I can feel him out there, just out of sight in the fog. I can hear his footsteps– the clank of his plated boots as they strike the stone of the courtyard. Crouched behind the bush, kitchen knife hidden under a fold of skirt, eyes shut tight, I can hear him approach. The fog is too thick for him to see me directly, but he is a seer of the Nemesis family line, and an adept one at that. There is no conceivable way he doesn’t know where I am.
I cover my mouth and shut my eyes tight as I hear his footsteps pass me by.
That much is a trick, surely. I cannot imagine he would be so– well, so nonchalant, so careless in his searching. Still, I step back around the side of the statue at the shrubbery’s side. I can hear screams coming from the manor and it sounds positively ghastly. I am certain that my family is dead or dying, and oddly enough it gives me a little thrill to think of their sour faces and forms strewn across the floor.
My little dose of delight is nearly completely negated– I am also certain I will be dead soon. I have no desire to die. I have no desire for the filthy Nemesis house warriors to find me. The thought of their hands on me, even if only to kill me, is enough to send an involuntary shiver down my spine.
Footsteps again, muffled by the fog. Is the seer coming back? Did one of his visions reveal me to him…?
Yes! One of his hands, rough and calloused, reaches out of the fog and gropes for me against the statue, fingers spider-like as they stretch and then pull away. I hear his voice, speaking in that tongue, alien and unfamiliar as can be. The syllables twist and turn serpentine, and I realize he must be working a magic.
I duck back around the statue completely, as quietly as I can, hugging my knees. The fog, though, parts in a rush, dissipating to reveal the sun above, incongruous to, oblivious to the black smoke that rises, that I can see even over the tall bronze head of our house statue– of Karevus Dame, raising his blade in defiance.
It is to the fore of the statue that I am pulled as one of those spider-like hands steals me away from the metal, yanks me into plain sight– before the plaque at the statue’s broad granite base.
“There you are,” the seer hisses. “Look, can we talk?”
I stare at him incredulously.
“Your mom is worried sick about you.” he continues on, and even though the language is my own there is something terribly wrong with the way he is phrasing things. “How many lives have you gone through this time, Damien? How many runs have you done? I know you’re upset, but that’s no reason to bury yourself.”
Damien… it sounds like a butchering of my family name. It is familiar, though, and for a moment a queer, terrifying feeling washes over me.
Then my connection is cut.
I awake, shivering, covered in sweat, staring up at the ceiling of a dull, damp room. It feels as though it is deep under the earth.
As old English fades from my head and is replaced by memories from before my time connected to Nex, the quantum computer responsible for creating the Run, I feel as though my mind is being strained through a broken glass filter.
I remember what glass is. I remember what a quantum computer is. I am Damien. I am not the character I played as in my most recent Run in Nex. I am not connected right now. This is real.
I go to pinch myself to make sure, but then remember that it wouldn’t work. Nex properly simulates pain receptors, at least to a degree far above any pinch.
Why am I lying down, then? Where am I?
No, I’m in the basement of my house. I am in the basement of my house.
I clutch the sheets of my mattress for a moment, take in a deep breath. It is then, and only then, that I notice Naomi standing above me and staring down at me with her cool, blue eyes.
“You’re awake,” she says flatly. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
“What?” I ask, and my voice is hoarse. “What do you mean?”
“Damien– you’ve been down here for five turns. Do you have any idea how many runs that is? Do you have any idea how worried your mother has been? She can’t snap you back, you know she doesn’t have an account. She can’t complain to Nex because you know how it treats free will. If you don’t want to come back it can’t make you, she can’t make you, and I’m the only one who knows where to find you. I’m not perfect either, though. There are over a trillion servers being run simultaneously. How would I find you in that?”
I blink up at her. The memories are coming back slowly. Nex is coaxing them into my brain. Somehow it’s managing to be gentle when it usually has, as Naomi says, a trillion servers to run. It isn’t even the most efficient quantum manager in the station.
Five turns, though… had I stuck myself with an IV? I feel my wrist to make sure. It doesn’t seem like it.
“How am I still alive?” I croak, and then wince. “Thank you, by the way.”
“You may not be thanking me when the overload hits,” she replies grimly. “You didn’t remember while you were in there, but if a run takes a little under a standard second, and a turn is about one thousand seconds…”
I stare at her. “Five thousand runs?” I ask weakly. “I just did five thousand runs? Why didn’t Nex pop me back out?”
She pauses, and then her eyes narrow. “Nex.”
A holographic representation of the station’s cybernetic manager appears, crackling into existence so suddenly that it makes me jump.
It doesn’t speak to us using the normal auditory channels, but nods its silvery head and broadcasts to both of us through our chips.
We heard you. We did not remove Damien from the network because we did not deem it necessary to do so.
“He could have died!” Naomi snaps. “When would you have deemed it necessary?”
Damien was not in danger of dying, the quantum computer broadcasts sulkily. We are fully aware of the time it takes for a human body to cease to function from malnutrition.
“So if you were aware–“
We would not let Damien die, Nex transmits, cutting her off mid-thought. Its holographic projection vanishes with a hissing crackle that seems the equivalent of a digital raspberry.
“Nex!” Naomi shouts, and the cellar’s deafening silence shouts back.
I hear her sigh in frustration. I still don’t feel up to sitting, so I stay on my back, staring at the basement ceiling. I wonder at the dampness of it. It must be raining outside.
“That thing is getting more and more belligerent,” I hear Naomi say after a while. “We should really have it decommissioned.”
“About the same time we get a utility ship out here, right?” I ask ruefully. “And get more supplies so we’re not always growing our own food?”
“Ever the optimist,” she sighs, and then groans as she stretches out. I can tell she hasn’t moved in at least half as many turns as I’ve been here. “Get up, Damien. Time to face your mother.”
I shudder. It definitely isn’t something I’m looking forward to.
My entire body aches. Everything from the soles of my feet to the tips of my fingers burns as I step up the long, winding stairway to the upper part of the station. The biosphere surrounding the station is transparent right now, since the white sun is below the horizon. The irradiated surface of the rock our ’sphere sits on is glowing– well, phosphorescing– with white fungus. The harvest is getting mature now. We’ll have to go out and collect it before another turn or a flare burns it all to a crisp. This, of course, assumes that I’ll still be able to move properly after my mom finishes with me.
Naomi leads me up the stairs, waiting impatiently at every landing, checking back to make sure that I’m following. She needn’t bother. It’s not like I’m going to connect again. Not after that.
Moving in this body is… weird. It’s no more strenuous than moving in Nex’s servers. There is some sort of oddness to it, all the same, something I can’t quite put my finger on.
Then, halfway up the stairs, I remember why I ran to Nex in the first place. The memory hits suddenly, out of nowhere. Her staring, accusing eyes.
I stop, staring up after Naomi. She turns, and I can see the look in her eyes– she knows what I’m thinking. I see her lips open.
“Mom is dead,” I say flatly. “Isn’t she.”
Wordlessly, slowly, treating me as if I might be a bomb to be set off by a glance, she nods.
I continue up the stairs, and after a moment she moves on as well. Silence reigns again, but for the tap of our bare feet on the soft stepped path. I think back to the most recent run in Hereditary, in Nex’s fantasy world. I think back to the way I’d grown up there, to the cruel mother I’d had and the parental figures. Not flat or two dimensional, like you’d expect from a game. No. Nex is something of a genius– even for a quantum computer– at mimicking emotions and feelings. Why had I locked myself into ‘hardcore’ mode? Why had I turned off external memory?
I hadn’t wanted to remember my mom being dead. I’d wanted to bury myself. Nex, respecting my free will, had let me. Now I ache.
“We’re alone now,” I whisper.
Naomi nods once, shortly. Then shakes her head as we reach the top of the stairwell. “Lights,” she says quietly. They turn on with a flicker, illuminating a spotless, sterile lobby and tunnels leading to the Library, Acropolis and Jungle, as well as the secondary airlock. Next to the wall by the airlock there’s a rack holding a trio of well maintained Hazardous Environment Harnesses.
I see silver glimmer in the air behind her a moment before Nex’s holographic projection appears.
It seems almost shy, demure in appearance, silvery ‘hair’ waving in a virtual breeze. Close to its chest it hugs a pair of synthbooks, and with a shock I realize that they are real, not merely projections– they aren’t transparent at all.
“Nex?” I ask, after a moment stretches on.
Naomi whirls, and for a moment I see the flash of a grudge in her eyes, but it seems to fade when she sees the books that Nex’s projection carries. Her voice, though, is no less stern for it, but that’s Naomi. She overdoes everything.
“What are you doing?” she demands.
We believed that these documents would be of use to you both. Were we mistaken? Nex queries. Its voice in my head seems diffident.
It drops the synthbooks and then, before Naomi or I can react, it disappears again. The books make a telltale clack as they strike the warm tile floor.
Naomi reaches them a little too late. I pick one up, staring at its title.
“‘Theories on Capital Starship Repair‘,” I read slowly. “‘by Nexus of Freeform Thought.’ It wrote these?”
“Look at the publishing date,” Naomi says quietly.
I turn the book around to see. The synth material glows, forming pattern of standard numerals representing today. And why shouldn’t it be able to write a book and run a trillion servers all at once? It has effectively infinite RAM.
I wonder at that, though, and not for the first time. If we’re really alone on this colony and there are no other people for parsecs, how are we able to communicate with the other players of ‘Heriditary’?
As if reading my thoughts, I hear Nex in my head.
We are projecting from your room, Damien. When you have the harvest, come find us.
The message is downright uncharacteristic. I have never heard Nex sound so serious, and never heard it broadcast to me and me alone. It must be to me, though. Naomi is still looking through the book she picked up.
She looks up after a while. “We should get the harvest in.”
Taking off the harness, later, after Naomi takes the baskets we used– first to Decontamination and then to the cellar, where we usually sleep– I make my way to my ‘official’ quarters, dodging overgrown vines in the Jungle, admiring the high stairway leading to the forbidden Acropolis.
By the time I reach my room, I’m exhausted.
When I open the door, a projection of Nex stands there. Something is wrong, though. Its arms are folded, its eyes are stern, its silvery hair does not wave.
“Hi, Nex,” I say with a sigh.
The corners of its projected mouth turn upwards slightly. Hello, it transmits. It steps aside. Come in.
I step into the room heavily. Nex closes the door behind me.
I walk to the edge of the bed and sit down, gazing at Nex’s projection. It faces me, arms still folded, staring ceaselessly with eyes it doesn’t need.
“Why did you tell me to come here?” I ask.
I’m met with silence.
I know without looking that the door is probably locked. I’m in no real danger– Nex shouldn’t be capable of physical projection, and even if it was it would not hurt me. Still, my heart beats a little faster.
“What do you want?” I try again. “Are you angry with me?”
I see no flicker of emotion in its expressionless silver eyes. Only the play of its lips and its stance hints at its mood– frustrated. Finally, after what feels like forever, it answers.
No. I am not angry with you, Damien.
You are depressed. I am attempting to help.
For the first time, I realize that Nex has been using ‘I’ instead of ‘We’ since I stepped into the room. Suddenly suspicious, I rise from the bed and advance on it.
Nex’s projection raises a hand. I feel a sudden tingle, and the next thing I know I am completely naked in front of it. My clothes simply disappear, the air left in their wake snapping into place with a sharp crack.
As I struggle to cover my chest and crotch, a furious blush and a tight lipped scowl crossing my face at the same time, I hear Nex speaking to my mind again.
You are out of touch with your physical body, Damien; have you not noticed that you spend your time here in a body which is male?
“Why are you bringing this up now?” I snap. “Give me my clothes back.”
If you wish it, I cannot disobey.
They appear again with hardly a sound. They are warm and freshly pressed, too, which is downright impossible. No system should be capable of it. As I look again, I realize that no system is capable of it. Nex simply gave me a different set of clothing.
It fades away as I watch, too, with the same stern look on its face.
I look over my clothes ruefully. Why had I bothered to come here? Nex clad me in a short, utilitarian skirt that I recognize came from Naomi’s wardrobe. It also gave me a blouse which doesn’t really fit well.
It’s awkward at first, as I sit back down in them, these clothes. I should take them off, I should go and get the clothes I’m used to again. I’m sure that Nex simply put them in the washer cycle, and that’s fine, but I can’t face Naomi like this.
I sit there in them, the blouse and the skirt, trying to understand what has happened to me, to understand this feeling creeping up inside of me. It starts slowly, and then quickly, rising to the forefront of my mind in a hot wave that sends a tingling shiver down my spine as I realize what it is.
This warmth, this heat, isn’t embarrassed. It isn’t a tentative, shy thing, but a roaring tiger of an emotion.
Stunned by it, staring at nothing, I let it wash down through my arms and legs and toes, this feeling, this queer, complex feeling. Sad and joyous at the same time, without a hint of shame. Here I am, dressed in Naomi’s blouse and skirt, staring at the door and praying with all that I am that she doesn’t come barging in any second. Here I am, in Naomi’s clothes, stock still on my bed, wondering at why it doesn’t feel wrong for the right reasons.
It feels wrong because my body feels wrong. It feels wrong because I am not the right shape, not because the clothes are wrong. What an odd feeling! What a wonderfully terrible feeling!
I realize it, slowly, sitting there with a blank expression on my face. Why does it feel wrong to be a boy?
I don’t think it’s the radiation, I don’t think I’ve lived here too long. I don’t feel as if I was raised wrong. What could it be, then? What haunts me to this degree?
Thinking on it, wondering about it, the worst happens.
Naomi opens the door.
Nex patches me through to Hereditary without my permission.
As my body slumps back, I have enough time to register Naomi’s expression of shock.
Suddenly, I stand before a massive, twisting hallway, one that I’ve never seen in all the runs I’ve played in Hereditary. It seems to have been carved almost entirely from marble. Its entrance contains two symbols– the classic symbol for Mars, and the classic symbol for Venus, interlocking, intertwined.
A non-player character, tall, well built, with red hair and a massive two-handed sword strapped to his back, waits by the entrance, arms folded, eyes fixed on me. Then, without a word, he unsheaths his blade, drawing it out from the baldric and stabbing it into the dirt before him.
“Four keys,” he says sharply. “Four and four again.”
There’s something familiar about him, but I already know that he must be being controlled by Nex- or at least a subroutine.
“Who are you?” I ask. If Nex were human I’d ask it to stop playing tricks. Nex is not human. Nex is an extremely powerful quantum computer with access to my memories– the originals, the backups, and the external backups beyond those. It doesn’t play tricks. It doesn’t need to play tricks.
“The first key,” he replies flatly. “I open the way forward.”
With a start, I realize that I am in the end of the first campaign, the first story ever created within the Hereditary framework. I try to take stock of my abilities, try to bring up a menu, but quickly realize that I am an unclassified level of an unclassified character with no documented abilities to speak of. I am a completely unknown character. Worse than that, I can’t see what base stats I might have.
I don’t have to look at my opponent to understand that his abilities are entirely beyond my own. I am naked before him, but at the least I am still able to gauge the first guardian’s abilities. It’s a situation that I’ve been in once before– I played through the first campaign more than once, when Nex first made it available to Naomi and me.
“Unformed one,” he says slowly. “Four and four again. Fight me if you dare.”
I can hear Naomi laughing at me. I’ve never been a fighter. In all the runs I’ve been in I can think of fewer than three times when I have actually been something other than a commoner, archer or wizard.
I don’t feel as if I have any magic ability now. I don’t have a bow. I don’t even have a commoner’s charm.
Looking at myself , I seem to be a completely undefined model– I can’t see my face, but I don’t appear to even have lips. My entire body is unformed, as the guardian had said. I suspect I know what that is– the party rule means that one is incapable of forming a character without first having a player to play with or against. Without that, I’m nothing more than an idea. Perhaps not even that.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask the open air. “Nex?”
It’s the red-haired man who answers. “Challenge accepted. Defend yourself!”
The sword flashes, faster than I can credit, and dirt flies into my face, stinging and blinding me.
I stagger back, trip and fall flat. That, as I see, is all that saves me from being cloven through– the sword arcs overhead with a hiss.
Instinct urges me not to roll, but I fake it, feinting to the right, stopping dead as the blade slams down, rolling left instead. Instinct screams to move then, and I listen this time as the edge of the blade drags back and pulls up again. Moving away, rolling, buys me a few seconds as a foot slams into the dirt where I had been.
I scramble to my feet, moving up and away, dancing out of reach of the massive weapon. The very tip of it whistles just beyond the bridge of my nose. Still blinking away stinging grit, I dart back, again avoiding the blade’s wicked curve by a mere inch.
“Beg for mercy, wench,” he snarls. It startles me just long enough that my step is too short and his too long.
The edge of the blade is at my throat.
I don’t remember this part of the challenge. Shouldn’t he be killing me?
“On your knees,” he says quietly.
I find my legs folding under me, my heart racing.
He steps towards me, then, and in one smooth motion clasps an iron collar around my neck. Attached is a chain of iron rings, the largest of which is at its end. He drives his sword through that last one, deep into the ground to the hilt.
I don’t bother tugging because I already know it’s futile.
The scent of him is metal and sweat.
I have hair when he reaches out to grab it, and dimly I’m aware of my shape changing, as he drags me up next to him with rough fingers, as he holds me there, burning pain spiking through the top of my head.
In a flash, I realize I must be one of my characters. In a flash, I understand what it means.
I have stats, abilities, spells– all sorts of things I couldn’t feel before. I can feel them bubbling up within me, feel the urge to let my power free. As that hand forces my head down and then slams my face into the dirt, the burning urge to resist is replaced with the panicked realization that I can’t breathe or cast spells with my mouth full of mud. I don’t know why I changed, why my character’s body is mine again, but I do know that it won’t mean a thing if I can’t breathe.
“Let her go,” A deep, sharp voice says flatly. It’s distinct, even over the pounding in my ears.
“It is no business of yours what I do with my slaves,” the First Key replies slowly. My lungs burn and my vision, clouded by its proximity to the ground, starts to fade to grey and black. “Unless you mean to challenge me, be off with you.”
“I do challenge you,” I hear the voice reply. “Defend yourself!”
The hand immediately releases me. I raise my head, spitting out mud, gasping, sucking in air, trying not to cry but finding tears in my eyes already. I feel helplessly weak- the iron around my neck might have something to do with that. Despite normally having access to spells, I realize that this is my old sorceress, and one who in Hereditary canon is incapable of using magic when subjected to the touch of cold metal.
A man stands before the Key Bearer– he must be a player, whoever he is, but I don’t recognize the character. A quick glance at his stats tells me he hasn’t a chance, but I let hope rise in my chest. Even if this ended at the end of a run and I were to go back to the real world– if Nex let me–, there’s no telling how long that would leave me to the guardian’s whim. One run may pass like a second in the real world, but it can take years and years, here. The hope is desperate and foolish, but it is there.
The man is a monk class- I can tell by the way he holds himself. His fists are his weapons- of that I have no doubt
His stance is stable and centered. He holds his fists steady before him, gazing at the guardian with piercing blue eyes that seem strangely familiar.
The non-player character attacks first, charging plainly intending to rely on brute strength to lay the player low– he definitely isn’t a monk class, he must be raw fighter, but the speed of his blows, and the measured strength in each strike is enough to make the air ripple.
The player, for his part, stares and, calmly, almost imperceptibly, moves to dodge each attack as it comes. I barely see him move- and not because of his speed, but because he doesn’t. Every motion he makes, every fist he confronts is faced down with that same collected, easy stare, and he makes every effort not to expend any more energy than is necessary to avoid the blow.
The guardian doesn’t have the ghost of a chance. The player monk waits until exactly the right moment, just after a heavy swing– which, to a normal player would offer only the barest breath of an opening– and then strikes his foe directly in the throat. There is a resounding crack, simultaneous with the collar around my throat snapping in two. The Key Bearer’s head snaps back at a sickening angle. He gurgles as he falls over, his eyes rolling back into his head.
I let my head slump back into the dirt, amazed at the warmth of the tears running down my cheeks.
The voice is gruff and unfamiliar. I don’t want to move yet.
A hand on my shoulder, then under it, pulls me up whether I want to let it or not. It’s rough as the one that had recently been in my hair, but its grip is much gentler as it lifts me to my feet and brushes off the dust on my back, sending an odd tingle down my spine.
It whirls me around to face my rescuer.
I stare into the man’s deep blue eyes, and for just one moment I see a fiery, blazing hot passion emanating from them. Then it is replaced with a soft smile. It seems almost incongruous on his rough features, his chiseled chin. His broad shoulders and long arms and legs are packed with muscle.
“Don’t recognize me, girl?”
I shake my head. It isn’t a character I’ve seen before. If Nex wanted me to face these challenges on my own, though, he’d make sure this was a private server, and if it IS a private server, than this character could only be Naomi. Something about the way he holds himself is strikingly familiar, but I can’t place it, and it couldn’t be Naomi because she only ever plays characters from the Nemesis family line.
“Well, I expect you will, given time. Come on, then,” he grunts. “There are three more Keys left to defeat.”
With that, he stalks off into the dark of the hallway, past the broken body of the first Key Bearer.
Not quite understanding why he would attempt to help me at all, I hesitate.
“Come!” comes the gruff call. “I saved your life. You at least owe me that debt, and I cannot face magic alone.”
Still confused, dazed from the dive into the dirt I had recently been forced into, I follow after him, making my way over the sand and onto the flat marble tile floor, feeling exposed and vulnerable in a way that is both familiar to me and alien– in all the lives I’ve lived, this is the first one here, the first run, where I can also remember the things I have already done here, remember the type of people there are in this world.
The walls are made of sandstone, smooth and sturdy. The man, whose name I haven’t yet learned, continues inward until it opens up to a vast, foreboding do me this of limestone. The ceiling is dotted with stalactites of calcareous rock, and impossible veins of shining crystal run through it, glowing red and lighting up the entirety of the interior. It casts a sickly glow over the shape of my unnamed rescuer and his bare, unbloodied fists.
He stops in the center, and across from him, I see a tall statue made of shining, crystalline gold. It must be at least eight feet tall, towering over both the man and me. It also appears to have hinges on its arms and legs and at the center of its forehead, sticking out like a horn, there is a single spike of iron.
Out from around it steps a tall, dangerous woman I recognize immediately.
Inceri is one of the deadliest alchemists in the entire history of Hereditary. One of the greatest honors of any player is to have their character immortalized and set down as a challenger in the Hall of the Key Bearers– Inceri is one of those characters. Canonically she is long since dead- it is her soul which is one of the choices for Second Key in the hall, and it is she who steps between us and the golem standing behind her.
I don’t know what I expect, but it isn’t what comes from her mouth.
“You will not pass,” she states simply, confidently. “If you think that I will let you take the second key from me here, Avery, you are very much mistaken.”
Avery? Avery Nemesis? He is Naomi. What is more, the man I’ve been following is the Nemesis house leader. Shocked– no, stunned— by this revelation, I waver on my feet. Avery- Naomi- stands strong, eyes locked with Inceria’s.
“Girl,” he says quietly. “You’re of the Dame house. I’ll let you deal with her. Last I heard it, she struck down two of your kinsmen, some years back.”
It is distinctly odd, but I do remember the foolish players who went after Inceria, even if my sorceress, Helen, doesn’t remember them at all. To keep in character more than anything else, I shake my head, and then shrug, stepping to the fore. My heart is pounding in my chest, but this time I know my spells like the back of my hand. If by defeating the four Key Bearers I will be able to talk to Nex, I am
The alchemist Inceri wears a long, heavily runed robe, and her golem is famous for being nearly completely indestructible. I watch it warily, waiting for its first move.
“Do you challenge me, Helen of the Dame house?” Her voice is steely, cold and unfeeling.
“I do,” I answer, hiding the quaver in my voice with false determination.
“I accept your challenge,” she snaps. “Come and fight me, if you dare!”
A formula springs to my lips unbidden, fey and familiar, and dances out into the open air in a string of elegant, sibilant syllables– they hang before me, gathering into a cloak, then a cocoon of gossamer light-strands. I push my arms and legs through, and then truly stand in the center of my energy armor. A tweak to the formula teleports a familiar whip-thin sword to my grip. Straight and true, it has no give to it, light as a feather, single-edged, an old friend in my fingers. It has nearly perfect balance.
I take a moment to become accustomed to flicking it through the air– it feels as though it has been ages since I practiced with it.
I have no real time to learn it again– Inceri has used her time well, drawn a slim wand from nothingness– a slim, ivory white wand, curled and re-curled like a unicorn horn. Perhaps it’s made of one.
I try to remember what her abilities are said to be, but all I know of Inceri is that her strength as an alchemist is unrivaled. My knowledge of the guild of Alchemists is limited as well. Their members are secretive, even when caught out of character, in chat lobbies.
“Idiot!” Avery bellows from behind me, and through him I can almost hear Naomi’s voice. “MOVE! I know that wand!”
As I turn my head, I see her flick her wrist, and with it the tip of her chosen weapon towards me.
Barely visible, and only for a split second, there is a ripple moving through the air. In the next moment, my limbs are on fire. Not just my limbs, either, but every part of my body from ears to toes screams as I do, pain arcing through me wildly. My armor is nothing- nothing- nothing.
Through the haze, I can see Inceri laughing, if not hear her. My ears feel as if they’ve split open. Something sticky is running down over my belly, under the cascading armor of light.
“You think that knowing my wand’s power can save you? You think that you can dodge energy like this? Really?”
“It’s a disintegration wand, Helen,” Avery growls. “Move next time, or you will die.”
Half of my hitpoints are gone. I was only bruised when I lost to the last Key Bearer. This time, half of my real hitpoints are gone. I’m bleeding.
“Eras Simorian, Keryx Alerion, Koju Tyfan,” I murmur. “Founders of magic, grant me speed. Haste.”
An extra action. The world around me slows down to a crawl as I watch Inceri raise the wand again. I put it to use. “Kera Fyrewind’s pride and joy,” I hiss, and let the syllables of the spell flow before finishing. “Reflect.“
The wand finishes its short arc, and this time I see the ripple- at its center a bead of red- as it hurtles towards me. I feel barely a tingle as it bounces upon my invisible shield and turns back towards Inceri. Something happens to it, though. Instead of striking her directly and causing her to burst like a swollen melon, the bead of light and the ripple are sucked into the golem standing directly beside her.
To say the resulting sound is is like a ‘bang’ would be akin to calling the sound of nails scratching down glass ‘an unpleasant experience’. The golem’s chest cracks with a hideous screech, stumbles forward onto its knees, flakes of it falling down to the ground silently.
As I watch, it slowly sinks forward onto its knees, collapsing, groaning terribly. Gold shouldn’t crack like that- surely it would bend before it broke. It does, though. Every piece of it seems almost to dissolve slowly as the disintegration magic tears it apart atom by atom.
Inceri’s mouth opens in a snarl, but she doesn’t flick her wand again. “Wretched little witch. You will pay dearly for this, in blood and bone.”
“I’m bleeding,” I say steadily. “Come collect it.”
Inceri is not laughing, and her smile is fell and monstrous. She draws free a gem from thin air, pulling it out of nowhere as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Her hand is closed in a fist around a gemstone probably an eighth-span around- an inch and three quarters.
She taps it once with her wand, and it bursts into brilliant flame and floats in the air before her.
A second tap sets it into a tight spin.
“Seek,” she hisses, voice tight with fury. “Slay.”
The gemstone, shedding flame like water in an ever-constant, rippling stream, spins towards me rapidly. It eats up the distance between us, heat making the air around it appear hazy.
I have plenty of warning, then, when its center flares a brilliant white and a streak of molten rock appears in front of me, when magic tingles as it strikes and rebounds from the shield I created around myself. My heart is pounding suddenly.
Again the flash, and again it rebounds from my shield and melts stone around me. A fleck jumps and burns my cheek– my shield is against magic, not physical force!
Ignoring the hiss and the smell of my own burnt flesh, I leap over the nearest puddle of molten floor– just as the ground I had been standing on but a moment previous bursts into flames.
The gemstone is relentless– every time I stop, it seems to flare, and it gets closer and closer. Its strikes glance again and again from my shield, but that doesn’t seem to discourage it.
“You’ll run out of floor before it runs out of power, girl!” I hear Naomi/Avery shout. “Stop dancing around and deal with it! You’re a magic user, aren’t you?”
Rather than answering with words, I choose a spell formula, pausing and trying not to blink as the expected flash and bubbling hiss turns a patch of limestone next to my feet to vapor. An unexpected gust of wind– wind! In a cave? – forever rids my character Helen of the need to shave her legs as it blows the freshly boiled stone against my calves.
The formula falters for but a moment in my mind, but it’s enough to provoke a miscast, and the next thing I know I lie on my back, head cracked, dizzied and dazed and burned. Poor Helen never did have much endurance, and I know I must be near her limit. My limit. Pain is flowing along my limbs, arcing from nerve to nerve– but especially along my legs.
From my vantage point on the ground, though, I watch a vast creature rise up from the ground where Inceri once stood. Constructed first of rock, and then something closer to chitinous flesh, it is without a doubt the ugliest monster I have ever seen. It is a massive crawler, like one might find after overturning a stone on Hereditary’s surface. I have no true life memories of them– having spent my entire life either at the station or on a starship– but I do remember what they look like here.
Its pincers drip poison, and its mouth is a gaping wound filled with human teeth. A hundred legs seem to writhe at once at its sides, tipped with sharp points that, as they scratch the stone under them, seem to be honed to nano-edges.
Instantly, effortlessly, with barely a shrug of its carapace, it transmutes the ground beneath it to grass and soil. The monumental effort of such an alchemical feat would have killed any lesser mortal, but the creature doesn’t even pause as it digs into the new earth and scuttles towards me.
Inceri. She changed herself! Using magic!
I can’t fathom the increase in stats. I can’t fathom the gemstone either, hovering above me. How could any sorceress fight this woman alone?
A flicker of motion. A leap. Near to tears in panic, vision blurred with them, I watch Avery Nemesis land a kick to the gemstone– one solid kick that causes it to fly down from the air and shatter to a million shards when it strikes the ground.
The monstrosity that used to be Inceri rears up as Avery lands in front of me and turns to face it.
It doesn’t gloat. Despite its human teeth, I doubt it can speak. I doubt it is capable of reasoning, either.
Its pincers descend on Avery like lightning, that mouth open to bite with those awful, perfect teeth.
Avery, with the same sureness that helped him avoid the First Keybearer, stands there and faces it. Those pincers come down with a clack, but Avery- Naomi- pushes both hands out to the sides and, as a terrible crack splits the air, breaks away both pincers.
It happens so quickly that there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason behind it. One moment he stands with his arms at his sides– vulnerable, watching Inceri press those pincers around him– in the next, both halves of the abomination’s mandibles are stuck in the dirt. Those teeth, then, only close on air as Avery steps back, calmly, surely. The Inceri/crawler lets out a groan that chills my blood.
I still manage to push myself up to my feet, if only barely. I can feel each bruise acutely, feel the cuts and the blood trickling from them, feel the burned, raw skin on my legs.
“Helen,” Avery Nemesis says quietly. “Our houses may not be allied, but I need you to-”
Without any warning at all, Inceri lunges forward, propelling herself– itself– in a leap that even Avery has no time to avoid. All of those legs, that terrifyingly human mouth, those bulbous, compound eyes, rush forward in an unstoppable wave.
At the same moment those legs begin tearing Avery to pieces, Nex cuts my connection and I black out.
I resume my fall onto the bed and my head connects, not with cushion as I had hoped, but with the steel headboard. Stars flash before my eyes, my eyes cross, and pain paints a gaudy pattern over my nerves.
Naomi is already screaming, hugging herself and screaming, gasping for breath, eyes slowly coming back into focus, brain registering the change from Hereditary’s vivid feeling-space to reality. I curl up into a fetal position on the bed, tears in my eyes. Vivid rage, left over in my system from when Nex had first started to patch me through, burns renewed.
For a while, there is no speech– only pain, shared between us, Naomi and me. Then, as my eyes clear, as my heart stops its pounding, as my vision slowly returns to normal, I push myself up onto my hands and knees. Something sticky is wetting the back of my neck. I suppose without the hair that I have in Hereditary it must be blood. My head aches.
Naomi’s eyes meet mine then. She isn’t crying, but there’s something understood between us.
“Nex is rampant,” she says quietly.
I nod my head, causing the world to spin briefly. “Yeah.”
“I guess we can’t stay here anymore.”
“Yeah,” I repeat. I feel as though I’ve lost something, but I can’t put my finger on what it is.
“Should we turn it off?” she asks flatly.
I shrug. I’m not really at a point where I care.
I stand and manage to totter my way off of the bed.
It shocks me a little, but Nex is standing there- or at least a projection of it. It stands in the doorway, arms folded, face unreadable. Its eyes, though, are cracked and red and, as I watch, drip tears.
I didn’t think robots could even express sadness.
It blocks my path to the door, and as I watch, reaches out, as if to touch me.
I take a half-step back, staring at it.
It disintegrates before my eyes, and for a moment I’m struck dumb.
The moment fades, and I whirl to look at Naomi.
She shrugs and doesn’t look at me. “If it’s dying, maybe it’s time we let it die.”
“If it goes, the entire station could stop running!” I reply fiercely. “Don’t you care about that?”
“Mom is gone,” she says flatly. “Mom is gone, dad is dead. What are we doing out here, Damien? Are we just playing games? What are we? I feel more at home in Hereditary than I’ve ever felt here, but what can we do? Are we just going to stay here forever, playing stupid games with a decaying computer? Are we just going to keep eating fungus that barely grows on a planet that any day now might be flash-vaped by a solar flare?”
I stare at her for a while. I don’t have an answer to that, so instead I turn and walk out into the corridor, and as soon as I’m out of sight I run.
The skirt is awkward to run in, but I don’t care about that. My head aches and pounds, and I don’t care about that either. There’s still anger in my gut, at Naomi and Nex, but there’s something else roiling within me.
I hop down the short ladder-space separating the living quarters from the main parts of the station and dash off towards the Crossroads, where the airlock and the path to the Acropolis lie.
When I arrive, the lights go out.
I am plunged into pitch darkness, and I come to a sudden stop. The only light comes from the airlock’s red emergency glow. The dying star this planet orbits is currently eclipsed by the bulk of our home’s surface.
It is absolutely, completely, totally silent. There isn’t even a hum.
Standing in the dark, my heart pounding senselessly (what is there to be afraid of?), my eyes straining to see in the black, I hear nothing but my own breathing, nothing but the sound of silence.
For as long as I can remember, there have been lights in this station. For as long as I can remember, there have been lights on in this station. Always, always, always.
I feel a tremble run up through me, feel my body freeze up. Inside, I’m calm, I can understand it, I can force myself to move in my mind. My body won’t move, though. Shrouded in black, the glow of the airlock’s emergency light is fell, demonic, terrible. The world before me swims, the blackness flows and shifts, and my mouth feels dry.
This irrational fear renders me utterly inert.
There could be anything here. There is nothing here. I am alone in this station. Naomi is the only one with me in this station. Naomi and Nex.
I tremble again. Why can’t I move?
Is this the way it will end? Naomi frozen by apathy, Damien frozen by fear?
If I were Helen, what would I do? Even my little girl character, even the last real run I did, even she would be brave enough to face a little dark. She was about to be captured by the Nemesis House Seer, and she was still brave! What would a little darkness be to her?
I can feel stupid, hot tears running down my cheeks. I am not going to be undone by something like this.
Fighting back the terror gripping my body takes all of my will.
Fighting it away robs me of my strength, and when I finally do move it’s a shaking, single step, away from the airlock. When I turn, I can see a tiny circle of light at the far end of the path to my immediate right. That must be the Jungle. It’s a green light that falls there. That means life support isn’t off yet.
To the left of me is more blackness, but I know for absolute certain that in that black is the path, the hallway to the Acropolis.
When I was very small, Mom used to warn us of demons and other creatures lurking in the Acropolis. Things to scare small children, she later admitted. Stories.
High city. That’s what it means. I don’t know my way around there. This station is large enough to get lost in.
I realize, though that I can see, just the tiniest bit, by the large window and the stars. The atmosphere of Ythma has always been red, and so it casts odd shadows that somehow manage to fill my heart with even more dread than before. Swallowing it down, I start towards the blackness and the pathway to the Acropolis.
My fingers touch the wall and my heart touches the bottom of my throat. I don’t know how long I have been walking. I don’t know how far away the Acropolis is.
The only noise I can register is my heartbeat, and the starlight is weak and only intermittent. The red glare it occasionally casts against the floor is less a comfort and more a terror. My heart jumps with every step, and I don’t know how much more I can stand. What’s worse, twice now I have seen holes in the floor only after near stepping in them. The wires exposed there are jagged strips of old metal, and even with the power out I am sure they would cut my bare feet to ribbons.
I keep a hand on the wall now as I move forward, and eventually, heart still leaping wildly in my chest, I come to an opening and, as soon as I set foot in it, lights burst on and into brilliance.
It’s a tiny room.
The Acropolis is a tiny room.
It’s circular in nature, domed at the top, and all around are panels and other things I can’t quite understand. A chair sits at its center, turned away from me, and the far wall has a sealed door like you might find leading to an airlock. The plating here is rough with age, and I step carefully as I move forward, worried that the floor might give way at any moment. The way it creaks at me is not encouraging.
Before the chair I can see a massive bank of screens and above those, the words ‘Acropolis’ shine redly where they’re set into the wall.
The lights flicker for a few moments, reminding me of my time limit.
At first I don’t know what to do, but logic dictates that if there is a place where Nex can be fixed from, it would be here.
I take another few tentative steps forward, reaching the chair. It’s set in a swivel base, so I gently turn it around.
It takes all of my willpower again, this time not to shriek. Mom is sitting in the chair, eyes blank and glazed, fingers set and stiff as though still at the controls. Carefully, slowly I pull her away from the chair and, gently as I can, try to set her down on the floor. The artificial gravity of the station is almost as strong as it ever was on the starship, so she doesn’t exactly float to the ground.
It doesn’t smell like a corpse, though, and it occurs to me that Nex must have been running filters in here nonstop to take away the stench.
Numbly, I climb into the chair where my mother must have always been sitting. I stare down at the controls.
They stare back up at me.
This time I do shriek, heart thudding wildly, as Nex rises from the control panel like a vengeful ghost. Inadvertently, I push off, kick off from the platform and the chair falls backwards with a crash– vision blurred with sudden tears and stabbing pain, I hear a second, third, fourth crash and feel warmth all around me.
My gaze returns to normal and, dreading what I’ll see, I look downward. It nearly makes me sick- a jagged, rusted edge of the floor– it had given way under the chair!– has been thrust, driven into my foot so far that its tip pierces the top, pinning it in place.
Below that there is nothing. A black, dark void greets my sight, and I realize that I’m floating. All around me I feel warmth, incongruous with the terrible burning now running up and down my leg.
“Ah,” I say quietly. “N-Nex?”
A silvered hand reaches out impossibly long and, with the precision of a laser, melts through the base of the floor edge stuck in my foot. It returns to the greater cloud and the managerial AI carries me and sets me down, supporting my injured foot at the heel as red slips down over the semi-solid surface of its projection. Slips over it and drips on the floor in a steady trickle.
I don’t have time to think. I look at the screens.
An AI is not allowed to debug itself. It isn’t allowed to fix itself no matter how dire the situation.
Two switches show on the keypad before me- or at least, two switches that I actually recognize.
One is labeled ‘Quantum Memory Control’ and the other is labeled ‘Reboot from Last Backup’. I haven’t the faintest idea which one I should flick, or if either of them needs flicking at all.
A soft tapping noise, above the drip of my blood on the floor and the hum of the computer bank, sounds from behind me. I turn slightly and let out a soft, weak sigh of relief. “Naomi!”
She smiles very briefly, winces as she limps a step forward and I see that she is leaving a trail of blood behind her. I cover my mouth and shut my eyes, unable to properly drag my eyes away from the mess of bleeding cuts marring her bare right foot.
Slowly though, so slowly, she reaches the computer bank with me and plops down a heavy synthbook I recognize. It’s the starship repair book.
The lights dim, flicker, and for a few moments at least, go out. They come back on barely a moment later, but I realize we have no time to lose.
“I brought it along, but I don’t know how it’ll… uh… help,” Naomi mutters flatly. “Nex is not a starship.”
“Nex was on a starship,” I point out. “I’ll look through it.”
“You’ve never touched a synthbook in your life,” Naomi growls.
“I’ve had more than one life to learn to read,” I reply grimly. “Remember? Five thousand of them at the least.”
She nods faintly, obviously in excruciating pain. “Right.”
I open the book to the first page, quickly looking through the table of contents to find the section on AI repair. As soon as I find the section on quantum computers, I read through it and Naomi gets to work.
Within fifteen minutes, we restore power to the lights. Within the next fifteen, Naomi falls unconscious.
It’s not a sudden thing. Her eyes droop and her movements grow faint. Twice I remind her that she needs to focus, twice she nods vaguely and then, as she collapses, smacks the big red ‘engage airlock’ button, something I now recognize after what feels like an age of poring over the thick synthbook.
The airlock opens, on the far side, the door sealing it cycling outwards as if opening a vault, as if a secret door in Hereditary. It slides away like magic and reveals a short hallway. The synthbook projection flickers and disappears as Naomi slumps and, barely able to support her weight myself, I still catch her and hold her upright.
We took the liberty of waking up the rest of the station, Nex broadcasts.
I blink as the lights come back on full force. The hallway is still unlit. I swear I see shapes moving in it, though.
You both have done enough work for me to repair myself the rest of the way. All we need is your authorization.
I stare at Nex’s projection, reflected in the screen where it stands behind us, supporting me and Naomi both.
I touch the button authorizing AI self-repair, blue and glowing bright on the keypad. It whirs and clicks for a moment, lights flickering for a heart-stopping breath, and then they flick on and stay that way, and the newly illuminated hall shines bright. The sign above it flickers into life as well: Greater Quarters – Colony Central – To Acropolis.
From it steps a elder man, wide-eyed and owlish, blinking in the light. His gaze catches on mine, flicks from me to the body of my mother, to my foot, pierced through with metal. It travels to Naomi’s unconscious form and my expressionless face, my clothing.
He turns his head back towards the corridor behind him. “Jenkins, run and get in touch with Medical right now.” He turns back and then rushes in. I’m about to warn him about the rusty floor, but my mouth won’t work. It doesn’t seem to matter. His boots glow as they strike the metal, and he doesn’t seem to touch the floor so much as skim over it. Anti-gravity, perhaps.
He looks around at the place briefly, as if checking it for danger, and then looks me over once, twice. I wince. I’m still wearing Naomi’s clothes…
“Are you alright, girl?” he asks quietly. “That foot looks bad- here.”
A ripping noise. He tears through the fabric of his shirt. His gloves pulse red- strength enhancing, perhaps.
I realize he was talking to me only after he takes my foot into his hands.
“Deal with Naomi first,” I manage weakly. “Please.”
“You need it more. There is a rusted metal object in your foot. This is going to hurt,” he says gently. “Brace yourself.”
Tears well up in my eyes.
I don’t care.
We’re not alone anymore.
We’re not alone.
©2013 Sam Oliver (Eris)
More on this one in a later post. I’m too tired to even tag this much.