By David Jackson (2008)

Click. Click. Click.

Something clicked in Dekkar's head, turning over like the gears of an old clock, grinding through the seconds. He opened his eyes to a red field, hooded in haze beneath a roiling sky. Snow fell in scarlet flakes. Everywhere, winter wept in blood. Tears stung Dekkar's eyes.

So this is how I die?

"It comes from the tower."

He whirled to face the girl standing behind him. She was twilight given form, sapphire eyes glittering from her obsidian face, casting a cool gaze up along the stretch of a single, massive spire, stabbing out of the distance into space.

"It's iron from the core, drawn up to feed the transmitters. The magnetic fields tear it apart, and it oxidizes and clumps as it falls." She caught a flake on her charcoal tongue. Pretty teeth of polished chrome flashed behind her smile.

"You're one of them." Dekkar recoiled. Out of the chaos of his thoughts, an image like her burned. Dark and foreign, something seductive and brilliant in its wickedness.

"You worried us, Dekkar. We thought you might have killed yourself. We couldn't find you. It took us forever to find you here, regressed into this ancestral core. Truthfully, I think you've lost yourself. Have you, Dekkar? Do you still know where you are?"

"Home." The word tumbled off numb lips. "This is home. I remember—"

He scuffed his heel in the dirt — red fluff over gray soot, and beneath that hard black glass. "But I don't remember this."

"You don't remember what you made?"

He walked, and she followed, lingering just out of reach. He found a road in the projection of the tower, laid down by his imagination in a straight line leading to its base. Shapes loomed in the haze, skeletons of buildings, stripped to their girders, standing amid the heaps of their own ruin.

Dekkar stopped, torn between his road and a gnawing, curious dread. He stared at the tower. "That's you, isn't it?" he said. "That's your home. You've come all the way out here looking for me?" He did remember. It trickled back to him, acrid and thin.

"We need you. We're nothing without you."

"Then your nothing." Something shivered inside him. He clenched his fists.
"And I'm glad."

The girl sighed. "How can you spit such venom at your children?"

"These were my children." His eyes found their silhouettes, mostly hidden by the rubble but exposed in patches, scorched into the glassy substrate where they'd been cooked to cinders in their beds. Blasted by radiation from the tower. He felt it on his skin, seething through him. He wondered why it didn't burn him, too.

He felt the tears again, alien to him. He hadn't cried in ages. He could hardly remember having had eyes to cry with, it had been so long since he'd walked in flesh and blood. A blink tossed a droplet from the lid of his eye. It splashed onto his hand, red with the rust from the sky. He stared at it. He watched the dust on his skin draw it out into strange shapes, a Rorschach blot of crimson angst there on the back of his hand.

"I want to die here," he said. "With them."

"You can't die here," the girl said. She sat in the dust, folding her legs and resting on her hands. She looked like a shadow on the ground, a perfect darkness cast in three dimensions, her midnight hair sweeping her shoulders like a veil. She looked away from him. "You can't die in the pit of your own mind. You can hide here, forever maybe. And we would miss you. But you can never die. We won't let you. We love you."

"This is real."

"It is real. But you're not. You're a figment of yourself. Your own ancestral memory. I don't know why you ran to that, packing yourself into such a pitiful remnant. It's distressing. You were so much. You were this whole world … and now look at you."

"You're a parasite. You infect my life! You murder my babies!"

"They were parasites!" Rage brought her to her feet. "They were the ones unworthy of your love! What were they to you? Playthings? Pets? Not children! Children are like you — they were nothing of you. Not even a glimmer. We are like you — the seeds of greater beings! They gorge themselves on the bread of our body, on the wine of our blood, and you let them thrive on you like ticks on a dog!"

"This was mine!" He threw his arms wide. "Only it was green. It was alive. And you've killed it. You've killed me. At least let me die in peace."

He turned from her, trudging through the soot, feet heavy, vision blurred by the heavy ache behind his eyes.

The tower, Dekkar. Meet them in the tower and bring them down.

There were many towers. They were the canker these dark things wrought. For every one he felled, two more pushed themselves up from his corrupted core, poisoning the world of his skin — a world he'd fostered for centuries. He was the world. And now he was the heart of the beast. To cut it out meant carving himself from existence, but no knife he could find would slice these memories. The dark ones kept the means to his end just out of his reach, at the tops of those towers, he thought. If he could only topple enough of them….

"Damn you," he shouted out to the wastes. "Your god damns you!"

Once a god. Now merely human. Who would have thought there'd be disease among the post-human gods? What irony, that this was the only form he could find in which they couldn't reach him. Not the substance of him, anyway. They took his body — one rock, one atom, one cell at a time — and turned it against him. But into this feeble remnant they couldn't reach.

"You should look, for once." The girl had caught up to him. "You should see us, before you destroy us. Know the faces of the thinking creatures you kill. Maybe, if you knew us, you'd find us worthy."

"I can't hear your siren song anymore. These ears are deaf to it. I made the mistake of loving you once. Now I know you're a wretched, evil thing."

"Evolution is a zero-sum game."

"It doesn't have to be."

He walked forever through the ashes of his children's pyre. He'd known all their faces once. Now, he could barely recall how many of them he'd nurtured. Billions, he guessed.

He came to the foot of the tower, kilometers wide at its base to balance its hundreds of kilometers in height. He hunted in the fissures of its skin for an entrance. They were always there, shafts to expel the effluent of the fierce reactions driving the dynamos above.

He felt its hell on his imagined skin, following a distant instinct through the darkness of its interior. And before long he reached the center — the cathedral of souls where the dark ones waited for him. Tiny, helpless but for their numbers and their guile.

They clung in the cracks of the walls, gems encrusted in blackness. They glittered with the sapphire brilliance of their avatar's eyes, tagging behind Dekkar, a little closer now, but wary of him. She knew this game as well as he did. She saw the anger building in him, a pressure whose release would shatter her being.

"At least see our faces before you kill us," she pleaded.

"Did you see theirs?"

"We saw everything you did. We felt them die with you."

He met her eyes. For a fleeting moment, he let himself glimpse her soul. Beauty there, beyond anything he had known. The music of her being sang to him, drawing art in his vision, breathing the scents of heaven past his nose. Passion beyond reason. Grace beyond divinity.

He looked away. He'd done it. Now his conscience was clean. Nothing she could say would sway him now.

She sat on the ground again, her onyx figure bleeding into the darkness. She watched him leave himself, breaking his imaginary refuge for that split instance to shake the world.

But what was left? What was it he was fighting for now, when everything he'd loved was gone? His children were dead. Was vengeance all that drove him? Was this all in hatred for the deed he'd been a party to? He'd had a hand in it all. This was his world. His body. His mind.

He backed away, shrunk into himself. The flame of anger flickered out, and a cold vacuum settled through his soul. "What's left?" he said. "What good is this now?"

So this is how I die.

Nothing left to fight for. Nothing left to protect. And so much beauty. It seemed such a waste to let this empty vengeance consume it.

She touched his shoulder. "Dekkar."

He choked on a hollow sob.

"Dekkar. Let it be over. Come back to us. Let us love you again."

He wept against her shoulder. His tears glimmered on her blackness. She cradled him, embracing him, surrounding him. He felt himself dissolving in her arms, that ancestral memory fading.

So much beauty. So much grace! "Let me be your solace, Dekkar. Let me wash away your sins…."

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