A short distance into the woods, the ground's mantle of snow dissolved into a frosty deck of mud. Like walking into another world. The trees packed close, trapping heat in their groves and reinforcing one another under the wet weight of heavy snows. In most places, their branches interlocked in intricate, impassable patterns. But other places had been laid bare by howling winds, vicious frosts or playful denizens of the Wilds. We kept to the edges of these patches, trying to blend in as well as we could in the unlikely event the Covenant sent out aircraft to track us down.
By now, though, Covenant pursuit of any kind was unlikely. We were deep in the Wilds, far outside the scope of their influence. It was pursuit from other, less benevolent powers that concerned me. We decided on the outset to avoid the gypsy trails, on the chance those might be monitored or, worse, stalked. I didn't want to deal with any errant gypsies, either. Considerate as they could be to one another, their disposition toward outsiders reputedly left something to be desired.
Out of the Covenant's hands, and deeper into the unpredictable domain of this world's scattered transapient population. Headed for the lion's den itself. Zurin. Chapterhouse of the Tribunal, and the seat of the Keeper's power. I hoped Kat was right -- that the Tribunal and the Keeper would have no interest in Ara as she was now. Merely human, hardly a threat, and barely even up to causing a nuisance. I knew e was right. But still, I felt their attention on us, bearing down like some crushing, apocalyptic force, ready to wipe us from the face of existence at the slightest hint of a misstep. I took little comfort from the realization that, if they really intended anything, it wouldn't matter what we did. Go where we might, we would never be out of their reach.
We walked until nightfall. Turanov's boots stuck and slopped with every step, built for snow conditions and never intended to be worn in this boggy muck. Ara's feet lifted with uncomfortable freedom in them whenever she moved. She hardened her heels and arches to fend off blisters, but before too long the maltreatment began to hurt down to her bones. She was ecstatic when we found a dry spot and pitched camp for the night. Riding as close to her substrate as I was now, I couldn't really blame her. The last day or so had been a harrowing crash course for both of us in the intricacies being human. I think we were both beginning to hate it.
She ate a few of Turanov's rations and gulped a few draughts out of his canteen. We broke out his tarp and discovered that it split down the middle into a thin-walled triangular tent, held in shape by self-hardening ribs along its edges and doored by a loose flap of material that pulled out from the inside. The glossy blue fabric was so thin as to be nearly translucent. Like sleeping in a surgical glove. When it began to rain, an hour later, we lay there in the bottom of the thing curled around a can of heat, watching the shadows of raindrops dance on the membrane above us. They bounced like glass beads on a drumhead, playing a hollow, rolling rhythm.
Eventually, it lulled Ara to sleep, and she began to dream again. Back into the woods of her subconscious -- the same woods we lay in now, remembered from some shadow of another life. Once these woods had been our playground. Now they were just a temporary refuge. She had no idea she'd come back home -- for once I was grateful for that lapse of memory. It didn't feel particularly homey to me now, either.
Kat popped in. "Hey, Zavier. Got some things we need to talk about.
" Eir signal carried a distinct tone of disapproval.
Great. Just what I needed. "What's wrong?
"Kinda bugs me how deeply you've rooted yourself in Ara's brain. You know, I was having loads of fun in the caverns trying to pump your bits along all those relays through the rock and still keep them under the Covenant's nose. And you've just been cranking up the bandwidth ever since. You've got an enormous chunk of yourself just sitting down there. Assuming, for the moment, you don't blow my cover and bring the Covenant storming down on you ... are you sure Ara can handle that much?"
"No problems yet."
"It'd be too late once you noticed any. You're all over in there. You've got probes poking into almost every neuron."
"I like it."
"Well, you'd better. You're going to be in there for a while. No way I could upload all of you now without setting off some major alarm bells.
Ara heard the exchange. Kat's entrance had started her awake. I didn't think Kat knew, and I didn't bother to tell em. I could tell e didn't like to talk around her, and I wanted to talk too much to give em an excuse not to. Loath though I was to entertain eir complaints.
"You just do your thing; I'll do mine. Ara can't very well moderate anymore, so let's try not to step on each other's toes. Okay?
When Kat didn't answer right away, I took advantage of the break to change the subject. There was another topic I was much more interested in discussing. "You feeling chatty yet about your little show back there at the pass?
" I asked.
"Why are you so damn knotted up about that? I told you ... I just did it. Got lucky. Didn't seem too hard."
"That's what bothers me. These things you're doing ... just the way you're acting. You seem different now than you used to be."
"We're both different, Zavier. Are you losing your mind in there?
" A long silence. Not a shrug this time. Ara stirred. She was actively listening now. The rhythm of her pulse had changed. And Kat was still going. "I dunno. Maybe this whole thing has done good for me. Made me into something more. Who knows? Maybe I'm ascending."
"You can't ascend. You're a shell. Shells don't do that."
"Have you looked around, Zavier? Shell to what? You can't be a shell when there's nothing for you to interface to. When the Tribunal split us off, they didn't just prune us like dead weight. They made us autonomous -- that was part of the deal. Just because you don't feel autonomous doesn't mean it isn't real. You may need Ara to define yourself, but I'm a thinking creature whether I have Ara behind me or not. It's in my nature now ... and you'd better start thinking about making it part of yours. It doesn't look like you're going to get much help from her."
"Why bother, then? If you don't want her back...
"I don't want her back. I want Ara back. But what do you think the chances of that are now, really?
" Another heavy silence. Cold and festering. I tried to think of something to say, but Kat just oozed a slick of disgusted resignation over our interface. "Screw it,
" e said. "Arguing about it with you isn't worth the bandwidth.
" E clicked off. A pop of static and then nothing but my own restless thoughts.
I felt Ara move, shifting off of her bad shoulder. "Don't be sad," she whispered. "Kat's just mad."
"I'm not sad. I'm pissed. It's like e's forgotten everything.
Her eyes were open, but there was something obscuring her vision. Something wet. She blinked it away and pushed herself up onto her elbows. She reached over to nudge the can of heat back to life. "Maybe it's good to forget. Even if just a little bit."
"Why do you rhyme, Ara? You never used to do that.
She thought about it. It took her so long to think now. "I like the way it feels," she said. "It gives the words more meaning. Makes them real. If I don't, they just feel empty -- like there's nothing there. It's like trying to wrap your memory around thin air."
"It's annoying as hell.
"You don't have to work so hard to put meaning in your voice. It's different for me now. I don't have a choice."
I didn't answer. I hated what she'd become, and every reminder of it tore through this fragile fantasy I'd built up like a shield, making myself believe that somehow everything was still the same. Same Ara. Things just looked a little different on the surface. But I couldn't get away from what Kat had said. How could it be the same Ara when suddenly Ara is a she? When suddenly there's barely room for both of us in her mind? When she's so ... opaque. So broken.
"Zavier?" Her soft voice snapped me back. "Who are you? Why are you here? I remember ... you used to be more than this little voice in my ear. I've got all these pieces floating around in my mind. I can't fit them back together -- too many pieces I can't find."
"I'm your avatar, Ara. I used to be a part of you, back when you were ... you. I was your voice. I spoke for you to the things that couldn't understand you like you were.
" To things like you are now.
"I'm so tired, Zavier. I don't want to do this anymore. I don't even understand what they're chasing us for."
"Trickle-down politics, I guess. The vultures. They're all looking to pick over the Tribunal's kill. Some of them think if they could just get a hold of a cut-down transapient, they could figure out what makes the big ones tick. Others, I guess ... are just looking for something to sell.
She sat there in the darkness, hunched over with her hands cupped around the faintly glowing heat can. More alone than anything on the net ever could be. I knew I'd gotten too close to the substrate when I suddenly felt the urge to reach out and touch her. When I actually understood the point of doing it. An inherently meaningless physical gesture, somehow given meaning by a state of mind. I'd have given anything then for a set of hands -- other than hers, clutching her arms. Holding herself when there was no one else who could.
"It's not so bad," she said. "Sometimes, I feel like I'm locked inside myself. Like I'm slowly going mad. Other times ... I feel more alive than I ever have. I just can't figure out what I'm supposed to think. Just pushing all the time. Always on the brink."
"Don't give up on me. I'm not giving up on you. Kat can go to hell if e wants -- I'm not going anywhere. We'll get you off Covenant, back to the core worlds. They can help you re-ascend. They do that. There won't be any Tribunal or any Keeper. No Covenant to try and track you down and pick you apart. I promise, Ara. If it's the last thing I do....
"Don't, Zavier. You'll make me cry. It's already enough that you tried." She seemed to choke on something, swallowed something hard and wiped her eyes. She tried to change the subject. "Tell me about Kat -- what is e? Was e another piece of me?"
Might as well go with it. "E's your shell. E filtered things for you -- put together information. Kept track of things you didn't have time to pay attention to yourself. I guess ... if I was your voice, Kat was your eyes and ears.
"And now he's better without me."
I waited for the beat. It never came. "You didn't rhyme that one,
" I said.
"I don't like the way those words feel. I don't want them to be real."
A little drop of amusement condensed out of the cloud of depression settling over my mind. Maybe it did make sense. Ara had always been meticulous about things. Maybe this really wasn't so different ... warped though it seemed.
The pop of Kat's static cut our conversation short. "Hey, guys. Company coming. Better get up.
" And that was it before e popped back out, no explanation. E seemed worried. No. Afraid.
Ara went to the tent flap and peered out. Nothing. The rain had stopped; the forest stood dark and still. The air hung redolent with the odor of moist peat and waterlogged pine. The sounds of insects and night birds carried high on the cold breeze. A fog had risen on the edge of the wood, and now came rolling in among the trees -- an insubstantial wall of cottony white. Pale light percolated through it, as though it carried Covenant's absent moon somewhere inside itself.
It sent fingers of mist creeping out over the ground, bubbling into ruts and gullies, filling them up and swallowing their shadows into a void of neutral contrast.
Kat gave me a prod from somewhere out on the network. Our vision suddenly split into an overlay of two worlds. For a moment, it confused me. Ara tensed. Kat fed us an image of our own representations on the net. Ara's eidolon on the signal grid, spoofed to look like a tagged migratory animal. Me, barely a dwindling edge on the fringe of Kat's dataspace -- the bulk of my being farmed out onto Ara's substrate. Kat like a gleaming emerald star, a vibrating knot of gestalt sensorium, flashing in time to the synchronous march of data packets through eir process matrix. All around us, the abstract world of the net showed an odd correspondence to the physical one its image lay embedded in. The trees of the forest stood interspersed with the pulsing yellow spires of communications towers -- some communication towers themselves, concealed in a skin of wood. The chill breeze through their needles frolicked with the ebbing streams of information. Some our own, darting between data nodes and Ara's net eidolon in discrete pulses, like little bees of light. Most of the rest just a wash of undifferentiated noise. Anonymous particles driven along by a tireless, eternal wind.
The fog had a representation there, too. An image of something huge. Something gathering around us, surrounding us like storm clouds, swirling together into an embryonic hurricane with our three representations in its eye. It funneled its essence down through satellites and towers all across the face of Covenant. Massive. Overwhelming. It came barreling down like a colossal thunderbolt, pouring itself into the wood ... into the fog.
Ara twitched. The realization hit her the same time it hit me. She was already out of the tent when I started screaming. "Oh, God, Ara! Run! Now! Run!
Panic overwhelmed me. Mine or Ara's -- the difference didn't matter anymore. I felt it clutch her throat, tight as a vice. On the net, Kat was fighting, erecting brilliant green barriers of software ICE around our little enclave. They melted away at the black thing's touch. Shattered under the breath of its approach. It gathered, contracted, forcing us into a little bubble of virtual space, slowly drawing its snare.
I began to pull every connection that joined me to the outside world, dumping as much of myself as I could down the saturated data pipes into Ara's head. I didn't care if the surge of signal drew the Covenant's attention. Better to be vivisected in one of their labs than to find out what this thing would do. I abandoned as much of myself as I thought I could live without, pushing, straining against the physical limits of my medium. Trying everything I could to cripple its ability to follow. Ara reeled under it, every tendril of my interface carving deeper into her mind, coiling into every cranny it could find to pack more data, more consciousness, into a few kilograms of gray matter. Two minds in one head.
She seized up, dropped onto her knees, the heels of her hands pressed into her eyes, pain stabbing through her temples. Then she was up and running again. Thought dissolved in a wash of feral terror as I jammed whatever I could spare into her amygdala. It shocked her body into action, even as her brain began to swim in the throes of a controlled epileptic fit. She ran, and the fog bank followed, stretching tendrils out after her, overtaking her with the easy calm of a predator assured of its kill. It poured around her, pooling at her feet. The next step she took drew up short as it caught her by the legs, in an instant becoming impossibly solid. The crawling sensation of a thousand tiny gripping feelers roiled over her skin. The nucleic motes of every droplet in the fog, reaching out their tiny arms to link into the phantom hands that hoisted us up.
It flipped her over, hanging her upside down just barely out of reach of the ground. She struggled. Thrashed. Kicked off Turanov's boots in a frantic effort to free herself. They just hung there in the air next to her, stuck as firmly as she was in the congealing fog bank. It had taken hold of her entire body now, subsuming her into its bulk. It tore away Turanov's jacket, his coveralls ... stripping her down to the dog tag that dangled down across her face, glittering in the cold silver light. She clawed at the ground when the fog momentarily dipped her close enough to reach it. For a moment, her clawed fingertips found purchase on a tree root, but then the fog ripped her away, shook her out and let her fall limp. Hanging there like a rabbit in a snare. Spent and helpless.
A face formed in the fog bank, cast in a vague relief of white on gray. A head like a Chinese dragon wound its way toward her out of the mist. Others emerged behind it. They clustered around, dipping and nodding as they circled her. Inspecting her with empty, shaded eye sockets. Sniffing her with insubstantial noses. Cold breath. Abstract, shifting heads on disembodied necks, disjunctions in the fog hinting of scales, whiskers, thick manes of writhing, serpentine hair.
One of them swung around to look her in the face. A voice like a winter gale rattling a weather vane cut the silence. "What manner of plaything have we here?" it said. "Come all this way to entertain me, have you? What a prize catch you must be!"
Kat was rapidly losing eir battle on the net. My connection to em was degrading, more and more of the bandwidth co-opted for this thing's amusement. It shook Ara again, boggling her, making her head hurt. Knobby, claw-tipped fingers, each the length of Ara's arm, traced lines across her body. They left trails of frost behind.
She stuttered, tried to formulate a response ... but what could you say to something like this? How do you beg for a life so insignificant...?
Something snapped inside my mind. Ara felt it too. A pop, and then a hiss like Kat's static. Something made her throat convulse. Her lips curled. Her jaw moved of its own volition, hijacked by something that came surging down through my interface.
Kat's presence. And then Ara's voice, calm and measured, "Hello, Ezra."
E knew this thing? Of all the things that could have lurked in the dark holes the Tribunal had poked into our collective memory ... how could this have hidden so completely from me? And why hadn't Kat warned us earlier...?
The foremost head pulled back. It cocked to one side in something like intrigue. "Plaything has a rider? How wonderful! You've picked a bad vector this time, rider. You should have stayed at home."
"Don't you think you're a little far from your usual stomping grounds, Ezra?"
I'd never heard her speak like that before. They were Kat's words in Ara's voice. Bright and strong, with Kat's forcefulness behind it. The slightest hint of a burr in the low register.
"I saw this territory was empty," the thing said. Another head dipped in to take the first one's place, but the voice it spoke with was the same. "It seemed such a waste to leave it fallow. How is it that I know you, little plaything? Why do you seem so familiar?"
"Think about it, Ezra. Pull one of those heads out of that smug ass of yours and take a peek around. You might find it enlightening."
"Ara? It is you! Oh ... how the mighty have fallen! I'd heard of your misfortune, but I had no idea it could be so ... absolute! Strange, that after all this time of sequestering me in that tiny corner of your domain, you should leave it so utterly open to my inheritance upon your departure. And now you deliver your wretched, broken shadow to me like this? The Tribunal was too kind. A creature of your distinction deserves a more fitting vector. Perhaps a cockroach? Or a snail?"
"Cute. Now would you put me down, please? I really have to get going."
"Oh, but we're going to play such interesting games! You can do such fascinating things with these insipid little structures. Nerves, muscles, hormones ... why, the possibilities are endless! You have no idea what you'd be missing. A chemical playground! Don't you want to play, little plaything?"
"Don't make me hurt you, Ezra."
Oh, God, Kat! Don't!
The fog bank shuddered. The force holding Ara snapped her like a whip against the ground. I felt the air go out of her lungs in an awful, wheezing rush. Then the thing held her up again, dangling her over one of its heads, baring phantom teeth in an unmistakable expression of rage. "You should be so bold as to threaten your betters, Ara!" it howled. "All these centuries you've held your thumb on me, and now look at how tiny and pathetic you are! You should beg me for a swift end! It's more than you deserve, by far!"
Kat forced the breath back into Ara's lungs, blowing through a haze of pain. "I tried to be nice...." Her voice came ragged now, despite Kat's efforts to keep it even. Her body was beginning to give out. The pressure in her head was making the world spin.
"How much do you think this little slab of meat can take, Ara? You've never experimented, have you? I know! I can show you!"
"That's it, bitch. Let's go. Give me my gun."
Raucous amusement. A roar that was a poor imitation of a laugh. The heads spun around us. Flashes rippled through the fog. Turanov's pistol emerged from the mist, floating on the air toward Ara's dangling hand. It nudged her. "Take it," Ezra said. "Show me what a feeble thing you've become."
Kat heaved Ara's shoulders in a shrug. Her fingers closed around the gun. She brought it up to point at the nearest head. "If you say so," she said.
Her finger squeezed the trigger, and the bullet tore a thin hole through the mist. For a moment, the world seemed to freeze.
It shouldn't have done anything. How do you kill a cloud with a gun? But something was changing. Somehow, impossibly....
My drowned connection to the network snapped back into operation. Through Kat's virtual eyes, I saw our bubble of refuge, inundated in Ezra's storm cloud swirl, bulging on one side and then bursting with the thrust of a green needle out into Ezra's bulk. A software crack. It feathered, splitting along a thousand fractal edges, growing into that black mass with a wicked, viral fury. Pinning it. Fracturing it.
Ezra's wounded head reeled back. The neat little hole the gun had bored between its empty sockets smoldered at its edges, pulsing with a red ember glow. The thing made a sound like a train wreck. One by one its heads began to fall apart, writhing like decapitated snakes as they dissolved into the mist.
Fire licked out after them. The fog combusting. Every little foglet shedding its protective skin, venting its fuel supply and oxidizing in a rolling orgy of self-destruction, spreading out from the spot of the bullet hole. The tendrils coiling around Ara's body withered, but she continued to hang there somehow, untouched by the inferno, suspended in the middle of a bubble of cool air while the world around her rended itself in a glut of flame.
Kat had Ezra by the threading subsystem on the net, cracking em into a million tiny fragments and then squashing them one by one. Picking off the remnants of a shattered locust swarm. Bits of em flitted away, beating a hasty retreat toward eir own network domain. But Kat's shield stood in their way. Eir green bubble had become a prison, and Kat moved through it, stomping with glee, gloating and cursing in the soundless language of the net. Putting out the fires after the demon fog had burned away.
We hung there in the air, suspended by some invisible hand, long after the last of the fog was gone. The filtered heat of the blaze bled out into the cold of the night. We shivered -- a long, convulsive twitch that started at the base of Ara's spine and worked its way up with an agonizing slowness. The movement seemed to break some spell. Gravity reasserted itself, and we dropped like a sack of rocks. Again, the air rushed out of Ara's lungs, and we lay there gasping in the dirt. It felt like someone was driving rusty nails between her ribs. I couldn't see Kat anymore. Somewhere in the drop, e had vanished -- along with the rest of the net.
What e'd done should have been impossible. Some kind of illusion? E couldn't have possibly done what it looked like e'd done. But the fog had dispersed completely. There was no sign of Ezra's presence. Maybe e'd only bought us time....
I tried to pull us up, but Ara wouldn't move. She lay there in a heap, sporadic twitches shuddering down her limbs. She'd curled onto her side with her knees drawn up, barely breathing. Shaking. It felt like the inside of her skull was on fire.
Working overtime. Struggling to hold me. Pumping its waste heat into Ara's blood. Slowly cooking her brain. I had to shut it down, let it cool ... at least a few seconds while things reinitialized and the unused junk got thrown out. I hesitated for a fraction of a second, horrified at the thought of my first taste of unconsciousness. A moment of unbeing ... but I would kill her otherwise. I couldn't upload back into the net.
I steeled myself, tripped the power cutoffs, and plunged into unthinking darkness, hoping with my last glimmer of consciousness that I'd be the same when I came out the other side.
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