Keeper of the Faith - Part 5
That evening came all too quickly. After waiting too long in the Medical Commissioner's office for too brief a visit, I had barely enough time to swing home and inform Mother that I'd be leaving again at sundown. She just shook her head, jabbed her ladle at me and scolded me about showing off.

"See what you get!" she said. "You know what's good for you, you'll screw this up!"

I didn't tell her where they were sending me, or that success or failure was only of secondary consideration here. She wouldn't have understood . and I didn't have time to explain.

I spent the next hour doing hurried downtime checks on my snow crawler, making sure its engine and treads were up to the rapid get-out I expected to put it through once Lima caught onto my presence. All the while, the Medical Commissioner's "gift" to me chafed the inside of my thigh and itched where it jabbed its needle into my femoral artery. The steady trickle of stimulants it fed into my system made my heart pound and my head swim. But it did its job; the minutes seemed to crawl by.

"In case you need to run from anything nasty out there in the Wilds," the Commissioner had said with a crooked smile. I wondered how much he knew about the mission, and why he even bothered to loan me the equipment. Perhaps it was just something they'd been wanting to test on a suitably doomed guinea pig. I wondered what kind of side effects I'd be in for if I lived.

The Lord Surveyor's courier arrived on schedule with Sas tagging along behind him. He handed me the sealed capsule and scuttled off without even hinting for a tip. Sas lingered, grinning at me over the hood of my crawler.

"Sorry to hear about your aborted leave," he said. "I figured something was up when Surveyor asked me to escort your courier. Don't worry, Turi. We'll take good care of the homestead while you're away."

"If you set foot anywhere near my house, I'll kill you."

The darkness of my tone struck the smile off his weathered face. He grimaced. "Gods' sakes, Turi. Why don't you just come out with it. Why all this skulking around? I know there's something. Something happened to you out there. Everyone has noticed. You should own up to your transgressions. No sense putting your family through this grief."

"Leave my family out of this."

He put a hand on the hood and leaned toward me. "It's not just me any longer, Turi. Surely, you know that now."

I looked up at him. "I'll be back by morning," I said. I stood up, waved him away and slammed the hood shut. "Whatever you think, whatever they think, I promise you . if I return to find that you've inflicted this witch hunt on anyone besides myself, you will be dead by the following day. You want to push me, Sas? You want to find out what I'm really about? I'll take you apart in ways you can't imagine."

I smiled at him. "Maybe I'll ask Lima for a few pointers," I said. I hauled the door of the crawler open, climbed inside and gunned the engine. Whatever he shouted after me was drowned in the roar of the motor as I pulled away. I watched him in the rearview as I went. He stood there in the deepening twilight, stone still, staring after me. The warm light from Mother's kitchen window silhouetted his broad frame in front of the house.

The wind carried a dry breath of ice fog between us, and by the time it cleared, he was a stick-figure in the distance, trudging away down the road toward the town center. Heeding me or biding his time, I couldn't tell . but it didn't matter. I could watch him wherever I was. Through the surly haze of my stimulant pack and the blinding clarity of my second sight, I wondered if I could kill him with a thought. It would be an interesting experiment, when the time came. Until then, I could wait.

Shortly after I crossed the border of the Wilds, Zavier's subtle presence broke the monotony of my thoughts. The real world had condensed itself into the conical sweep of my headlights and the rhythmic vibration of the tundra rolling under my treads. But that other world blazed clear around it. Night never came to a place that had never known the daylight. And Zavier threaded through it, watching me silently from the midst of that conscious sea.

"I know you're there," I said.

"You're upset."

"You haven't been watching? They're setting me up, and I can't tell if I'm bothered more by that or by the fact that you never told me about it."

"Never told you? Turi . I wasn't even paying attention. Do you think I watch everything you do? I have my own problems--"

"Then why even bother with all this? Why bother cultivating me into whatever the hell I am now, if it means so little to you? Am I just your toy? Your pet? You play with me when it suits you and toss me aside when you're through?"

"Turi, please, calm down."

"I want to talk to Ara."

"I am Ara."

"No. I want to talk to Ara. Not the middle-man. Not the filter. Not the stand-in face for whatever it is on the other side of the connection that purports to be Ara . I want to talk to Ara. The Ara I met in the woods. Not just some projection."

"That is a projection, Turi. I don't even exist in your world. That face is just an eidolon assembled out of specialized nanomachines. It isn't real--"

"It's the only face you identify with your own name. There's something real in that, isn't there? Whenever I talk to Zavier, I feel like I'm talking to your big toe."

Silence. If an abstract impression of a being could sulk, I imagined Zavier doing it now. His gestalt emptied, its flushed framework sitting like a knot of vacuum in my mind. It drew out the sudden apprehension that I might have pushed him too far, and he'd simply shut me out.

But transapients didn't think like that. They didn't get angry; they were above that. Weren't they?

"Open your vents."

"It's sub-freezing out there. No way in hell I'm letting the heat out--"

"You want to talk to Ara -- open your vents. Do you ask your human friends to crawl in through the crack under your door, or do you open it for them out of courtesy?"

I grunted. We both knew full well it was unnecessary . but I reached down to flip open the air vents on my dash anyhow. Flecks of ice whipped through them on a gust of frigid air from outside. I cinched my coat up tighter under my chin and hunkered down. My second sight saw Ara's particles floating on that breeze, pouring into my cab like silt into a river delta.

A second later, her hand reached over from the passenger seat to flip the vents closed again. I glanced over and met her steely gaze.

"Happy now?" she asked.

I fixed my stare out the windshield, regarding her only through the dim reflection she cast on its surface. "At least now I know I have your attention," I said.

"Attention? You think this requires any more of my attention than chatting with you through Zavier? He has his independent personality; so do I. When this is over, I'll go back and reinsert my consciousness back into my core . just like I would have with Zavier. I could be in a million places at once, Turi. The only difference here is that this representation stirs some lusty adoration out of your self-important monkey-baggage."

"Then why do you give it your name?"

Another pause. She shook her head, face set in that same look of gentle exasperation Mother gave me when I said something she didn't like. "Because I like being in your world," she said finally. "Or maybe I think that lusty adoration is cute . and I like to fool myself that it's really directed at me. You wouldn't like what I really am, Turi. It's nothing like this. The only time you ever came close to it, you were terrified. And however far you think you've come since that day . it's nothing compared to how far you have left to go."

"Thanks," I said.

"Oh, come. You're acting like a child."

"You made me what I am. You're the reason the Covenant is breathing down my neck. What happens when they get their proof? What happens when Alekseenko sees that Lima hasn't torn me limb-from-limb and delivers that as proof of your tampering to the Tribunal? What happens when they come after you . or when they tip off the Keeper that his non-interference edict has been broken?"

"I've already talked to the Tribunal," Ara said. "They and the Keeper are my worries. You shouldn't concern yourself with transapient affairs."

"You should have thought of that before you dragged me into this.. Before you let your ego get the best of you."

"I could say the same of you. I didn't flaunt your gifts to your government. You did a fine job of that without me. And now you're going to have to work your way out of the mess you've made."

My heart skipped. "You're not going to do anything, are you? About me . about Lima. You're just going to let me waltz in there and get torn apart."

"Are you?" Her face was unreadable, her pretty mouth pressed into a hard line.

The navigation readout on my HUD flared a warning. I'd reached the edge of Ara's territory, and Lima's border lay just ahead. I punched it clear with my thumb, settled back into my seat and gripped the steering yoke with both hands. "Don't figure I have much of a choice," I said.

I turned hard, digging the edge of my crawler's tracks into snow to drag it to a skidding halt. I popped the door, brushed past Ara to dig my survey equipment out of the storage compartment by her feet, and ducked out of the vehicle into the cold night air.

Her door popped when I was only a few steps out. She stalked around its nose and followed me a few meters behind as I trudged toward my survey mark. I rolled my map out of the pocket on my sleeve, checked my position against its crudely drawn representation of the terrain. I could have sensed it better through Ara's implant . but my pride got the better of me.

"This is madness," she hissed. "If you run away now, they'll just think you're a coward. How many other scouts chicken out of a tough assignment? What happens to them? At worst, you'll be demoted and spend the next few years working your way back up the pay scale. What are you trying to prove, Turi?"

"That I'm better than they are."

"But you're not! You are what you are -- nothing more!"

I wheeled on her. "What I am . is what you made me." I dropped my pack onto the ice-hard ground and pulled it open. I knelt down beside it with her standing there over me, visibly seething. I wondered, idly, as I assembled my equipment, just how angry a transapient could get.

A fog had come up. It rolled toward us out of the east, sliding around and between trees, creeping like a wraith. It seemed to glow where it caught the beams of my headlights. I tried to work quickly, screwing together parts of the disassembled machinery the Lord Surveyor had supplied me. It came together far too slowly. My heavy gloves and the shadows of my hands complicated handling its delicate components. After a while, I gave up trying to see the junctions in the dark. I pulled off one glove with my teeth and tried to feel my way among the clips and screws.

"I can fake the readings," Ara offered.

I spit my glove out. "They'll know. It'll be too good."

"Then I'll fake the errors, too. Really, what do you think I am?"

"You said this is my mess. I've got to handle it."

"Now you're just being stubborn. I should pick you up and drag you home."

"You won't." I clipped the power supply into the survey unit, and it came to life. Clusters of antennae began whirling, and a cryptic array of readouts crept over its tiny screen. I stepped back, checked my watch, and looked around.

The fog had enveloped us. Shadows of trees stood vaguely around us, nothing really visible more than a half-dozen meters in any direction. Everything else lay buried in a wall of white frost. It caught up my headlights, bounced them around so that it seemed like their light came from every direction at once. The air hung still.

Peering deeper into the mist, I thought I saw shapes moving inside it. Dark, indefinite things, twisting in and out of visibility. Curiosity overrode my pride. I closed my eyes and probed into the distance with Ara's sense. A fog lay over us there, too, in that mirror world of the transapients' network. Except there, it hung dark and dense, choking the region under its weight.

"Lima?" I asked.

"Ezra," Ara corrected.

"Your pill supplier?"

She sighed; a remarkably human gesture, and one I couldn't be sure she'd affected solely for my benefit. She paced around me, gazing out into the fog bank.

"Ezra hates humans," she said, "but he's a good source of information on them. He's probably dissected millions in his lifetime. Most of us used to be human, at one point. Not Ezra. Truthfully, I think he's afraid of you -- like some people are afraid of spiders. It's an unfortunate necessity that I--"

I felt the thing lunge. Even coming out of that virtual space, it had the power to knock me to the ground. Its presence overwhelmed my senses. I saw that dark weight drop toward me, threatening to crush me. Simultaneously, the ghostly figures writhing through the fog took shape. Awful, twisted heads on serpentine necks coiled out of the fog bank toward me, mouths agape with rows of vicious teeth. It enjoyed the show. The mass of microscopic machines that comprised its eidolon could have stripped the meat from my bones without once announcing their presence . but it seemed to enjoy brandishing its power in that split instance before it ground me out of existence.

I put my arms up to cover myself out of instinct, cowering under it, biting my tongue and squeezing my eyes shut as I waited for its strike. But nothing happened. I opened my eyes, chanced a quick look around, and found myself crouched in the middle of a sea of demon heads, snapping and frothing out of the fog bank, but held back by some invisible force.

Ara stood with her back to me. Just standing there. I don't know what I'd expected -- some dramatic pose with lightning shooting from her fingertips . but she just stood there.

"Take your readings," she said.

Slowly, I got back onto my feet. Ara stalled it a handful of meters out. Beyond her invisible barrier, it writhed and snapped, driving itself against the wall of her presence again and again like an enraged animal in a cage. It took an effort to collect myself enough to check the operation of the machine, to make sure it hadn't been damaged in the attack. The thing surrounded us. Everywhere I looked, one of those terrible heads looked back, every one of them like the face of a demon carved from the billows of a cloud.

The readout on the survey device screamed data. The signals lacing the air here were orders of magnitude beyond the power of any signal I'd seen come off the transapients' world-net before. Every cored tree within a hundred meter radius burned well above boiling . and through Ara's eye, I could see the landscape of the net inundated with flitting snippets of warring intentions. I felt like a dust mote snuggled between angry, bloated suns. The vast gravity of the two transapients whirled around me on the net, drawing their ringlike proxies into frenzied spirals as they paced the steps of that deadly dance. Circling wolves, drawn up to cosmic proportions.

I wondered what kind of stalemate I'd become witness to -- whose pleasure dictated the nature of the game. They both seemed so vast; so utterly beyond the capacity of my senses to perceive. Even in that second sight, they loomed beyond my vision. And standing here beside me was this delicate, pretty girl . of the same kin as those snapping dragons' heads . and yet so vastly different.

Despite myself, I trudged toward one of them, put a finger out to tease its slathering, vaporous jaws. It snapped, and I jerked back.

"Please, don't," Ara said. "It's difficult enough to keep him in check without you doing his job for him. You realize the kinds of forces that are in play here?"

As if to illustrate, I heard a sound like a gunshot somewhere off to the east -- a tree shattering under the hot expansion of its core. I scrambled back to my equipment, dropped into a crouch with it between my knees and huddled over it. I rubbed my hands to drive away the sudden chill that had washed over me.

"What is it?" I asked. "What is that thing made of?"

"The same thing I am," she said. "Coupled nanomachines. Trillions of them, climbing over and gripping one another with articulated legs. Some specialized as processors, some managing power and material distribution, some projecting light to form surface images . others just structural. The gypsies call it angel fog."

I grunted. "Maybe demon fog would fit better."

"That's a dubious distinction. You don't give a shotgun different names depending on who it's aimed at."

"Maybe we should."

The device twittered. The first set of scans read complete. With shaking hands, I disconnected the antennae array, adjusted it for a second pass and reattached it. It took no time to locate a signal. The air virtually sang with them.

"Is he saying anything?" I asked. "Or is all this just for control?"

"Is there a difference?" Ara's attention seemed fixed on that one roiling head. I wondered if she were truly as rapt as she appeared, or if she were putting on a show solely for my benefit.

"Minds make noise," she said after a while. "You can read every intention on the surface of its thoughts, provided you know what you're looking for. It doesn't matter what you internalize -- what comes out is what matters in the end. And, right now . it looks like Ezra very much wants to kill you. You've made him very angry."

"Not much for hospitality." I shivered. The implant in my crotch felt hot against my leg, and its endurance serum burned in my veins. The seconds crawled past. I watched them tick away on the surveyor readout, willing it to tick faster. Reflections of Ezra's snapping heads played off the surface of the tiny screen, dancing ghost-like with the garish scarlet numbers.

"You've invaded his home," Ara said. "And so have I. How would you feel if your neighbor came crashing through your door and wrestled you down just before you stepped on a bug? No. Really, to be honest . this has been a long time coming. You're just a convenient excuse, Turi. He's been itching to go at me for a while."

"Why? What did you do to him?"

She smiled. "I'll tell you someday. Right now . you wouldn't understand."

The readout twittered again. One more set to go. I struggled through the recalibration, fingers numb. My heart pounded in my ears. My lungs felt dry and ragged. I could have fought off a pack of wolves bare handed . but I could only wish those were the extent of my worries now.

"Hurry," Ara said. "He's contacted the Tribunal. They're on their way . to mediate the dispute. You'd best not be here when they arrive."

I swallowed a hard lump. Two of these things going at each other was almost more than I could take. I couldn't imagine facing more of them. By rumor, I knew there were at least six transapients who sat on the Tribunal, few of whom ever came into any kind of direct contact with humans. Most of the Covenant's business with them was carried out indirectly through eidolons -- and those were always ghastly, semi-human incarnations, never even remotely like the vibrantly beautiful face Ara showed me. To them, we were wildlife to be managed.

I had no doubt how they would resolve this conflict were I to stick around.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to get you in trouble."

She laughed. "You think too highly of yourself. You're nothing to them . and you're only slightly more to me. You're going to have to come to grips with that. What I do, I do for my own reasons. Few of them have anything to do with you."

One last twitter of completion . and I pulled the surveyor apart, tossing its pieces into my bag with little regard for the condition they ended up in. They would be in worse shape if I stayed here any longer. I pick it up and bolted for the crawler, lying there at the edge of Ara's shielded radius, uncomfortably close to that gnashing vapor wall. I lunged inside, drew the doors shut and gunned the engine.

Zavier's voice whispered in my mind. "Drive straight out the way you came. Go as fast as you can . and don't look back."

Not that I needed the direction. I took off blindly, wincing anticipation as I tore into the wall of mist, through its snapping depth and out the other side. Firecracker pops of breaking trees jolted the air over the din of my engine, following me out of Lima into Ara's territory. It was miles before I left that sound behind.

Despite myself, I chanced a peek in the rearview. Flames crowned the skeletal canopy of the forest. A twisting knot of fog shrouded those blazing trees, lit from within by the awful light of a transapient brawl. Lightning darted among the branches of surrounding trees, creeping in from the fringes of the mess toward its center. In Ara's eye, I saw the shadowy behemoths of the Tribunal converging on the fray.

I forced myself to look away, expecting to be turned into salt if I stared any longer. In truth, I didn't really want to see more. Despite what Ara said, I knew that havoc was at least partially of my making.

And now, I was on my way home to answer for it. I wondered, idly, if I'd have been better off with Ezra. At least he might have made it quick.

Chapter Four - Table of Contents - Chapter Six