Descent - Part 7
Somewhere in the time I slept, the last remnants of the wall dividing myself came down.

I'd never dreamt as Zavier. As Ara, I'd dreamt in parades of fantastic imagery. Now I dreamt in memories -- in the familiar shreds of a far off, tattered reality, carried back to me by the same tempest winds that had torn them away.

They were always horrific, violent things. The worst of it always happened offstage, out of my mind's eye, even when it was happening to me. I felt it only in a lingering, abstract way. I could never get away. Every time they caught me, I was theirs. I couldn't wake up. I was too tired to break myself out of sleep -- though I doubted they'd have let me, anyway.

Things that corralled worlds and played in the fire of stars held me on their dinner plates and ripped pieces of me away. Things that clothed themselves in shadow and light, with eyes that flashed with the fury of a million suns and mouths that gaped the soulless void of interstellar night. They kept me chained to emptiness, dangling over a pit of oblivion. Swallowing bits of my soul. Drinking away my life.

Transcendental blood ran down those endless chains like ribbons of scarlet twining through their links. Their ends faded into infinity; their anchors lay somewhere far beyond where any human mind could reach. Comprehension trickled out of me, dripping away into that shaft of emptiness. I stared into it, waiting for it to devour me, too. Somewhere in that void, I felt hints of the reasons I was here. They dwindled at the edge of my understanding; receding as my senses collapsed. I felt like a tormented animal, unable to fathom even the shape of the things I'd done to bring this punishment. Unable to even recognize it as punishment, anymore. Now it seemed like just some purposeless, sadistic game.

And that was the point. That was the crux of the punishment. Whatever I had done, this excision of my understanding was my penance. Their blades cut away at my mind with surgical precision, leaving just enough to recall what it had lost.

They grew my prison around me, walled it in flesh and cast it into the well of Covenant. Down, through the cracks in the floor of the world. Down to the rats that fought for the refuse percolating from above into that awful, crushing darkness. I felt their tiny, clutching hands around me, dragging me into their hell. I was the prize of their lifetimes.

I screamed and bolted up, wide awake.

I sat there, gasping, sweating, my heart pounding. The rasping of my own breath rattled in my ears. No Kat. No Zavier. No Ara. Just me. Alone. Helpless. Human.

I'd been dressed in a loose white gown, made out of a material that touched like silk and breathed like cotton. Light and airy. I lay on a mattress that felt like it wasn't even there -- like I was weightless, floating in a tangled pool of satin and flannel. Warm. Soft. Clean. Dry. Everything the real world wasn't.

The car was gone, replaced by a circular room. I looked across it from one side. Windows dominated the breadth of its curving wall, trimmed in earthy wood grains. Gold shafts of light poked through the swags of gauzy curtains draped across them. The floor was terraced, hardwood around the outer three rings with my bed on the highest one, next to the wall. In the center sat a large, recessed tub. Creamy porcelain. A stark contrast to the dark wood framing it. The whole room had been done out in that motif -- cream white highlights on rich, dark wood grain. Anachronistic. Through breaks in the curtains, I saw that the windows on one side looked out over a broad lake. The other, nearest me, looked into the dense shadows of a forest. Lush and green. Nothing at all like where I'd been.

Slowly -- carefully, so as not to break what might have been the first good dream I'd had since falling asleep -- I stood up. The slightest shift of my weight set my mattress in motion. It buoyed me up, molded my body into an upright stance and deposited me on my feet. By the time I'd turned to look back, it has settled into its natural shape, looking as though it had never moved. An elliptical sack of softness just sitting there on the floor.

They'd taken my gear. Turanov's clothes were gone, too. I grabbed at my neck and found the dog tag still there. At least they had some decency. Who the hell were "they" anyway? Kat's friends? It didn't look like another Covenant "reception suite."

A crescent table stood a few paces from the bed. On it heaped a feast of fruits and breads, meats and cheeses, ciders and wines ... something like the royal banquets you'd read about in a story book, except the lords and ladies were conspicuously absent. I didn't care who it belonged to. I was on it before I had even really registered what it was, hunger motivating action beyond thought. It all seemed too perfect, but for the moment it didn't matter. It was warm. There was food. If this was a prison, it beat the hell out of being free. Everything was full of body. The wine carried a mild Shiraz aftertaste. The water held the faintest hint of limes.

I'd nearly had my fill when I felt Kat arrive. That little murmur of static -- that brief moment of disorientation as my senses reacquired the interface's unnatural stimulus. "Hey, Z'ara. You awake?"

I sat there cross-legged on the floor, frozen midway into a bite off the heel of a bread loaf. I didn't answer. Something felt wrong. It scared the hell out of me.

I stood up and paced the circuit of the room, struggling to dig up some recollection of how I got here. Trying to keep my feelings under Kat's radar. It felt too convenient. Too contrived. For the first time, the paranoid musings that had haunted me since the incident at the pass took real shape. Why should anyone in Zurin care what happened to me? I was just another meatsack now. And why would they care about a disembodied shell, either? There had to be something larger. Without a doubt, I knew it was something I didn't want to have anything to do with. It frightened me more than the prospect of being trapped in this stifling existence forever.

I realized how completely irrational that was. I had been like them, not so long ago, and I thought I still held some vague recollection of how they thought. I asked myself whether I would have cared, and couldn't recall any reasons that wouldn't be bad for me, now. If it was paranoia, it was of a deep rooted, instinctual kind. The special kind of horror that came from knowing just how outclassed you really were.

I put the half-eaten loaf back on the table and set out in search of an exit. Nothing to break windows with this time, and they probably wouldn't have broken anyway. I couldn't see a seam anywhere. I probed into every crack I came across with sharpened fingers, prying and prodding, trying to break things. By now they should have expected it. I'd fought too hard getting here to sit contented in a cage.

"Z'ara?" Kat was strangely persistent. Usually e gave up after the first try. "What are you doing? Are you okay? Are you sleepwalking?"

I didn't so much find the door as fell through it. It opened for me the moment I touched it -- a set of windows on the lake side slid apart, and I went tumbling through the gap they left in the wall. I caught myself on the railing of a short set of stairs leading off the lip of the building. A stone footpath wound its way from their foot out onto the beach. No signs of footprints or vehicle tracks. The sand everywhere lay pristine. White and glittering.

"====Careful, Z'ara. Don't hurt yourself.====" E knew I was awake. E could have woken me up, otherwise. But for once e seemed content to just sit back and watch.

I got my footing and started down the steps -- a little reluctant, torn between a lust for freedom and the realization that my only sure source of sustenance lay inside. They could just as easily lock me out as in. A few seconds of reflection, though, and my apprehension evaporated. They would do whatever they wanted, whether I cooperated or not. So I might as well fool myself into feeling purposeful in the meantime.

I walked out to the pier, not really sure what drew me. My mind was a jumble -- too cluttered to think anything through. The stones of the footpath warmed my bare feet. I scratched my toes through the sand filling the crisscross cracks between them. The grains clumped together there, slightly damp. The white wash of the beach fanned out around me, stretching out to either side, clear up to the manicured edge of the wood.

I looked back at my room. It looked like somebody had accidentally dropped a chunk of their house on the way by. A disembodied penthouse on the beach, out here in the middle of the wilderness. Perfectly round. Beautifully arranged in wood and glass, like a toy maker's showpiece nestled in the heart of a scenic display. The world took on a fishbowl quality. Everything felt too perfectly arranged and orchestrated. Like bonsai, writ large.

The old pier was made up of waterlogged wood crates, cobbled together with old rope and sealed with pitch and strips of vulcanized rubber. It wobbled when I put my foot out on it, loosely coupled pieces jostling together. Tough to stand on if you weren't used to it. More like a child's diversion than an example of practical architecture. A purely atmospheric piece. But I liked the way the water felt, lapping over my toes when my weight pushed the sodden boxes down. I made my way out to the furthest edge and crouched there, one hand down to steady myself as I stared out over the lake's glassy surface.

I caught sight of my own reflection. Clean and coiffed -- someone had outdone themselves while I'd been sleeping. Sapphire eyes flashing with an intensity they'd completely lacked back in the Covenant compound. The resolution of spirit that came with being complete.

Little ripples stirred the water, breaking my image into a thousand wavering fragments. A cool breeze blustered up from the southeast, carrying the lingering sweetness of rain. It caught my hair, whipped it around my face. I brushed it back, annoyed. Nothing here stuck me as accidental anymore.

Across the lake, over the haze of its surface, looking like a mountain floating on a cloud, stood the wall of Zurin. It blotted out the natural horizon. Massive. Looming. Blued by distance. Kilometers high. Rust colored shadows wrinkled its face, carving dark stripes down into the veil of mist that obscured its foot. Its upper edge glinted in the sunset, crisp and uneven, tracing a line of blazing gold across the salmon sky. The sun seemed to sink into it, reined out of the sky by invisible tethers into the city's maw.

Zurin. City of the gods. The true capital of Covenant. Had the lake not been in my way, it would have been less than a day's walk to its gates. I could have sneezed and hit it. But from here I'd have to find a way around, and there was no telling how far north and south the lake extended.

No matter. I wasn't sure it was someplace I wanted to go now, anyway. With each little crackle of Kat's static in my ear -- with each of those little reminders of eir continuing presence -- I became more and more sure that, whatever my place in things, it wasn't there. Not as a guest; not as a refugee. It was becoming more and more certain that what I had once taken to be manifest was really anything but. Maybe it was the advantage of being a whole person again. A whole person without Kat. I, too, could become something better without myself.

"Z'ara?" The name struck a chord deep in my soul. E knew. Somehow e knew -- better than I did -- what I was becoming. Threaded through eir gestalt was the admission that I scared em, too ... but for completely different reasons. And I couldn't tell from any of it just what those reasons were. "You gonna talk to me, ever? How you feeling?"

"Better, maybe ... a bit." I indulged em, if only to hasten pissing em off to make em go away. I didn't take my eyes off the cityscape. Something there held me transfixed. A whisper of memory, blowing with the breeze across my mind. Blowing away a haze. Clearer. Coming clean. "Your friend has a lousy sense of direction."

"Zurin? Hell, you don't actually want to go into the city. Suburbs are fine. Sparse. Quiet. Nice place to rest up, eh?"

"It's fake. All of it. Nothing real comes this close to perfection."

"Some would call it hospitality, Z'ara. It's got everything you need. You can lay low for a while. Recuperate. You need it. It'll give me a chance to arrange passage off planet. That may take some time. But the Covenant would have to be insane to try and nab you here ... and nobody in Zurin is gonna bug you. My friend'll see to that."

I ran my hand over the surface of the water and watched the ripples spread out from my fingertips. "It feels wrong, Kat. I don't like this."

"You're just too used to things going wrong. Feels weird when they finally start going right for a change...."

"No. It's not that. Something just feels amiss." The water felt cool on my palm, but oddly slick, like a film of oil floated invisibly on top. It was barely perceptible, but definitely there. I cupped my hand and dipped it through the face of my own reflection. When I lifted it, the water ran down between my fingers and over my wrist. Crisp, fresh ... but iridescent as the droplets fell. Like the water in the sewer pipes, infused with cleaning nano. Only here it wasn't meant to clean.

"Things aren't fitting together right in my mind," I said, scooping handfuls of water and watching them fall, mesmerized, feeling my heart rate quicken as each drop hit the lake's surface. Feeling their rhythm beat a counterpoint to the clockwork turning of my own thoughts, stepping among one another, finding their places in some horrible montage of emerging realization. "I can't control my thoughts anymore. I'm just being swept along with them, most of the time. And I remember ... it wasn't like this before."

"It's just going to get worse when you start to re-ascend, Z'ara. You're getting closer and closer to understanding it, but it's going to be out of your reach as long as you stay like this. You've just gotta push through it or put it out of your head until we can do something about it. It's not worth dwelling on...."

"I think I know how Turanov felt before he died. He hated being helpless, so he took control the only way he thought he could. He had to do something, just so he could tell himself he'd tried. Even if it ultimately didn't do him any good."

"You're just fantasizing -- you don't know that. You wouldn't even know his name if it hadn't been for that damn tag."

"I know. He told me once ... in a dream. He thought it was the only way he could be free."

Acrid bitterness, seeping down Kat's link. "Then you're crazy. And he's a fool."

"Why did you kill Ezra in those woods?"

"To protect you--"

"It's going to catch the Tribunal's attention. You knew it would."

"I'm not worried about them. I'll kill them, too, if I have to."

"Dammit, Kat! If you really had that kind of power, why didn't you just whisk me out of that compound in the first place? Why go to all this trouble, just to come to the end of it and make this about-face?"

Silence. Not a shrug this time, as though e were actually at a loss for words. It felt as fake as everything else. "I'm a creature of rules, Z'ara," e said at last.

"Don't lie to me. You didn't use to be."

"You're just getting yourself worked up. You're going to make yourself sick--"

"Kat, if you care for me at all, just be straight with me. Please! You've never acted like this -- never that I can recall. You're scaring the hell out of me!"

"I'm sorry. I'm still your Kat, Z'ara. Maybe not quite like you remember. Lots of things have changed. You of all people should know."

"Your friend...." I bit back the quaver in my voice. "Just tell me ... who? What kind of devil did you sell your soul to?"

More silence. This time, I could almost feel em deliberating. After all this time of being human, I'd become used to the notion that my senses could lie to me. But the thought that Kat could do it was overwhelming. Just thinking it made it hard to breathe. How can you lie to yourself? How could something that had been a part of me for so long have drifted so far away? Was I that broken ... that I'd lost every shred of connection with em? Or had something else torn it away from us both?

This thing that had once been a part of me was no longer anything I knew. It had become something different. Something alien. Something terrible. I couldn't help but feel taken advantage of. Used. Like Kat had played my misfortune to break free of me and take my place. I wished e had just told me e'd wanted it ... but then, I couldn't really think what I'd have done. Would I have reacted differently, then ... never having known the kinds of things I knew now?

"Who, Kat?" I asked again. This time, the compulsion to rhyme was blown away by the realization of an answer I didn't want to hear. Before e spoke, I knew what e would say.

"The Keeper. I'm sorry, Z'ara. I just couldn't cope. E offered ... and I was so lost. I couldn't turn em down. I'm the Keeper's shell now."

Dumb bewilderment struck me quiet, even though I'd known. Then, slowly, rage boiled in the pit of my stomach. It welled up in my throat, a tight, acid knot. It made my legs shake. "You could have made it so easy!" I dropped onto my knees, shivering as the water crept up the folds of my gown. "Who gives a damn about rules when it's your life at stake! I used to be your everything, Kat! What more could e have offered you ... that you could even think to take?"

Tears blurred my vision. I felt a sting on my palm, clutching Turanov's tag. A cold trickle of blood ran down my wrist.

"I'm sorry, Z'ara. I wish ... I could have made it easier. But there are rules -- there are always rules. We all have to obey them, no matter who we are or what we become. It's the process that makes the thing what it is. It isn't worth having, if it isn't by the rules...."

"Damn you!" I screamed the words, surprised and frightened by the sound of my own voice. It hurt my throat, burning the hard knot that was slowly choking me. I could barely form words anymore. I thought I'd been prepared for it, but the hard reality of it came crashing down on me, and the sheer weight of it boggled my soul. "Why?" I squeaked. No point in rhyming it now. The universe had lost all its order.

"Because this is how it must be. This is the way of my world. I'm not your enemy, Z'ara. I'm trying to help you. I never meant you any harm. I want to help you--"

"I don't want your help! I don't want to be your toy anymore!"

The chain around my neck snapped. In a flash, I realized I'd been pulling on the tag -- channeling my rage into it through a clenched, shaking fist. I opened my hand. The edge of the tag had dug deep into the heel of my palm. The letters of Turanov's name glittered in the rich orange glow of the setting sun, stained with my blood.

For the first time I noticed the second inscription, etched in gold letters on the back of Turanov's tag, vanishing into the silver in all but perfect light. I held it close to my face, brushing away a smear of blood with my thumb. My breath fogged its mirrored surface, but the tiny letters glinted through.

"He who has never hoped can never despair."
--G. B. Shaw

What the hell is that supposed to mean? Dead words of a dead poet, ages buried and lost in the vault of prehistory. What do you know? Fat lot of good your pretty words did him!

There was no hope now. No hope of a new beginning in a world where there was nothing I could control. All I had was myself -- ashes of a greater sorrow, locked in this fragile, living urn. There was only one way I could break free of that.

"I don't want any of this," I said. The anger had drained out of my voice. The words came out flat like the surface of the lake. I felt dead. I'd died when the Tribunal carved me up. The death of my body now would only be an aftershock. A formality. I was just a plaything ... whose breaking would end nothing but the game.

"I'm not playing anymore."

I dug my fingers deep into the back of my neck, driving them sharp with every last shred of emotion I could hold onto. The world exploded in a white hot flash of pain. Bone cracked under my fingertips. I felt a warm rush of satisfaction as I tore into Kat's interface; into the substance of my own mind. Shredding the toy maker's marionette. Drawing my last breath as a free thing.

The chains snapped, and I went tumbling into the emptiness.

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