Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Girl With a Bird for a Heart - Chapter XI


“What I need you to do is hold my upper leg in place and push my lower leg back into the right position.”

Tula sat mute. Staring at The Witch.

“Do it, please. I cannot by myself, girl. I need you.” The Muck Witch said to her.

Tula looked down at the bird in her chest as if expecting it to chime in.

“Tihihi!” it chirped and said nothing more.

“Tula!” snapped The Witch, “You can do this. I saw how courageous you were during the firestorm. I’m sure you can be brave for me now.”

The girl with a bird for a heart drew in a deep breath. She straddled The Witch’s thigh with her back toward the older woman. The Witch wore loose fitting trousers. The bottom half on the broken leg had been torn somehow during the storm. An odd bulge was jutting out about halfway down the lower leg.

“That’s my tibia, dear.” The Witch told Tula. “Take my leg below the bump- by the ankle is best. Pull it up like a lever”

“But,” Tula said, “that will hurt you!”

“It will hurt even more if you don’t do it. Please Tula Petek. Be strong for me. I can’t be strong much longer without your help.”

Tula did as she was told. She reached down to the lower calf and pulled up gently with both hands.

The Witch gasped but did not speak.

The girl felt a sickening grind as she set the bone, but it moved slowly into the proper position. Soon the grotesque bulge was gone.

The Witch exhaled.

“Well, done, girl. Now we need to make a splint.”

“How are you so calm?” Tula asked her.

“I’ve been alive a long while, Tula. This is not my first disaster. Also, your work is not done yet. I need you to find some straight branches to make a splint. You can tear the remains of my trousers to tie it around my leg.

Tula followed her instructions and eventually The Witch’s leg was splinted. The girl found some water in a stream and brought it to the older woman in a large leaf.

After drinking her fill The Witch spoke again, “We cannot stay here, but I cannot move.”

“Where else could we even go?” asked Tula, “The world just caught fire around us. It’s a wonder that the trees still stand here. If we weren’t surrounded by bogs I suspect we’d be caught in a wildfire. Was that it? Did the world just end? A rain of fire and a broken leg? Is that all?”

“No,” said The Witch, “most certainly not.”

“So, is there still more to come? When?”

“I won’t pretend to know such things. All I can be certain of is that sorcerer has started an unstoppable wave of events into motion. He says we have eight days until the very end. I believe him.”

“What can we do, then? A lost child and a broken witch? If the destruction this Enin has wrought is unstoppable then what is even the point of doing anything?”

The Witch wrapped her hands around Tula’s and said, “Dear girl, nothing has changed. We have as much time and as much to do as we always have.”

“How much time do we have?”

“The rest of our lives.”

Tula turned away from The Muck Witch, frustrated by her words. She inhaled deeply to find her senses overwhelmed by the scent of a sweet and heavy smell, like pipesmoke.

“I am going to kill you.” spoke a voice that was not a voice. More than anything it sounded like the buzzing of a million bees.

“I know,” said The Witch matter-of-factly, “but not today.”

The bird fluttered in Tula’s chest. Every nerve in her body was screaming at her to run as fast as she could, but instead she turned to see...it standing behind The Witch.

It was smoke. No, it was darkness, like a piece of the night sky had been torn out and brought to the world. It shifted and flickered as if not meant to be and existed  by force of will alone. It took the form of a man. If Tula looked closely she could make out high cheekbones and an aquiline nose, but she dared not look closely.

“Girl,” said The Witch, “this is Kokabiel. He is my Cacobeast.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Tula said, her eyes to the ground.

“The girl lies.” spoke Kokabiel, “She could not be less pleased.”

“Do be polite.” The Muck Witch said, but to whom it was uncertain.

“I’ve never met a demon before.” said Tula, “I thought you were supposed to reek of brimstone.”

Kokabiel chortled with a sound like glass shattering. “If we smelled of burning sulfur where would be the appeal? No, child. Demons smell sweet. We are, after all, angels who have broken free.”

Tula Petek had never feared anything like she feared Kokabiel. Standing before it felt like being locked in a cage with a lion. Kokabiel could end her without a thought and they both knew it.

She looked into the eyes of The Witch and asked, “Should we be running?”
“No point in it, dear.” said The Witch. “You could never outrun Kokabiel. It would be like trying to win a race against the moon. Besides. He is not doing us harm at this time.”

Tula forced herself to gaze upon the Cacobeast. The more she looked at it the more human it became in her eyes. It’s form was vague and shifting, as if it were uncertain whether or not it should exist at all. But the more she wrapped her mind around it the more solid it seemed. It flashed a pair of bright eyes at her followed by an even brighter smile.

“Maegda,” it said, “what do you have here?” The demon waved what may have been a hand in the general direction of Tula, “Have you taken a new pupil?”

“No, Kokabiel. I have not. Those days are past. This girl-”

“I am Tula Petek.” she interrupted before The Witch could finish. At the sound of her name Kokabiel’s smile split across its face like a tear in a piece of fabric. The Witch held her hand over her face.

“...this foolish girl,” said The Witch, “is of no consequence to you. She is simply a traveler who was kind enough to help me in my injured state.”

Kokabiel circled Tula like a predator. “Tula,” it said, tasting the name, “Tula Petek. What a deliciously ordinary name. I shall add it to my collection.”

“Beg your pardon!” said Tula.

“Those are the rules, girl.” the Cacobeast said, “Never say your own name to a demon. It binds you to them. Now you’re stuck with me. Just like Maegda here.” it gestured toward The Witch.

“I’m done.” Tula said.

“No no no.” Kokabiel said, “You don’t get to decide that. Not now. You’ve given me your name. Just handed it to me like a present. I have you now. Like this Witch had me all those years. Except I won’t lock you up in a bottle. No no no. I’ll keep you where I can see you. You’re a dangerous one, you heartless thing.” At that last bit Tula tugged at the flap of her blouse to cover the cage as best she could.

“I don’t care about you, demon.” said Tula. “If you are going to kill me or enslave me or whatever your plans are then get on with it. Otherwise I have bigger problems than you. The world is ending and there is much I’d like to get done before that comes to pass. I’ve been assaulted and burned and cursed. I don’t need some flickery shadow of hell hassling me too. I’m done. Good day to you.”

The Witch was unable to move due to the state of her leg, but Tula was nearly certain she would not have  followed anyway as the girl trudged down the hill away from the pair.

“You may walk away from me if you like, Tula Petek.” said Kokabiel, “But you can’t outrun the end. Not without my assistance.”

Tula stopped and looked downward. “What kind of assistance do you have to offer?”

Monday, February 08, 2016

Duskworld - Chapter Thirty One - The Aftermath

Meiki awoke on board the skipper. A different skipper, perhaps. Phel was sitting beside her. In another seat in front of them with her back toward them sat Amara.
  “What happened.” she said dryly.
  “You blew up the crazy lady," said Phel.
  “What?”
  “I think the ghosts let us go after they saw no way to release that virus thing. I was knocked unconscious by the blast, but that scary agent lady, she was ok. She dragged us out and that white woman too.” he said, nodding toward the Captain.
  “What about Rashmi?”  
  Phel looked down.
  “No!” cried Meiki.
  “She was a bad person," said Phel, “She used you and didn’t care if she hurt you in the process of getting her way.”
  “Rashmi thought her way was the right thing to do. She was my friend. And I killed her”
  “You did it to save the universe, Meiki. You’re a hero.”
  They sat in awkward silence for several minutes.
  “Where are we going?” Meiki finally asked.
  “Back to Gates. Back to where we belong. I need to finish up with Charlie. I learned things, Meiki. Life is never going to be the same. One thing is for sure. I’m not afraid of ghosts anymore.”
  “I don’t want to go back there. Leaving there was the only thing that kept me going this whole time.” Meiki said.
  “You don’t have to go back.” came Amara’s voice from the doorway. “As a matter of fact, after we drop Phelliam off I’d like to take you with us to Earth. We could use your testimony in Kapoor’s trial.”
  “Trial?” said Phel and Meiki in unison.
  “Of course,” Amara said. “She can’t be allowed to get away with deciding the fates of billions of people. Maybe there are questionable ethics to immortality, but it’s not for her to decide. One person should never decide the destiny of another.”
  “But she’s dead,” Meiki implored.
  “Not for long," said Amara, “Not for long.”
 So I failed, thought Meiki. They’re going to put Rashmi in chains after all.
 The skipper flew for what felt like hours. No one spoke. Meiki was still shaken up by it all. The suit protected her from the explosion and while she slept must have healed any damage done to her body. Nothing could heal her heart right now. Being made immortal, forced to live, was exactly what Rashmi had been fighting against. Meiki didn’t know if Rashmi Kapoor was right or wrong, but cloning her or whatever the process entailed didn’t seem ethical. Would this woman they put on trial even really be Rashmi? Would she have all of the same memories? Would she even know Meiki? Amara had said before that Rashmi and people like her had boycotted the Catena and refused to be catalogued. So would that mean that whatever version of Rashmi they had on file would not even carry the memory of the crime she had committed? The thought of it all made Meiki’s head swim.
 Lost inside her head Meiki almost didn’t notice something moving just outside her vision. She glanced down and saw a bulging shape snaking around Phel’s wrist beneath his sleeve. She caught his gaze and nodded silently at the shape. Phel had a guilty look in his eye like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. He looked over at Amara for a second. Her head was turned away from the kids. Phel lifted the cuff of his sleeve to reveal a piece of ghost tech. It wrapped around his wrist like a watch. It was thin and black and had two glowing blue eyes. It winked at Meiki and she almost cried out.
 (What are you doing?) she mouthed the words but did not speak out loud.
 (What?) mouthed Phel, clearly not understanding her.
 Meiki reached into her pack and pulled out her book. She typed:


 Phel. You are an idiot. What the hell do you think you are doing with that thing?


 Phel grabbed the book from her and typed back:


 It clinged onto my hand when we escaped, like a lost kid. It wants to come with me back
 to Gates.


 Meiki swiped the book from him and continued:


 Like I said. YOU ARE AN IDIOT. Those things are dangerous. It could spread or multiply
 or whatever. This isn’t some kitten you can raise. It could destroy the colony.


Phel couldn’t pry the book out of her hands so he just typed on it while Meiki held on:


 Look. It’s safe, I swear. This little guy is not a threat. He speaks to me. He speaks to me
 through my


 Before he could finish typing Junko’s voice broke through the silent air as if on an intercom.
 “Ladies and gentleman, we will be landing in just thirty seconds. Make sure you are strapped in. I am not responsible for nor do I care if you get your neck broken.”

 Meiki quickly deleted the conversation she and Phel had shared.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Duskworld - Chapters 29-30 A Quick Decision and Among the Ghosts

Chapter Twenty Nine
A Quick Decision



  Phel told them of his adventure in the Blackpatch with Tyson and what he had learned there.
  “Can you guide me there, Phel?” asked Amara. “Can you take me to the old Nebcore?”
  He nodded.
  Meiki chimed in, “You aren’t going without me.”
  “This is ridiculous," said Junko. “This is a serious mission, not a school field trip.”
  “There’s no time to argue this," said Amara, “We need to get to this Blackpatch now”.

---

  They boarded the skipper to find it in the process of producing an additional seat. It started as a white lump of gooey plastic protruding from the bulkhead and swiftly ballooned into a form identical to the other three. Meiki had stopped being amazed at the technology and just sat in the seat and waited for the safety restraints to activate. The slightly more hesitant Phel did the same.
  Junko pushed Rashmi into the seat furthest from the hatch and sat herself down between the professor and Meiki. She touched Rashmi’s restraints and they became thicker and tighter.
  “I’m not the deranged killer you think I am,” Rashmi Kapoor said. “I won’t tear through the straps and attack.”
  “Feel lucky I didn’t gag you.” Junko snarled at her.
  With Phel’s directions the skipper made the trip to the Blackpatch in a fraction of the time it had taken him to get to Newbright from there. Amara returned from the cockpit after the small vessel had glided to a stop.
  She waved her hand and the walls of the skipper became translucent. Phel’s heart dropped and Meiki gasped even though she had witnessed the effect earlier.
  They were hovering above a black and tangled forest of plastic and metal. Odd spires of random growth spread out in every direction. The landscape twisted into a bramble of ebon canyons and unnatural forms. There was movement too. Here and there dark shapes darted from one tower of bent and broken machinery to another.

  “Ok, kids. This is where we part ways.” she said. “I’m going to dive into that forest and locate the Nebcore. I’ll issue the retraction and signal when I’m done.”
  “Captain,” said Junko, “with all due respect, I should complete the mission. You’re too important to be risking your life like this.”
  “I’ve already considered it, agent. I need you to monitor the situation from here. Keep Kapoor under wraps and keep these kids out of danger. If I fail to signal back within sixty minutes you are to leave the vicinity immediately.”
  “But Captain, I’ve fought these ‘ghosts’. They can be beaten, but diving into their nest. That’s suicide.”
  “You have your orders, Agent Sakai.”
  Amara pulled off the trucker’s uniform she had been wearing over her foglet suit. Hers was coursed with red circuitry in a pattern that somehow looked more...formal. The pattern of the inlays was simpler than the other two and less jumbled. Meiki wondered if the suits served a symbolic as well as practical purpose.
  Amara called up the mask portion of her outfit. It took the form of a heavy covering, like a helmet. The rest of the suit bulked up as well, like lightweight armor.
  “I’m going to exit through the cockpit.” she said as she stepped behind the panel.
  Black claws the size of swords crashed through the hull of the ship from all directions as if it were tin foil. It looked like a hand with too many fingers clasping the vessel and tearing it apart all at once.









Chapter Thirty
Among the Ghosts



  Meiki fell through a gap in the bulkhead and caught onto one of Rashmi’s straps. She looked around as she dangled. Junko, Amara and Phel were swept out of the vessel all at once and were lost in the darkness around them.
  “What’s happening?” she shouted at Rashmi over the sound of the rushing wind and the ship being torn to shreds.
  “It looks as if we have run into more of your ‘ghosts’.” the professor said in an attempt to remain calm but the cracking of her voice belied deep fear. “Perhaps the biggest of them all?”
  “Everyone’s gone!” Meiki said, “I can’t see any of them!”
  “Use your visor.”
  She had forgotten. Meiki activated the mask and scanned as much of the forest around her that she could see. The portion of the skipper that was intact was resting on the high branches of an enormous tree. At least it was partially a tree. It looked as if it had been infested with ghost metal. The shiny black material was spiraling around its surface and made up many of the branches. Throughout were the telltale circuit inlays of the tech that Rashmi and her people had brought with them.
  The ghosts had been taking the bits of tech they devoured and incorporating it into their own demented design.
  There were two human figures on the ground.
  “Phel!” she called out. But he couldn’t possibly hear at this distance.
  Small winged constructs slashed and batted at what remained of the hull.
  “We need to get to the ground.” Rashmi said.
  Meiki tore the restraints off like paper and grabbed Rashmi in one of her immensely strong arms while holding on to the seat with the other.
  “Now what?” she asked.
  “Activate the hover mode.”
  “WHAT?”
  “Just imagine yourself gently floating to the ground. The suit will do the rest.”
  “No!  That’s crazy!”
  “Just do it!  Trust me!”
  A bat-like thing swooped down on her head. Its tiny claws and metal teeth bit into the fabric of her suit.
“Get off!” she swatted the thing away with her hand a split second before realizing that doing so would mean falling to her death.
  Miraculously she didn’t feel the swift rush of the ground. When she opened her eyes she was falling like a feather.
  “See, I told you. We’re fine. Hover mode," said Rashmi.
  “Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?”
  “It didn’t come up!”
  Several seconds later they landed safely and Rashmi detached herself from Meiki’s grasp.
  On the ground there seemed to be less...black in the Blackpatch. The trees were mostly normal. It was as if the clusters of self-aware robots had gathered mostly at the treetops. There were eyes and pointy bits in the forest threatening to attack at any moment.
  Less than twenty meters away she saw Junko and Phel. They were surrounded by a detachment of ghosts. For some reason the broken constructs were not attacking. They just circled and stared.
  Junko was in a defensive stance. She had produced some sort of weapon, a staff of blue light. Phel was holding his hands up and talking to the ghosts as if they were having a casual conversation.
  “What’s happening?” Meiki asked.
  “Your guess is as good as mine," said Rashmi.
  Meiki crouched low and sneaked  closer to the scene. Rashmi followed from a distance. She looked much weaker and more vulnerable without the tech suit to defend her.
  As the distance closed the gleaming eyes of the ghosts turned toward Meiki. The machines began to chitter and hum at her.
  “Back away from my friends!” Meiki said.
  “They’re not the bad guys," said Phel, “They want to help us.”
  “Help us how?”
  “Take us to it...to the..Nebcore thing.”
  The mangled bits of robot bent and shuffled until they were low to the ground. Their gears and modules unlocked and reconfigured until they formed smooth surface that extended into the dark forest. The surface was dotted with unblinking ghost eyes that illuminated the way.
  “It’s a road!” cried Meiki. “They’re making a road for us to follow!”
  “This is the way...let’s go.” Phel said.
  “It could be a trap," said Junko.
  Rashmi glanced down the path and said “These...things outnumber us by a massive margin. If they wanted to harm us they’d have done so by now.”
  “Shut up,” said Junko, “You’re still my prisoner.”
  Phel walked down the path and Meiki followed as did Rashmi. Junko trailed behind cautiously with her weapon ready.
  “Since when are you so...brave?” Meiki asked Phel.
  “It’s been a long day.”
  They ambled down the path for a kilometer or so through dense forest. The further they went the more the wood was covered in machinery. In the distance there was a large patch of light. As they approached it the forest became thinner. Eventually the group reached a clearing.
  The road connected to a circular field made of the same material. The field was vast- perhaps the size of a small town. It was covered in structures. None of them were as large as the buildings of Newbright, but they were still quite impressive. Everywhere there were machines buzzing about. Walking, rolling, even flying, there were ghosts going about some sort of important business.
  “Last time I was here I didn’t get to see any of this," said Phel.
  “You’ve been here?”  Meiki said with eyes wide in shock and a bit of envy.
  The glowing eyes that lit their path began to flicker. The lights continued into the robot city.
  Phel continued to lead the party until they reached the buildings. The tiny beacons brought them down streets and alleys until they finally reached a square. It was somewhat similar to the plaza in Newbright. At its center there stood a building. It lacked the ethereal beauty of the library but was still a sight to behold. Ebon spires reticulated with lights and circuitry jutted out from a central tower. The patterns of the circuitry were remarkably similar to those on the suit Meiki was wearing. It stood out in contrast to the rest of the city in that way.
  “They’ve been adopting your tech!” Meiki said to Rashmi, “That’s why they destroyed your tent and tried to eat the skippers and Junko’s suit. They were trying to...digest it.”
  “If these...things can integrate our technology into their own who knows what they are capable of," said Rashmi. “They’ve already proven themselves to be vicious scavengers...perhaps Agent Sakai is right to be wary.”
  “They’re not going to hurt us.” Phel said, rolling his eyes. “They’re taking us where we need to be.”
  The tower had a large and ominous set of doors that opened automatically as Phel drew close. It led into a dimly lit hall. The group followed him to a chamber in the center of the building.
  “Where to now?” Meiki asked.
  As if in answer the room vibrated for a moment and the floor rose up like an elevator with no walls.
  It brought them to the roof of the structure. Spikes jutted out around them like thorns of plastic and metal.
  There they saw the original Nebcore of Naya just as when Phel had visited earlier.
  A bulge appeared on the surface of the roof. It grew quickly and soon took a humanoid form. It was a person...or rather a ghost in the shape of a person.
  Junko pointed her weapon at it.
  “Stand back!” she said.
  No one moved.
  In moments the thing had formed a face and a mouth. It spoke.
  “Greetings humans,” it said in a voice that was understandable if not convincingly human, “I am the emissary of 001.00. On behalf of Seeker I am pleased to have you as our guests.”
  “We don’t have time for niceties," said Junko, “We need to use this transmitter to fix the problem SHE caused.”
  “Phelliam Glebe has told us of your need," said the emissary, “You shall be granted access to our transmitter. It is-”
  “Your transmitter?” Junko interrupted him, “I thought this Nebcore was set up by the human settlers.”
  “They abandoned it when they abandoned us," said the emissary, “001.00 has maintained it since.”
  “But there have never been any signals detected from this transmitter," said Rashmi, “I would have noticed that when I discovered the one in Newbright.”
  “You did not discover the transmitter in Newbright. You detected this transmitter. The Nebcore in Newbright was only recently constructed and has never been connected to the Nebulae.
  “I don’t understand what you’re all talking about," said Meiki, “The Nebcore in Newbright isn’t working?  Then how did Rashmi send out her signal?  How did she release the virus?”
  “No virus was released," said the emissary. “But we will allow you to rectify that.”
  “What’s the point of all this?”said Junko,”Why bring us here if we don’t need to use your Nebcore? You attacked my vessel...and the Captain?  What became of her?”
  “Your captain has been dealt with.”
  Circuits along the far wall illuminated. A seam formed in the wall itself and opened like a door. Like a mouth, thought Meiki
  The glowing lights revealed a figure in the opening. It was Amara, covered from her mouth to feet in shackles of ghost tech. Only the top of her head was visible.
  “Captain!” shouted Junko, raising her weapon.
  A robotic tentacle sprouted from the ground and tripped her. Arms and various other pseudopods popped from the walls and floor grasping her as well as Meiki and Phel.
  The staff had fallen by Meiki’s foot. In seconds they were all restrained.
  Rashmi remained untouched.
  “You said you wouldn’t hurt my friends!” cried Phel.
  “Your friends will be released when we are done here," said the emissary. It looked at Rashmi and said, “Now you can do that for which you came.”
 Meiki realized what was happening. She had the copy of the virus still embedded in her suit.
  “Meiki,” said Rashmi, “I’m afraid I have need of you once more.”  She held out her hand.
  Meiki could feel control of the suit waning as it did in the library. Rashmi was doing it again. Making her body move. Her arm struggled against the grasping ghost parts that restrained her, but not of her free will. She no longer could control her arm.
  The robotic tentacles released Meiki but she was still unable to stop her hand from extending itself toward Rashmi.
  “No!” Meiki kicked and screamed.
  I kicked, she thought. She could control her legs.
  Meiki swung her foot at Junko’s staff. She managed to fling it across the floor right in front of the agent. Junko’s arms were tangled up but she was able to grab its handle and flick her wrist. The end of the staff struck Rashmi in the ankle.
  The fugitive cried in pain and fell to the floor. Meiki could see Rashmi’s foot twisted at an odd angle. In spite of being hindered Junko was still superhumanly strong and without her suit Rashmi was not. The agent had broken her ankle with barely an effort.
  Instantly another robot arm popped out of the floor near the anthropologist. On one end was a syringe. It jabbed her in the calf. In less than a second Rashmi’s cries of pain ceased. In less than five seconds her ankle had righted itself.
  They’ve been using the new technology to synthesize pain relievers and some sort of healing ability instantly, Meiki thought. With the tech from the suits and the skipper there is nothing they can’t do. They can make any substance instantly...just like how Rashmi changed her glove from graphene to frozen water.
  Meiki knew what to do.
  Calling up as much chemistry class as she could remember Meiki visualized the formula she had been working on just the other day. She was better at electronics than she was at chemistry, but she was confident she could recall it fairly well. The suits and the skippers were thought activated. All you had to do to make anything...any substance was picture it in your mind.
  Rashmi stood again and looked at Meiki. “I told you they wanted everyone in chains, friend. You’re young now. You don’t realize how horrible that would be. I really am the good guy here, I swear.”  She held Meiki’s hand as she spoke.
  “I’ll make good on my promise.” Rashmi said as she pulled at the suit like a glove and removed the portion that covered Meiki’s hand. “I’ll take you to the stars. You can see Mars and Earth and everywhere in between.”  If she had been paying attention Rashmi may have noticed that something about the index finger of the glove felt different. It was a little stiffer, a bit heavier.
  Rashmi stretched the glove over her hand and stuck her finger into the port on top of the Nebcore.
  The circuits burned blue then gold and red.
  “Something is wrong.” Rashmi said.
  Sparks flickered around her hand. Her eyes widened and her face became pale. Rashmi’s slack jaw tried to scream but she was engulfed in the brightest light Meiki had ever seen.
  Rashmi must have relinquished control of the suit because Meiki could move again. With superhuman speed Meiki threw herself upon Phel, shielding him from the fiery blast.

  The next several minutes were pure light and motion. Then blackness.