The world was a sea of color and sound. A swirling mass of chaos and life, spinning faster than he could bear. He was hot and cold at the same time, burning inside and freezing through his bones. Aran clutched his sides and crumpled to the floor in a heap. Alive. Aran screamed into the air, his lungs filling with a putrid mix of oxygen and stagnancy. Sobbing, he pushed himself up.
"Alive..." Aran staggered, trying to walk on shaky legs. Real flesh covered him, and his body felt like it had been ripped apart at the seems. Coldness swallowed the raging fire in him. It was the essence of not wanting to die that kept him clinging to life. Eyes turned up and scanned the room; colors seemed to sweep from shapes, objects floated idly from spot to spot. No face he saw, but the voice he heard.
"I've repaired you. Mostly. There is still some work to be done." The voice was calm and cool, level as factual. "If you do not get back on the table, you will die."
"Yeah...sooo what..." Aran muttered. "....getttingg...useed....to...it."
"It's a miracle you're standing, much less making unnecessary comments. Now, you can trust me and live, or sit there and die."
"Questions," Aran blurted. His fists rapidly flew from his sides, forming fists he wielded clumsily. "Answers!"
"This is all confusing now, but unless I finish this procedure, you'll die without knowing the answers.
"...glitched..." Aran mumbled, and made his way towards the table. A pair of gloved hands helped him to a slab.
"Now I'm going to have to put you under sedation for a wh--"
Aran's fist shot upwards through the restraining strap and wrapped around the man's skull.
"Got it." The man replied, oblivious to Aran's threat.
"All right, this is going to be a little disorienting," the voice began.
"I think I can handle it." Aran replied. There was a click and Aran's field of vision swept from 0 to 180 degrees in an instant. He remembered this from his Body Format, when the became a Technomancer, his bio-organic eyes were being calibrated to his mind. The world flipped upside down four or five times while still spinning madly. Objects were in front of his face, then miles away. Suddenly it stopped with a force that nearly floored him. Instead he simply gripped the table sides and blinked.
The face staring at him was that of an older man. Short cropped black hair and a neatly trimmed beard obscured most of the face, but two brilliant blue eyes stared from behind an amber opti-visor.
"Ok, you'll live. Get up, you have to get moving." The man pressed a few buttons nearby and the restrains snapped open from Aran's arms and legs.
"I've got a few questions," Aran began. The man moved away swiftly, he was wearing a protective lab smock worn by bio-surgeons, although his was vastly more impressive than any Aran had ever seen.
"And you've got a few answers. I installed an on-board into the cavity your AI used to fill. It's not a human-emulator, just a computer. Don't need to worry about that thing doing anything to your brain, it's passive. Now listen..." the man seemed to see Aran's bewildered expression even with his back turned. "I dumped some information into it, you can ask it as you travel. Speaking of which, here, take whatever you need."
The man dropped a metal box at Aran's feet. Inside he could see clothes, a few odds and ends needed for basic survival.
"You're going to A Spire, 20 miles east of here, in Old Center. At the top of that spire, the largest on the island, there is a library, and in that library is a man who can answer your questions. He will also tell you more than I can, or want to for that matter. I have a weapon somewhere, hold on.
Aran dropped his jaw at the no-nonsense forwardness of the man. Despite his stubbornness, he scrounged through the box at his feet. He found a pair of knee high environment boots from an old warsuit, a thick metal plating was sewn between the armored cloth-and-leather shell. He was still wearing the dark blue jumpsuit he had 'acquired' from the mysterious swordsman John Salan, but he did pick up a dark blue jacket to wear over the top. The sleeves of the jumpsuit were still missing, but the jacket covered his arms. A leg-strapped carrying pouch was at the bottom, and he fastened it to his belt, then around his leg. What he saw last nearly floored him: it was a visor. The black surface was unmarred, still wrapped in a tight film of EM-shielding. He pulled it off gently and examined the visor. It looked to be the right size, and when he fitted it over his eyes, the locking joints in his skull connected, drawing the visor into his forehead. Switching the visor down and up a few times, Aran was glad to have at least some semblance of what he used to possess inside him again. He looked around for a trenchcoat, but none could be found.
I've got to get another one. Aran thought. He started to look around the room, but a pistol was thrust at him. The old war-pistol was a PLE-powered model with little to no stopping power. Aran shoved it inside his jacket and turned to the doctor.
"My bandolier?" He asked. "I need my bandolier."
"Oh..." the doctor blinked and then gestured to corner bewildered. "It's over there...."
Aran walked to the corner and picked up his bandolier, pulling it over his shoulder. Flexing his wings, he tested their feel in his new body.
"You have to be--"
"Going? Yeah. I got it. But listen to me.
I don't like cryptic missions. You have no glitching idea what I've
been through the past few days. Cyberspace falls, my AI turns
out to have been corrupted by an ancient weapon of mass destruction, I
got wings, I've been shot, punched, punctured, bent, twisted, built, rebuilt,
almost blown up, and a blue-haired girl stepped all over my heart...literally.
I've got enough mysteries in my life. So let me make one thing
ABUNDANTLY clear. I'm going to see this Historian, I'm gonna
ask my questions. And if you're just putting me on, I'm gonna
come back and tear you apart." Aran glared at the doctor for
a few minutes, then turned. Glitch me and glitch my life.
He walked to the window and climbed to the ledge. Old Center
lay to the direct east, 20 miles or so. As he leapt into the
air, he caught sight of a rivot bot wandering towards a dome below.
Bad news, glad that blue haired girl's safe at my safehouse. Glitch,
what is her story? It's time for questions to be answered.
"It had to be the tallest building on the glitched island...." Aran grumbled. He shoved his fist into the brickwork again, making a small handhold. Another two feet upward. Another hold, another two foot ascent. His wings were folded into his back. The high winds around the once awe-inspiring skyscraper made flight impossible. He tried a makeshift grapple line, but the winds pushed it away from his target. So, a half hour later, he was only a hundred feet above the ground.
"On-board, boot," Aran muttered. "If I have to scale this blasted thing, I might as well catch up on what current state of hell my life is in. Ok, where am I going?"
"To the library. "
"Wonderful. Great answer." Aran muttered as he gouged another hold in the stone-and-steel framework. "What is 'the library'? "
"Dwelling and Base of Operations for The Historian."
"And who, pray tell, is The Historian."
"The Third of 5."
"All right, let's get something straight." Aran sighed. He swung his leg over and pulled himself into a broken alcove in the frame. "When I ask questions, you give me what you know, how you know it, and why. No half answers. No questions provoking questions. You got a name."
"No. I do not have an addressable moniker."
"Ok. From now on, you're name is 'Seer'."
"Ok, Seer, give me the low down, as I climb, of what is going on and why I'm actually doing it."
"I cannot deduce the reasons of your--"
"Just talk." Aran sighed and swung back to the pylon he was scaling. It began to rain.
"The 5 are the remains of the old order that existed before what is now referred to as 'the DOWNfALL'; another order of humanity. The 5 let none know about them, the 5 are the 5. That is all they will let me know. They are benevolent, or so they claim. Among them is my creator, Dr. Keith Rains. He was the one who repaired your body. Would you like a technical readout of your new parts and replaced functions?"
"It'd be swell," Aran said through clenched teeth. His hands tore a two inch groove in sheer, wet, metal as he tried to make a new handhold above his head.
"Skeletal frame unchanged, minimal wear, excellent shape. Synthetic skin purged, skin-housings and production plates removed. Bio-organic skin6 implanted, skingel factories implanted. TrueMuscle augmentation, level C, industrial class poly-gel musculature with fiber-based nerve system. Dermal hardening chemical Gammatetracorati-34 being produced to act as environmental shielding. Internal On-Board computer installed, named Seer by owner. Memory augmentation added to shield internal cranium from high-level white noise. Selected memorization plants loaded with skillsets 1,4,and 5J--"
"Hang on. I got skillsets floating around in that ooze that was once my memory? What in the glitch do I know how to do now?"
"Skillset 1 - Offensive and defensive tactics involving bioware, cyberware, low-level robotics, and weapon-key recognition. Skillset 4, selected memories of Dr. Keith Rains trigger-coded to circumstances. Skillset 5J, the complete knowledge of Bio-ware restoration and creation."
"Let me get this straight...," Aran began. "If I can't kill it or I.D. it, I can fix it?"
"Ok, practical information. Know anything that will help me get up this building?"
"I suggest testing your boosted reflex speed. I can triangulate jump points to the wind, if you can jump to and from them, you can scale the walls by jumping. The gripping on your boots will provide enough stability even on the wet metal."
Aran stopped in mid-punch. The slow realization of what had been said caused him to think. His visor slid over his eyes, and instantly began to scan the area. Straight up were a few thermals and strong windpockets. A series of staggered metal pylons and scrap made a spider-work path to the top. Suddenly, bright red circles began to fade around certain pylons, specific pieces of ruined stone and steel. The path zig-zagged upwards over 400 feet into the sky and the layer of almost tangible filth floating over the city.
"Not bad Seer." Aran grinned. "Not bad at all."
He leapt off his hold and aimed his legs for the super-imposed target.
As soon as he felt contact, he began building force for the push off, and
launched himself to the next ledge. It was clumsy, but faster
than brute force climbing. As the winds shifted, the jump points
changed too, leaving Aran having to guess on his feet where to land.
Slowly he made his way upwards to an area of lighter winds and more gridwork
from an old floor that hadn't quite caved in. Resting for a moment,
he contemplated the world above and below. I wonder what's above
that cloud cover.
"Magnifying current field of vision." The world seemed to blur and he felt like he had shot forward. He could no longer see the dome, just a surrounding of sparkling dark waters.
Aran froze. The increased vision showed something, to the north. In the midst of the water was a boat. It was surrounded by a 'fence' of floating barrels and wires strung in a circle around it. Bobbing in the midst of the vast, unpopulated ocean, it was a beacon of humanity.
"Magnification is already at maximum."
Aran looked at the floating symbol of another age. What it held, or possibly, WHO it held was a mystery he wanted to know. He held his position for a few minutes, engraving the image onto his mind.
"Normalize," Aran sighed. The world flew back and he was floating above a layer of black air, hanging in the air on metal wings. Glancing upwards he saw the top of the spire, a top-level structure the size of a large house. Perfectly rectangular, over a hundred feet high and nearly twice as wide. He soared up to it and landed gently on the top. The upper floors of the once majestic building were solid here, there were not as many corrosive effects to wear them away like the ruins he had climbed through below. It was like a gem atop a pile of rocks. Here, above, was like looking back into another time. Aran folded his wings back and scanned the wall. Twenty yards to his left was a single doorway. Massive metal hinges gleamed in the sunlight, holding intricately worked doors in place. He pushed on the handle at it swung open easily. The scent that hit him was confusing at first, then he remembered it. Musty old books. Parchment and leather mountains were piled in every open space, and row after row after row of towering cases were filled to bursting with every kind of book imaginable. Aran walked inside, dazed. A few lights flickered overhead, powered by some unseen source. A series of worn trails seemed to wind aimlessly through the books, leading, ultimately to a clearing with a large desk. A voice echoed from the hall of books, all around him.
"Sit. You are expected." Aran walked to the desk and sat behind the chair. "Now is the time for answers."
"Who are you?" Aran asked.
"I am the Historian. Chronicler of this Isle, this race, and humanity. I am the one who the winds tell their secrets too. I know you are distressed at the loss of your soulmate. I know the energy within you puzzles your mind. I know of a blue haired mystery who roams the streets as we speak. I know of the riots that will come. I know of the Obliteration of all we know. I know who you are, Aran SeTaal, and I know your history."
"Do you know why cyberspace fell?!" Aran asked. "Who caused the fall of cyberspace."
"I know the answers to your questions, but your question is flawed. No one took cyberspace down. Cyberspace is down, and it will never be fully restored the way it was. You need only know that at the center is a secret that would mean your instant death. We cannot break The Rules."
"What are The Rules?"
"You cannot know. Ask questions I can give you answers for."
"How do I know those?" Aran asked dryly.
"How else can you know? Ask."
"What about this energy? This blue electricity that comes from nowhere. What is it, and how can I control it?"
"The energy..." the disembodied voice said, it's voice tuning to that of a person reciting a well known passage from a favorite book. "...is essence. It is your body's attempt at stabilizing. Human beings, pure humans, have organic brains that produce chemicals and control elements of their bio-chemistry. After a technomancer operation, the brain is at a loss, for it can no longer produce things like adrenaline, Endorphine, pain registers, pain killers, and other instinctively generated chemicals. In response, if the operation is done correctly, the brain will learn to use the Technomancer's internal machinery and power to generate essence, a form of 'Techno-adrenaline' much like it's human counterpart. Both are generated under stress, concentration, anger, rage, extreme pressure, etc.. However, as one modifies the body's ability to react (human adrenaline), Technomancer adrenaline becomes physical. This allows them to power themselves, discharge the energy as a weapon, polarly magnetize metals, create controlled fields of magnetic energy. That, Aran SeTaal is essence. You can ask a few more questions, then I must give you information."
"Who are The Five?" Aran asked. "Or is that breaking The Rules?"
"The Rules must not be broken!" The voice roared, then, in a whisper only a digital ear could catch. "But that does not mean they cannot be bent." Aran sat puzzled for a moment. Wind stirred the pages of a book on the table, opening it to a page. The first sentence caught his eye. We ask the questions, and we question the answers. Why do we not question the questions?
"Are The Five part of The Rules, bound by them?"
"Yes." The voice answered, again the inaudible whisper. "Bravo."
"Do The Rules bind me?"
"And by not binding me, but by my interaction with you, John Salan, and Keith Rains, I can be a tool. A tool used to break the rules that bind you."
"A most perceptive boy." A second voice intoned. John Salan emerged from the left most trail, his swords hanging over his shoulder, almost non-threatening. But the look in his eyes was that of a man who never tired of watching for opponents amongst friends.
"I never got the chance to thank you for dropping me down that pit," Aran growled.
"Enough!" the voice began. "We will not bicker. Hurry, ask what you can before we must begin other tasks!"
"The blue haired girl--" Aran began.
"Is key to all, and nothing," the voice began. "She is a map and a guidepost for what will and will never happen. In her lies the lives and deaths of millions. For her, blood will flow like rivers through this city. For her, The Rules will be pushed to their most strain. For her, people will break, and new friendships will be forged in blood and death. She is the enigma that everyone reaches for, but no one but herself can understand. Laws break around her, the world bends to her waking memory, and cowers at her forgotten nightmares. She is Athara-Meeatora, 'The Box That Opens From The Inside'. You will kill for her, soon."
"Why?" Aran asked.
"Now is the time for your purpose," the voice sighed. "To answer that question would task even my understanding. But know this, your questions will answer themselves: first, when you understand why you ask, and second, when you resist forcing them."
"Can we cut the chit-chat?" the fighter asked roughly. "We have no time."
"As you wish," the voice sighed. "I look forward to your questions, another day, Aran SeTaal. But for now, you must retrieve the Pure."
"Who are The Pure?"
"32nd gen, kiddo. A gene pool as spotless as polished steel, no impurities, no mutations."
"Specifically, a section of the human population from before the first of the Wars Of Breaking. Before the Silver Earth was founded, before The Rules, before The Five. They were gathered and protected. Many have died to keep them a secret, many fight to this day to keep them a secret. On the west end of the island, in the land known as The Evernight, there is the ruins of a city. It is flooded within and without, inaccessible to most but the most dedicated or fiercest fighters. In a Haven, guarded by machines of ages past they live. Sheltered from wind and toxin, they are perfect humans. Their purpose, for now, is simply to live. You must take them, Aran SeTaal, take them from the Haven and guide them back to Old Center. Below this spire is a ruined Tanker Hull. Dr. Rains is seeing to it at this time, when you bring them back, it will be ready to take them and yourself to another land."
"Obliteration," the voice began with awe. "The death of everything that is no less than a pinnacle of strength and willpower on this island will shed it's blood. There is more death ahead than even the comet did. This Island survived it all, only to be destroyed in the end by...The Rules prevent my saying.
"The Pure. How many pure humans do I have to bring here. Four, ten?"
"Try fifty-six, tinman." John laughed. "Innocent, pure, untainted humans. That's why I'm coming along. You may be able to fight kid, but there are more things out there than you know. They want you dead more than your enemies, and they have an infinitely more viscous way of reaching you."
"Fifty-six!?" Aran gasped, standing up from the table. "You want me to bring fifty-six humans, intact, across three hundred miles of wilderness and ruins? Through sections of mob-rule and worse!?"
"We have another, like you, who we helped many years ago. He has gathered some not unlike yourself to aid you. You will meet them at the Haven. There is an old bi-rail transport that will shuttle you back here. Please, hurry. You must leave soon."
"Let's get cracking, kid." John said, pulling his cloak over his shoulders and buttoning it. "I've got a bike outside, you've gotta ride side-car."
"Sorry," Aran said, flaring his wings, barely missing a pile of books. "I fly solo."
"You don't seriously think you can keep up with me like that, do you?"
Aran dashed from behind the table, a good second before John, but the
age-old fighter was quicker on his feet, beating Aran to the door.
His lead was lost, however, as he had to start his aerocycle and Aran simply
plummeted in a hawk's dive over the edge of the building.
As they left, the winds whispered to the Historian. In the hidden recess of the library, a massive book opened and it's pages whirled as if turned by some unseen reader. Finally, a blank page was reached, and words began to ink themselves on the pages. Words spoken by things The Historian had little knowledge of.
"SO LET THERE BE NOTHING SAID."
"There is another player on the board. A new Knight surrounds their queen."
"The Rules will not be broken. Let the balance continue."
"So it has been."
A ragged man in a flowing gray robe held a sign that was battered by the years. Marked in fluorescent paint, which was itself beginning to fade, were words of warning: THE END IS NEAR. He turns a corner and explodes in a shower of blood and bone. His cloak rises from the ground to wrap itself around an unseen frame. The frame stoops to bathe it's unseen fingers in the pools of blood at it's feet. It picks up the sign, alters it by running crimson streaks over the wood, and shoves it into the corpse of it's owner. The crowds would find the ruined corpse, they would read the sign. A few would wonder, a few would doubt, but most would believe:
"I don't feel good."
"What's wrong tinman, airsick?" John Salan throttled the aerocycle and dived into a spiraling spin around Aran. The look on his face was amusement. Aran gritted his teeth and flexed his wings, thrusting himself faster and counterspinning around the aerocycle in it's descent.
"No, I've got no problem with heights. I just..." They both pulled from the stunt flight to return to level flight. "...It's like something is going really...really...really...wrong."
"Does it feel like something's looking over your shoulder? Getting ready to hit anything and everything it sees? Some unknown threat just around the corner? Something more than paranoia and less than superstition?" the fighter asked, Aran could detect something in his voice...concern and...interest?
"Yeah. Like I'm about to witness something friggin' awful," Aran said. The landscape below was dotted by a few smoldering fires. The people seemed to be milling about the street in mass numbers. Aran felt like his insides were trying to crawl out of his synthetic skin.
"Kid, you're a fighter. Not like me, but a lot like me. Listen." The fighter swerved the bike closer. "Everyone that does something gets used to it. The better they are, the better equipped they are for their job. And some surpass excellence, they get so close to their work that anything like it triggers them off. Doctors learn to manipulate organs by feel, they can tell if someone is lying about their health. The good ones only need to talk to you for a while to learn what's wrong with you. Priests get closer to God. Atheist get closer to oblivion. Police closer to the crime. So what, kid, do fighters and warriors get close to most of all?"
Aran slowed briefly at the question. Only a few memories had to surface for him to realize what it was. The feeling inside him made a lot more sense, and frightened him more than he could bear.
"Death," Aran whispered.
"Right. I feel it too, kid. It's close enough to smell, close enough to taste, almost close enough to--"
"No..." Aran came to a halt in the air, his eyes going wide and trying to close at the same time. But the image below burned itself into his mind. This cannot be glitching happening! THIS CANNOT BE HAPPENING!!!!!! He had never seen anything like it before, not even in his nightmares. The street below was a writhing mass of chaos, dotted by red. "NO!!!!" A nearby pool of water, prized for it's purity, hoarded for it's living giving fluid, coveted for it's value, was boiling red. Blood flowed like rivers through the streets, spilling over drainage pipes into frothing pools, dotting the sidewalks and streets. A young man was beating a child, still holding onto it's dying mother. "NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!"
John Salan saw Aran dive and had to shield his eyes. The young technomancer had seemed to erupt in blue light, a trailing swatch of energy plunging into the chaos. He throttled his aerocycle and tried to follow.
"That boy has no idea what he can do. Please don't let him find
Silence was the only answer. The onlookers puzzled at the
sight, and gave him way.
"Please." The voice sounded like rippling water. Aran opened his eyes and saw a black gloved hand under his face. He accepted the gesture gingerly and let himself be pulled up. Before him stood a regal figure in a blood-stained gray over-cloak. Underneath was a black-laced garb he did not recognize. Shining black boots came to the knees, and rounded kneepads went half a foot higher. Black pants and a gray shirt adorned the figure's frame. A large leather-worked back-scabbard was slung over it's right shoulder, similar to his bandolier. In the scabbard was a scythe-like weapon that shined like polished steel, and was tinged crimson on it's edges. Grace and beauty described the weapon as well as fear and hysteria. It looked as much a tool as a weapon. The face of the stranger was hard as stone, and his eyes were as black as his hair. Short strands of it fell down over his face haphazardly. And on him, Aran could feel coldness, emptiness. If fear held a body, it stood before him.
"Interesting," the figure said. "Tell me, what do you think of my 'manaliblis vitae'?"
Aran sat dumfounded. The being before him dropped the cloak from it's shoulder and unstrapped the scythe-like weapon, the weapon seemed to writhe in his hands. His motions were fluid and swift, almost too fast for his digital eyes to follow. The scythe flew by Aran's right side, soundlessly, and through the body of a would be attacker. The body was split so fast it didn't bleed, the wound so fast the friction seared everything. Then it was back on his back, and he was staring out past Aran to the chaos.
"Who are you?" Aran asked shakily. "What is going on?"
"My name..." the figure said, bowing slightly. "..is Sahris. And this is manaliblis vitae, quite literally "flowing life". Such a wonderful color, blood, so beautiful on whatever it touches. So precious, and so wasted by it's owners."
"You're enjoying this?" Aran roared. "You're enjoying this madness?!"
"Enjoying?" Sahris questioned. "Dear sir, I am enthralled. I haven't seen such a magnificent sight in my life. This is perhaps, one of my greatest works."
Aran dashed for Sahris, who sidestepped as if he were walking down the street. Falling headfirst, Aran wound up with a mouth full of grime and dirt. He winced for a fraction of a second and was back on his feet...in time to feel the scythe-blade on his neck like a feather.
"Ah, volatilis spathae, you have indeed done much. Your kind are...unique to an artist such as myself. Vitae is in you, but is not within you. What a puzzle you are. Were it my choice, we would find here and now whether they warrant my presence." Sahris sighed and latched the scythe over his back. "As it is, I cannot attack you, yet. My purpose lies out there." He gestured with the scythe towards the east. "They think the tides are unbalanced because of a new player in this game. So I am to go hunting, for now...Besides, I want to see you get a fitting weapon before you fight me."
"Who the glitch are 'they'? Why are you here?! AND WHAT IS THIS GAME?!!" Aran roared. His hands began to generate essence, the blue energy sparking around his forearms and arcing between his fingers. "Tell me, or we see who's fastest."
"I am." Sahris smiled and "But I am impressed, nonetheless. When we meet again, one of us will die, that much is sure. Truly sad. I would rather we were brothers in arms. And everything, everything, is a game in this age. If you're not playing, you're a pawn. How lucky we are to be able to play!"
He smiled as Aran's shoulder was clasped. Aran whirled around to find John Salan standing there facing him. The old fighter's face was pale, all the blood drained. Sahris seemed to drink in the man's all-too-apparent fear with eagerness. He walked, glided, towards them with a look on his face not unlike that of a wolf approaching a deer.
"Master John Salan! What an honor! Truly, I must be in favor with the fates if I am to warrant your company! Master of the seven blades, here, before me! Even an ex-pupil like myself is still in awe over your presence." The tone was mockery at it's highest level, the bow Sahris made more for spite than honor. "Oh, and Master Salan, unlike your other little children, this one shows promise. He is volatilis spathae already, make him stronger or he will die when we next meet. I could not take his life knowing he could have had a chance." Sahris approached them with his graceful gliding walk. "He has time to train, I have a bird to kill first."
Sharis halted abruptly, a few inches from their faces, leaning forward with a smile. His voice was a whisper of thunder.
"You know that they're letting me bring a few friends soon, Master." His grin could have driven men mad, it seemed to spread. Sahris' face was a mirror of smiling hatred. "I'm sure they remember you. Ages don't dull the memories of pain, Master Salan. Not a single second has escaped them. And they promised to repay...what was it...a hundred fold?" Sharis voice became stone, felt like ice grinding into Aran's head. "I look forward to our little reunion."
With that he turned to leave, walking towards the crowd. As he approached the fighting seemed to intensify, increase. He began to fade, shimmering into nothing. Almost completely gone, he unclasped his scythe and turned one last time.
Sahris saluted Aran with the scythe-like weapon. "We'll meet again, brother. But until then...Fiat Morti."
And he was gone.
The aged fighter pulled Aran to the aerocycle and forced him into the sidecar. Aran sat dumfounded until they were far above the city and the madness below.
"What did he call me?" Aran asked. For once, the aged fighter had no problem talking to him.
"He called you something in a very old language: Winged Sword. To him, you are very much like someone else. Someone from long ago, long, long ago. He wants you dead, but you're not his object."
"What does he want? The pure?" Aran asked. "No. He'd have followed us, or meet us there. What does he want."
"He told you kid."
"Those last words were the same language..." John Salan said. He turned to face Aran briefly, face blank. "It's a phrase no one will utter but the mad."
"For the last glitching time, what did he say."
"He said, 'fiat morti'," the fighter said, turning to face the sun, already preparing to descend. "He said, 'let there be death'."
"Center of the city has a subterranean haven. A sunken self-contained complex. It's locked tight, though. I'm going to the eastern part of the city for part of the key to open it. You need to go west, into the swamps and find a building. A long time ago it was the part of the Technicia Defense Organization. It's a tall tower, the tallest with seven others around it in a geometric pattern. It's the--"
"Weapons Research and Development tower," Aran broke in. John Salan stared at him for awhile with an expression that was as close as he had ever come to amazement. "I know the building," Aran murmured. Not true, Dr. Tsano knows the building. Unfortunately, I've got a chunk of his memory in my friggin' head.
"Inside, in the fifth basement level there is a computer system named ICARUS. You HAVE to retrieve the hard disk drive from this computer. It is absolutely vital that you do. It has years and years of research notes on vaccines, medical knowledge, and genetic information. To lose it would decrease the chance of the Pure surviving."
"No problem." Aran jumped from the sidecar and hung in the air briefly, weightless, before gravity began to pull him down. His wings extended and he began to slowly descend over the city. The thickness of the air seemed to choke him, almost strain his breath to the point of blacking out, so Aran switched on his internal air filter. Instantly, the air was cleaner, though not even near the level of what he normally breathed. It would be dangerous to stay below more than a few hours. Hey, Seer, gimme a 4 hour countdown. Starting Count. Aran landed on the ruins of street that had been vacant for hundreds of years. This part of the island was a living testimony to the war between nature and science. Being unpopulated by humans, the only change to these streets were the foot high spiderweed bushes bursting through cracks in the pavement. A family of chokeivy was twined around a nearby street sign, obscuring its printed name. Aran floated up and pulled a few of the vines away, frying the twining parasites with essence as the vines tried to twine around his arm. In bold, white block letters were the words:
"Ironic," Aran said to no one, only a howling wind answered.
The Automap was useless, no one updated the software to include the Wastelands. Aran relied on his compass to point him to the west, towards the 'marshes' of the once great city. The pavement below was still strong, so the path was easy. As he walked, Aran's thoughts wandered with him. First about how his apartment was doing, and whether his lawyer had paid the bio-doc yet. I better call him soon, see if I can get transfer my accounts to fellinum as fast as possible. He thought about the A.C.C.U. and how they would probably try to retaliate again, soon. He thought about the Historian, and he thought about the mysterious blue-haired girl he was driven to protect, for unknown reasons. What did the historian call her? Athara-Meeatora? 'The Box That Opens From The Inside'. Not exactly. What do you mean? He paraphrased. What? The direct translation is 'the locked box that is opened from the locked box within'. It refers to a hypothesis of a later 21st century scientist Daniel Braddock. What was the hypothesis? He said that to truly lock away a secret, completely and unreachable, you would need two 'lock boxes'. The first would hold the key to the second, and the second would hold all the secrets...and the first box. So that the key to unlocking all the secrets is itself locked inside, with the secrets. And even if, somehow, that box came into the world: it too would have to be unlocked. Strange, so the blue haired girl is a box within a box? What box is she in? Or does she contain the first box? Eh, too strange for me. I just steal things or blow them up, philosophy isn't my strong suit. Perhaps. Whatever, let's just get to the tower.
Aran strode along the empty streets, beyond the unlit windows and open doors. Winds seemed to race through every crevice and empty room, and the entire city seemed to be crying. The wail was echoing then, off of the massive towers of glass and steel.
"Gives me the creeps," Aran muttered to himself. "All these buildings sitting there, empty. It's like a ghost town. No humans, no insects, no friggin' life. Just plants, some vegetation. Still can't get it out of my mind that maybe, in one of those windows, there's an eye on me." He shivered briefly and continued walking.
The building he remembered was only a few miles ahead, he could see its ruins even from here. How much time do I have? 3 hours, 44 minutes. Aran sighed and broke into a run. No sense in staying in the past.
His ears heard a pulse cannon charge. Distance! 44
yards. Aran flared his wings and shot upwards, the concrete
below him shattered into hundred of fragments and so much dust.
Give me a thermal scan. The world was overlaid
with layers of red and orange. He saw four figures in buildings scattered.
The heat sensors were reading only parts of bodies, arms, legs, one or
two hearts among them. So either they were wearing thermal shielding
or... Technomancers! Aran dove towards the street
and spiraled into a thermal, letting the wind current carry him higher
and faster than he could fly under his own strength. The figures
were moving. Two of them jumped from their 20th story perches
and slammed into the concrete below. Fighter models, almost invincible.
One was scaling the wall down, the other seemed to be taking whatever internal
path he had used to enter the building. The two below were already
scouring the ground, looking for any sign of their target.
Heh, they won't even look up here. That gives me the element of
surprise. I have something that may be useful. What?
The bio-technology readout for doing a 'push' field. What's
that? Charge essence through your arms, then release it at the
certain condition to create a wall of energy that doesn't hurt, but will
throw an opponent. Right, give it to me.
Aran felt the long forgotten sensation of information pulsing through his
brain. To a technomancer, it was his heartbeat.
The information pulsed through fiber optic nerves, flowed like liquid life
through his veins. Aran knew how to generate the push field.
"Sorry, I just don't have time to fight." Aran said and turned to face the oncoming attacker. The second technomancer was dressed in all black, with a pale face unbroken by technology. But he looked less human than the war-machine. He seemed to radiate unattachment, a dull sheen in his eyes that betrayed him as slowly loosing touch with his humanity. From his back came four extra arms, all laced with razors. His fingers and forearm began to sprout blades as well. The arms were attached much like his wings, but these were designed for nothing but death. Aran spun on the pavement and jumped backwards as the extra arms shot forward, the blades dug into the concrete he had been standing on.
"You're good," the technomancer said icily.
"Thanks. You're not bad yourself," Aran said, jumping over another barrage of the spear like arms. Only two landed in the ground this time, the other two anticipated his jump, racing for his heart. Aran retracted his wings and twisted sideways. The arms missed him on either side and he fell to the ground with a force that jarred him. He began generating a second push field, and threw it towards the black clad technomancer. Seeing the field, the technomancer drove all of its spike-arms into the concrete as anchors. The field passed through it without any visible affect. He could see the third technomancer climbing the building, and the fourth was almost to the ground. Unless he could disable this one in time, their would be no chance of him taking on all three together. Behind him, a wrenching of concrete and metal announced that the war-machine had managed to free itself. Aran spun and threw a push-field at him, sending the young technomancer flying through a wall on the opposite side of the street.
"I told you, I don't have time to fight," Aran growled, his ears alerted him to the sound of the spears launching at him with his back turned. Aran spread his wings and pulled them around him. He heard the metal spark as the two collided, felt the blades chip his wings. Great. The wall-climbing technomancer was almost to the ground, and the war-machine was trying to push the remains of the wall off of him. Aran pulled his wings back and rolled forward, feeling the spears stab the street behind him. Before him was a second street sign, writhing with chokeivy. Aran ducked his head and brought his wings forward, shearing the sign with the edges of the metal wings. He grabbed the bottom, near the cut and whirled around, hitting the black garbed technomancer with the sign. Finding a living target, the chokeivy swarmed over him. As he thought, the technomancer began using all his attention to fight off the chokeivy...it looked like an even fight. Geez, what's this guy made of? A blow to his spine sent him sprawling as the third technomancer he hadn't been watching took him down. Aran rolled over and barely avoided a stream of ionic-pulse charges. The third technomancer was a war-model as well, the number '7' emblazoned on it's chest. PLEASE don't let there be a one through six nearby... Aran jumped to his feet hastily as the other technomancer began to target him again. The war-machine was almost free of the rubble.
"I DO NOT HAVE TIME FOR THIS. WILL YOU GET THIS THROUGH YOUR HEADS!!!!" He dashed forward at a speed that surprised him as much as his opponent and picked him up. Aran threw the technomancer towards the war-machine and the two collapsed as two more push fields brought down more rubble around them. He turned and found the fourth technomancer rushing from the building towards the black clad one. Aran speed to meet him.
"Please, don't attack! I just want to help Kreep," the technomancer said. "The chokeivy will make him hurt himself."
"What? Looks like the chokeivy's the only one that needs to worry about getting hurt," Aran said. "And why're you the only one here that's not trying to tear me apart at the seams."
"I'm Ta-Kyn, and I'm not a fighter. I fix things. Please, you have to let me help him. I have to get this chokeivy off of him before he--"
"Before he what?" Aran interrupted. The young technomancer looked at him, eyes hidden behind a permanent hud-visor.
"Have you ever heard of a berserker rage?" Ta-Kyn asked. Aran looked down as the word jarred his memory. Berserker rages? Only Technomancers who become so attached to weapons that they starting loosing touch with humanity...oh glitch. The black-clad technomancer's eyes lost what little fire they had and became to hollow orbs. Aran charged his hands and brought them down on the black-clad technomancers body. The chokeivy tried to twine around him, but it was fried by the essence before it could touch him. Aran began to tear the vines away from the technomancer, whose body was now crawling with blades. Shock waves of pain shot through his body as Aran hands and arms were sliced and punctured by the technomancer. The chokeivy was almost dead, and Aran began to charge more essence.
"Sorry, but this is for everyone here." Aran released the surge of essence and the technomancer's eyes closed. Smoke rose from his body where the fried chokeivy had been, and the innumerable blades on his body began to retract. Aran knelt down and tried to force himself to ignore the pain. Ta-Kyn looked at his arms and moved forward.
"No, check out razor-boy over there, Kreep you called him? Just make sure he didn't hurt himself. I can deal with myself." Aran forced himself to concentrate, forcing the nanite-factories in his arms to regrow the synthskin that had been lacerated. Slowly, the skin began to pull together, seamlessly tying itself together on a molecular level. He was, however, now sporting a new hole in his left palm. Standing, shakily, he looked around. Both war-machines had charged guns leveled at him from two angles. The only way out would be through a wall or up. Aran sighed.
"Look, you see that building..." Aran gestured to the immense tower leaning in the distance. "...I've got to get there. Now, unless you've got something against that, I want to go there. You're the ones who attacked me, I just want to get my job done."
"Hurt pure?" the war-machine with the '7' on his chest roared. Aran's jaw dropped.
"You know about the pure?!" Aran asked. "I'm here to get them out of this place. John Salan told me to get a key from that tower."
"Master John Salan, of the seven blades?" A new voice asked. Aran spun around and saw an aged technomancer before him. He wore multiple layers of mismatched clothing over a large frame, and his iron like gray hair fell far over his shoulder. A beard of the same steel gray strands was almost to his chest. If the clothing didn't give him away, the beard and hair would too easily. As comical as he looked, he was nothing more than legend.
"Doc." Aran gestured. "Or so I assume. All the stories I've ever heard have only one man dressing or looking like this: Doc, the oldest living technomancer."
"Among other things," Doc answered, he frowned at the scene. "I told you to be on guard, not to attack. What happened to Kreep?" then to the two war-model technomancers: "Weapon, 7, lower your guns." The two war-machines snapped at the order and their weapons began to power down.
"Kreep went ballistic again. This guy shut him down," Ta-Kyn said, he stood up from Kreep. "He's fine, a little cosmetic damage but that was easily fixed." Aran watched Ta-Kyn's left hand melt slowly from a micro-solder unit to an actual hand. What is that? omni-tool on a large scale. Looks more like an omni-hand.
"You say you came here with John Salan. Do you have any proof?" Doc asked.
"Ask him, he's east of here, getting part of the key to that subterranean haven," Aran said pointing to the eastern side of the island. "I really have to be going, I've only got three and a half hours of air left."
"We've got canisters in a building nearby," Doc said. "But please, answer me a few questions." Kreep moaned on the street below, slowly pushing himself up.
"Is he ok, Doc?" Kreep asked shakily. "Or should I kill him?"
"He looks ok, Kreep. Try to rest," Doc replied. "Now, sir."
"My name is Aran SeTaal."
"Aran SeTaal?" Ta-Kyn interrupted. "The data-thief? Aran the-guy-who-broke-takiyoma-west SeTaal? The same data-thief who once fried a network grid in under twenty minutes?"
"You've got quite a legend, son," Doc replied.
"Look who's talking," Aran countered bluntly. "Now, what questions, I have to get going."
"Why are you protecting the pure?" Doc asked. He seemed to glide across the street, his layers and layers of clothes hanging still despite the winds in the street.
"I don't know. The Historian told me to."
"So...you know about the five," Doc sighed. "What are you doing in that building?"
"Two things. I have to get a hard disk from a sub-basement...and something on a more personal level."
"You're truly here to help the Pure, aren't you. Yes, of course. Well, we were told to take this building: "The Southeast Armory Corporation" and hold it until John Salan contacted us. I apologize on behalf of my pupils for the violence."
"Hey," Aran sighed. "I'm getting used to it, no problem."
"You'll need some help in that building, I can't go, but Ta-Kyn can. Ta-Kyn, would you accompany Aran?"
"Yes. I need to look at that hand too," Ta-Kyn said.
"I'm going too," Kreep said, standing up.
"Look, I don't have anything with you," Aran said. "I was just defending myself."
"I know," Kreep replied. His eyes didn't move from their lock on Aran. "I'm not going to fight you. I have some questions."
"Well, great." Aran forced a mock smile, gesturing his arms to the west. "I guess it's three off to the tower."
"Come back here when you're done, I can contact John Salan with a device he gave me."
"All right. Let's go, I'm wasting air."
"Ta-Kyn, get the rover and two canisters of air," Doc ordered,
then turning to Aran: "He's a wizard with technology, he can hook something
up for you."
"I'll fight by you," Kreep said, then fell silent again. Aran raised an eyebrow and looked at Ta-Kyn. Ta-Kyn shook his head.
"It means he'll do his best not to kill you," Ta-Kyn answered.
"Ahhh...right back atcha Kreep." Aran mumbled. Glitch, wish I was back at the safe house. I Hope the riots haven't disturbed the blue haired girl and the g'ekk wirewitch she was with. Oh, glitch. Hope I can get back in time to get her among the pure and off the island.
"The wirewitch..." Aran muttered under his breath. "...will not be going with her."
"Did you say wirewitch?" Kreep asked. Aran's jaw dropped as he saw Kreep's shoulders crawling with razors.
"Yeah. What about 'em."
"I hate 'em," Kreep said bluntly, with enough coldness in his voice to make Aran shudder. "I hate them, all their kind, and the glitching witchfriends too."
"That feeling is mutual," Aran replied.
"Good," Kreep answered. "Very good."
The tower drew ever closer.
Aran walked down a wooden hallway that existed only in his perception. He switched software, and the cyberspace interface system changed the hallway to that of a stone castle. Perception if irrelevant. Doors of corridors split off in endless directions, the twisting byways that was Icarus.
"This is fascinating..." Ta-Kyn mumbled. He walked beside Aran in the null existence that was Cyberspace. "...digital representation based on perception and software...cyberspace has no real face...does it."
"Yeah...somewhere," Aran replied. "This reminds me of the early runs. When I was with Tyillion."
"Who?" Ta-Kyn asked.
"...A friend," Aran snapped. Woah. What in the world was that for? C'mon Aran, concentrate on the task at hand! "The Icarus storage case is codelocked from within. So we have to find it and shut it down. You wanted to see a run in cyberspace, Ta-Kyn, you will. But don't get yourself brainfried. You're not a data-thief, so don't try to be."
"I understand. However, I do have an idea on how to build a contained network...if I could just...well...hmmm." Ta-Kyn began to half whisper, half argue with himself as they walked. Aran's eyes began to scan the walls. The beautifully woven tapestries were information, age old information about the Icarus system. There was enough information on here to skyrocket humanity out of the dark ages. A few of the directories were tempting enough to try to explore now. But there's no glitching time.
"Aran." Kreep's voice floated in the emptiness. His external link to realspace let the third Technomancer speak to them inside the box.. "I've heard Doc talk about this place. Now either it's not that hard, or you're better than you let on."
Aran stopped and ran a hand over a piece of tapestry. The threads began to unravel at a blinding speed, eventually crumbling the entire wall before him.
"I'll tell you what I told Tyillion. It's one of the two."
"Hang on to this. You guys get back to the rover. I'll need that extra tank, too. "
"Where are you going?" Kreep asked.
"I have to go get something," Aran said. "Something from down below."
"I'm going with you."
"Me too," Ta-Kyn chipped in.
"Sorry. You have to get the rover prepped. And make sure that drivecase is secure. Kreep, are you sure you want to do this?"
"Might as well," Aran sighed. "We're going down."
"Down? In the tower?"
"The only way out," Aran smiled morbidly, "is straight down."
"I'm used to being in the darkness," Kreep replied flatly.
"That makes two of us."
Somewhere in the back on his mind, a voice whispered something about walking with shadows, but it was gone.
"So what are we going after?" Kreep finally asked. Aran leapt over another pile of rubble in the hallway.
"Something that could do the world a huge favor."
"A bomb?" Kreep chuckled dryly.
"No," Aran replied flatly. "Something much, much, much worse."
"Elevator?" Kreep asked. Aran shook his head and unfurled
his wings. Kreep's four multi-spiked extra arms slid from his
back and flexed their knife-life endings. "It'd be nice if
it was up here."
"So how do you know about this place?" Kreep asked.
"Didn't think of you as the talkative type."
"Curious," Kreep landed briefly on a ledge of steel and fell forward again. "It's a fatal flaw of mine."
"Yeah, for all of us. Anyway, I tangled with something nasty, something from this era; it was a machine that could absorb memories. It was inside me for a while, and a few of the memories 'seeped' through. So when I entered the Mindscape Void, this was the place I dreamed about."
"How modest." Kreep's laugh reverberated along the empty shaft. "You speak of details and just casually mention that you escaped from a mindscape void. There's more to you than there seems. Not many people can even hold a few seconds with me in a fight. I've got a lot of respect for you, Aran, and I want to know why. What makes you a data-thief?"
"I'm a vat-kid. Grown to be a data-thief. I'm around twenty-one, physically, but I've only been aware of my existence in this world for about six to seven years. I was grown to be a data-thief for the Takiyoma corporation in the east sector. Then I was going to be recycled like all good little vat-boys. But my co-worker made an arrangement for my freedom. They took care of me for about five years, watched over me, taught me how to take care of myself."
"So man made you a thief, and God made you a fighter," Kreep mused. "Bet that makes for some interesting situations kid."
"You have no idea," Aran snapped and folded his wings, diving like a hawk. Kreep simply smiled and began to speed his descent, literally pushing himself down the shaft.
"A game?" Kreep asked.
"Pushing Onward," Aran glanced to the trailing technomancer. "It's a fatal flaw of mine."
"Yeah," Kreep laughed. "For all of us."
Aran flared his wings and stopped, feeling the wind rush upwards. Kreep moved faster than could be seen and sent all four spikes to the four walls and hung himself from a net in the air.
"Yeah." Aran channeled essence into his hands and hurtled it towards the door, pushing it off of the decrepit housings in the wall. With a loud crash, the door fell to the floor.
"You have to teach me about that blue energy."
"I will, as soon I as I figure out what the glitch it is."
"The life's research of Dr. Tsano." Aran announced, pushing the cards inside his shirt pocket. He walked over the wall safe and began to run all of his analysis software.
"Dr. Tsano? He the one that's been walking around inside your mind?" Kreep asked. "Was he a geneticist?"
"Yeah. How'd you know?"
Kreep held up a small data-pad and tapped the screen. A series of human DNA strands revolved, highlighting obvious changes to the helix. Aran nodded.
"He was assigned a project to make a creature that could survive any condition by adapting. However, the monster I housed for a while, Pyle." Aran shuddered involuntarily at the name. "Pyle sabotaged it. So that his life's work, Technacatamine22, became something darker. An unparalleled threat to humanity."
"What's that?" Kreep asked. Aran stared at him for a while and then back to the safe.
"Wirewitches." Aran had no longer said the word than Kreep had him pinned to the wall, his four spike-arms scraping his scalp with barely restrained tension.
"I HATE 'EM!" Kreep roared. "AND YOU'RE GOING TO GET THE GLITCHING CAUSE OF THEM?!"
"I know Dr. Tsano," Aran growled, channeling essence through his entire body. The room began to glow, and arcs of energy raced down Kreep's arms. "Almost like I had been him in another time. I know he built Technacatamine22 to help humanity. A cure for cancer, disease, a thing that would enable humans to live longer; a substance to allow people to regrow limbs, to adapt themselves to survive in harsh environments. Just think, one injection of this stuff as it should have been, and a Technomancer can get his body back."
Kreep dropped Aran to the floor and stared at him with wide eyes.
"I WILL continue Dr. Tsano's work. I will correct Technacatamine22, I will make it what it should have been. And I'll use it to cure wirewitches, I'll use it to make sure that humanity is safe from itself. And the only way I can do that is to open this wall vault."
Kreep pushed Aran aside and his body seemed to erupt into blades. Shards of iron and steel flew from the wall as he began to attack it. Five seconds later a jagged hole had been carved into the vault. Aran reached in and grabbed the vials. His right forearm slid open and he locked the vials safely into place.
"I'm only letting you do this because I think you might be able to do it. But know this: we both want to end the existence of wirewitches. You're following the benevolent path I don't have the patience to. I think we have to cull them from the world as fast as possible. I'll kill any of them I see, but if you can get that crap working..."
"Just give me time," Aran snapped. "We better get topside, fast."
They stared at each other for what seemed an eternity.
"Race ya," Kreep grinned, bolting for the elevator. Aran
unfurled his wings and shot forward in a blur of blue energy. Such
is the friendship of warriors.
"Let...them take...what they will..." Pyle lurched towards a workbench in the corner. Drawers and cabinets opened as he pulled Dr. Tsano's biota's, the very same that had created him, from a dust covered slumber. A bag clanked loudly as it was dropped to the table, a myriad of hoses and fiber cables spilled out snakily from the top.
"It matters not." Pyle ripped his chest open and grabbed the metal saw. "For when I am rebuilt, all shall die."