unmistakably a road. An old gypsy sign, rendered nearly illegible by weather and vandalism, pointed the direction to Zurin. The faded number on the bottom of it hit me like a kick in the gut. Another three hundred kilometers -- more than four times the distance I'd covered so far.

"Son of a bitch." The curse sounded strange, given Ara's voice. Somehow stronger.

We fell into step along the road's shoulder. It switched back on itself every few hundred meters, but following it was easier than stumbling my way through the brush. Kat's compass swung like a pendulum, pitching over with each switchback. A metronome to the slow beat of our progress ... one shuffling footstep at a time.

Ara clutched our fingers under our arms. They were cold against our sides, but the warmth of our body melted away their aching numbness. We kept our head down, huddled under Turanov's hood. It grew colder as twilight fell. Before long, the rain turned to slush. Then, minutes later, a wet, languorous snowfall -- big, lopsided flakes tumbling down from a heavy, brooding sky.

"Some friends you have, Kat," I said to the static. "They couldn't have met us halfway? Something kind and decent like that." No answer -- not even a heckle. The restless silence spoke for em.

We should have gone for the tent. Even in a hundred pieces, it would have been better than nothing. We were getting tired. Sluggish. My eyes burned. Ara's legs ached. Whichever part of our body we traded off charge of complained in some way or another. And we still probably hadn't even broken the hundred kilometer mark to Zurin.

Getting sick. Getting tired. But neither of us wanted to stop. We both knew that if we did, we wouldn't start back up.

We heard the vehicle before we saw its lights, coming out of the misty shadows behind us. Black and shiny, long, coasting on an electromagnetic cushion over the roadway. Unnaturally dry, even in the snow. Not Covenant make. Their deal with the Keeper would have never allowed them technology like this. It pulled along side, pacing us.

One of the windows opened. "I was told you'd be coming this way," a voice said from inside. Smooth. Even. Male, although just barely.

"That would depend.... Are you Kat's friend?"

"One of them." Measured silence. Too precise to be accidental. "Please. Come in out of the storm."

A door popped open. What the hell, we thought. The car stopped, and we clambered in. Our fingers brushed its skin on the way. Virtually frictionless. Definitely not Covenant make.

My host sat across the passenger compartment. A slight man, decked out in a charcoal leather suit. Hairless, with a sticky, pink complexion. Preternaturally androgynous. An eidolon for a creature that rarely if ever took the time to deal with humans. A resident of the deep Wilds. Kat's friend? Nothing telling in that. Given eir recent behavior, that could have meant anything.

The door closed, and I dropped into the seat beside it as the car picked up speed again. The buzz of acceleration in our stomach gave the only indication that we were in motion. "If you don't mind me knowing," I asked, "where are we going?"

The eidolon's eyes were black on white, their pupils likely there for decorative purposes only. They bulged out of his head like the eyes of a rodent. A little twinge of revulsion stirred in the back of my mind. "To Zurin," he said, his lips framing the sound of his words too perfectly. "There is a place there where you will be safe; where you can rest. In the meantime ... please relax. Enjoy the ride."

He lapsed into silence, tilting his head to stare straight ahead with a weird twist of his neck. I put my head down on the cushion of the seat next to me, feeling the vibration of the car's motor through my cheek. Snow pelted the roof and sloughed away. Through its smoky translucence, I watched the silhouetted treetops bend and rush past.

"Kat, where did you go? I'm sorry ... I just don't understand. I wish you'd tell me whatever it is you have planned...."

I closed my eyes. It hurt to think, so I stopped. Against my better judgment, I fell asleep. I don't know whether it was hours or days later that I woke up.

BACK - Table of Contents - NEXT