Clella scratched again at her stubbly man chin and swore. Eerie gray cliffs rose on both sides of the ravine to disappear into a suffocating ceiling of cloud. Whoever had done this to her would pay.
She stared at the knobby bare feet and felt a strong desire to punch someone or something. The masculine intensity of the emotion felt alien but good. Tucking hard knuckles into fists, she watched as forearm muscles bunched beneath coarse skin that was patchy with black hair. Another string of four-letter words sparked deep in the barrel of her throat and exploded upward, ricocheting from cliff to cliff.
She continued her awkward trek down the dripping, fern-strewn gorge, toes and heels bleeding from the sharp rocks. She was shoeless and hungry, but at least she'd been left in a fairly athletic bodmod; the muscles been working for hours, and were still not tired. But everything was cold and wet, and this forsaken wilderness seemed endless.
Think. Where the hell was she? Who had dumped her here, and why?? Bodmod matching cost a shit-ton of cred. No one would spend that much without a good reason. Why her? But never mind the who and why; the where was much more immediate.
Clella's gut told her this was some backwater hole of a planet; worst case scenario was, she'd been abandoned out on the fringe of some minor Brandscape like the boondocks of her birth. Still, she might luck out and find a conglomerate with a shifter she could hop to one of the majors, or a hub she could plug into in case she was already in one and this place was just some sort of recpark or something. But there had been no sound of air traffic all morning, so she knew her gut was probably right.
She ground her new bodmod's teeth. Things could have been worse. They could have just killed her.
It was raining and nearly dark when the cliffs finally gave way to reveal a tiny cluster of lights, twinkling from around a bend to the right in the now broad valley. Clella cracked the bodmod's stiff neck, stretched its legs, and picked up her pace. Soon she would stop shivering, and most of the pain would leave the swollen, brutalized toes.
It's like getting out of your pod in the morning: you have to do it, whether you want to or not. We're soldiers; we've got a job to do. Why in the Four-Lights should that slacker Zunz'ish be any different?!
Every shift he just floats off by himself, completely out of formation, daydreaming. Putting us all at risk. If I were Reefguard Ts'idjuŗŗ, I'd swim over there and give him a good tailsmack to the face, make him pull his head in and get back to his post. But Ts'idjuŗŗ just keeps patrolling back and forth, inspecting the line or staring over the Edge into the abyss, acting as if nothing's out of place.
Some of us have been grumbling. Shanz'ched thinks the newcomer's birthqueen must've sent word to our Nest to make sure he got special treatment here. But Chonj'ŗŗa disagrees; he says we'd know it if Zunz'ish were that highborn, and that it's far more likely the puny little scrub is directly related to someone moderately important like a cross-Nest Maarguard. Whoever it is must be collecting on a favor, he says.
It would make sense I guess. Politics between Zunz'ish's birthnest and ours are complex these days, to say the least. If an order has indeed been sent down through the ranks to leave the outsider alone, it would explain why Reefguard Ts'idjuŗŗ has been turning a blind eye to the lazy algaescrub ever since he transferred here.
Whatever the reason, it doesn't give Zunz'ish the right to dilly-dally where he pleases and leave a hole in our defenses. If the Murk launched an attack right now, I reckon it would take Zunz'ish at least twenty seconds to swim over to his spot in the grid and synch up with the rest of us. By then we'd be dead; I've seen attacks come so fast that even a delay of five or six seconds would've cost us our lives. And if even one of us dies, the grid fails, and then the Nest will almost certainly fall.
I wonder if he even has the salt to do the job. They only put elite metasingers like ourselves, the best of the best, here on the Edge. But we're trained for this. If Zunz'ish is just some dandy that has been placed here so that he or someone else can get a fin or two up in his career, then may the Four-Lights help us, 'cause we're doomed.
"Sir? What's that up there?" I hear Shanz'ched say. He's staring toward the surface.
As Reefguard Ts'idjuŗŗ makes his way over, I follow Shanz'ched's gaze. Far overhead I can barely make out wave shapes in the dim moonlight. But something else is there, too. Whatever it is seems to be growing.
The Reefguard watches it awhile. "Flotsam, most likely. Nothing to worry about."
"No sir, I think.. I think it's sinking," Chonj'ŗŗa whistles.
"Nonsense," Ts'idjuŗŗ trills.
But sure enough, the dark mass above us appears to be coming closer. Not only that, it seems to be dividing into sections. A chill ripples down my dorsum, immediately followed by a hollowness in the pit of my stomach.
A trick. We've been duped. No sooner do I look down than the first shockwave comes roiling up from the darkness below.
My voice cracks from panic. "ATTACK!!!"
The others race back to their posts, and we begin tuning up as quickly as we can. Out of the corner of my left eyecluster, however, I can see that Zunz'ish has not budged.
"Sir!!! Zunz'ish!!!" I screech, nodding in the slacker's direction.
The Reefguard simply eyes me and shakes his head. "He'll be fine. Do your job, soldier."
"No time," he warbles. "Form the grid, now."
Outranked, I shut up and do as I'm told.
Our voices coalesce into a protective grid less than a second before the first shockwave hits. We're in too much of a hurry, though, and the concussion nearly knocks us out of sync. Below, rising fast, is the bulk of the Murk, evil and dark and hungry as ever. I shut my eyes in concentration.
The shockwaves always come in threes for some reason. The second buffets us harder than the first, but our makeshift grid holds. Bracing myself for the final assault, I sing as loudly as I can, and can feel my comrades doing the same. We're a soldier down, though. And the Murk is already level with the Edge.
The third shockwave slams into us. The Murk looms immediately behind it, sending out a thousand shadowy tendrils to surround us. Above, the sinking mass from the surface reveals itself to be more of the same. Very clever, I reflect. A distraction tactic, and we were stupid enough to fall for it.
One of the dark tendrils slices perilously close to Shanz'ched's throat, causing him to flinch. We react, and the grid falters.
"HOLD!" yells the Reefguard, but deep down I know it is too late. And that sooner than I ever expected it would be, my death is upon me.
A clear, piercing note rises from off to the left. I open my eyes just in time to see a reddish globe billow outward from Zunz'ish's position. Expanding as it travels, the strange sphere heads straight for the bulk of the Murk, tearing through the reaching tendrils and leaving fragments in its wake.
It strikes the Murk square in the face. A great bellowing rumbles around the Edge, snapping coral and stirring up a swirling storm of sand and dead fish. The dark beast writhes, vomiting forth a cataract of black mud from its terrible maw.
When the debris finally clears, I peer over the Edge just in time to catch a glimpse of the wrecked mass of the Murk as it plummets into the blackness below.
I can't believe it. We're alive, and the nest is safe. And there's Zunz'ish, still floating off by himself, still daydreaming as if nothing happened.
It was Friday afternoon, day twelve of the experiment, when entropy reared its ugly head and ruined the whole plan.
They were in the boiler room, preparing for what would be the last of their secret workplace smooches. Hector was fidgeting impatiently as Samantha went through her "safety check," as she liked to call it. She had to be sure they were alone; if anyone were to witness the two of them being intimate, it could mean an end to her career. And Hector's, too.
"Come on, let's do it. No one's here, I promise," Hector snapped, glancing at his watch.
"Okay, ready now," Samantha said, returning to their secret corner after one final peek up the stairwell.
Hector leaned close. There was the familiar build of energy, the tickling crackle of electricity channeling more and more intensely as their lips drew together. Samantha closed her eyes, as she always did, even though she knew Hector's eyes were open.
As their mouths came together, a spark leapt to the giant water heater nearby. Samantha drew back in alarm. The last thing she heard was Hector shouting and a wrenching sound of tearing metal.
As the sun ducked behind the clouds, a chilly breeze drew goose bumps across their skin. Far below them at the top of the fjord, the water still had not finished filling the crater where the base had once been. The white cataract, appearing frozen in the distance, sent up a faint roar. Nearby a bird was singing.
"Maybe people aren't meant to have all that power," Hector said. "Maybe that was the universe's way of putting us back in our places."
"Maybe," Samantha purred, and pulled his arm around her more tightly. "But one thing's certain: I like kissing you better when it isn't planned."
Hector smiled, closed his eyes, and made contact.
Nothing else seemed to work. They had tried other intimacies, of course; Hector, especially, had wanted to double-check every possible form of contact, and some more than others. But in the end Samantha's hypothesis held: only lip-to-lip contact would build the power.
Worse, they discovered it was not as simple as just kissing each other over and over to build the power all at once; the more frequently their lips touched, in fact, the milder the hit. Likewise, if they went too long between kisses, then what power they had built would quickly fade. After much experimentation, the lovers decided it built best when their lips met no more and no less than about once every seven hours.
This posed a problem on a few different levels. First of all, he was a nightowl and she was not; prior to all of this insanity, Hector's typical morning had begun with waking more than an hour after Samantha had already left for work. Secondly, and most significantly, she was his superior in rank. Although it was widely known that off-base they were a couple, any physical contact between them while on duty was strictly frowned upon and could adversely affect both of their careers. This was what had led them down to the boiler room for their series of secret rendezvous.
The third problem was academic: if they wanted to sustain a schedule of having lip-to-lip contact once every seven hours, without fail, then their meeting times would necessarily continue to change over the course of their planned regimen.
Unfortunately, neither Hector nor Samantha had any leave coming up, so their goal of building up two weeks' worth of power would require that they grin and bear the whacked sleep schedules and the risk of getting caught together at work.
It was fun at first, especially for Samantha; she seemed to get a kick out of making Hector suffer. "Nope; down, boy. Two more minutes to go!" But by the end of the eighth day they were both already so exhausted from having forced themselves awake at odd hours that their resolve had begun to weaken. The only things that kept them going were curiosity and the perpetual craving for the power, a power that had been building inside them both since the beginning.
"Just think of all the cool stuff we'll be able to do once we've accumulated all those hits," Hector said. It was three in the morning and Samantha, drained from a grueling work week, had just put the annoying alarm clock through the ceiling with a flick of her wrist.
"I don't give a shit," she growled. "I'm tired; tired of it. Can't we just head up there now"
She was referring to the little meadow they had chosen, the place they would use to test their power at the end of the two weeks. It was a beautiful spot, very isolated, that overlooked the fjord and the top end of the base.
Hector shook his head. "Nope. We're going to stick it out, babe, all the way to next Sunday. But... how 'bout I promise you a two-hour foot massage if you make it to the end? Deal?"
Samantha looked ready to send him after the clock, but a moment later her feet won out and she groaned a reluctant yes.
Ani had started with plans for a redberry tree, but the resulting runty bush and the shriveled black things hanging from it were nothing like the beautiful explosion of red lush berriness she had envisioned. That was her first lesson about design-your-own genome kits; since then she had tried a couple of other brands, but none of them was as "fool proof" as it advertised.
And so she cracked her neck, linking her mind to the wyfy, and began to teach herself chemistry. Her mother seemed concerned; now and then she would poke her head into the thirteen-year-old's room and say something like, "Aren't any of your friends around?" or, "What, are you allergic to the phone now? I never thought I'd see the day...."
Ani would just shake her head and mumble some sideways excuse, anything to get her mother to leave and close the door behind her. Friends? Whatever. With the stuff Ani was learning, she wouldn't need those backstabbers anymore.
It took several weeks, but eventually she had the design template tweaked to exactly how she wanted it. The hair was definitely the masterpiece; she was very proud of that in particular. Ani couldn't wait. So she clicked "confirm," and the order was placed.
It was a sunny afternoon when the knock finally came at the door. Heart pounding, Ani jumped up and streaked down the stairs past her bewildered mother.
She opened the door.
"Hi. My name is Berry," said the gorgeous thirteen-year-old with the magnificent brown hair standing on the porch.
"I know, silly," Ani giggled. "I'm the one who made you. Come in, girlfriend!"
Travis Wilfreit sat slumped with legs pretzeled, his backbone grinding against the hard stones of the painted wall. On the opposite side of the gym, beautiful Claire Bertrand stood giggling with her friend Bethany. The sound drew a gruff bark from the PE teacher, and the two girls went back to pretending to do their stretches.
Her hair was even more colorful than usual today. The deep azure of the past two weeks was now streaked with crimson on one side and snow white on the other.
"Hey check it out, I think stutter-magic's got a hardon, heh."
"Oh shit, ha, I think you're right!"
"Careful there Wilfreit, you w-w-wouldn't w-want to accide-de-dentally kno-kno-knock her up! We'd have to call up the CDC to come quarantine your o-o-offspring!"
Travis did his best to ignore the group of asshole morons guffawing and pointing at him from a few yards away. He stared at the floor between his legs, but his heart was pounding and hot blood was rushing up his neck into his cheeks; he was sure she had heard the comment from across the gym. Already he was beginning to feel the onset of that dream-like lightness in his chest, the sensation that always preceded one of his flip-outs.
Abruptly he got up and marched left along the wall, wending his way around clumps of slobbering vacant-eyed teenaged bodies until he reached the arched doorway leading to Gym B. As he passed through, he could feel the PE teacher's eyes on the back of his head, but he knew the man wouldn't say anything. Not to him; not now.
The big empty vastness of Gym B opened up before him. Travis moved left along the dividing wall until he reached the middle. The lack of people made it better here, but the feeling had not yet subsided. Find a distraction, and focus on it. Read a book or even just stare at something until you come down. He sat down and stared at the floor for a long time.
Something was wrong. Travis went through his mental exercises over and over, focusing on the floorboards in all their detail: the way the overhead lights gleamed in their lacquer, the narrow grime-filled cracks between the old planks, the very grain of the wood itself. He stared and stared, but the feeling wouldn't go away; if anything, it was getting worse.
A girl's laugh rang out from Gym A on the other side of the wall behind him. Travis put his hands over his ears and hunched his face closer to the floorboards. All he wanted was to disappear. To escape this place; to escape the feeling. But it continued to rise in him.
Desperate, he squinted his eyes until the boards blurred. That was better. He did it some more, and began to pretend he was actually inside the grain of the wood.
He could feel the fibers around him; he could even sense the pressures still holding the flesh of the long dead tree together. There was a funny odor, of oak and lacquer and glue. Travis smiled; it was cool and dark in here, and the light-chested feeling had begun to leave him. He lifted his head and looked around.
It was not exactly sight, but he could *see* through the wood all the way to the end of the board, where it met the painted stone blocks of the wall. How awesome it would be if he could be inside the stone, too, he thought. And so he tried moving, and was delighted to discover that he was able to travel along the grain of the wood unhindered.
As Travis blended from wood into stone, he *stood* and looked back. He could *see* everything in the big empty room behind him, but there was no sign of his body. It was gone; he was actually here.
Free, Travis *laughed* out loud. He laughed even louder when he peered from his hiding place in the wall into Gym A and saw the spooked faces of his PE class, backing away from the wall. This is real, he marveled.
"HAHAHA!!!" he bellowed. Everyone, including the PE teacher, scattered for the exit in a screaming panic.
Travis smiled to himself. He took a long, deep breath and exulted in the musty old smell of the stone surrounding him, permeating him. He knew, without a doubt in his mind, what he had to do.
Suddenly full of energy, Travis dove. He hurtled through stone and wood and metal, blending deeper and deeper, faster and faster, all the while laughing with pure joy as he explored his wonderful new world.
Spreading before us is the Eye of Hebes. The gargantuan canyon stretches many kilometers to the north and east, and the floor of it is fantastically far below our boots. In the center towers a giant mesa whose peak rises almost to our current elevation. Hazy in the distance, our perspective of it miniaturized by the curvature of the world, we can just barely make out the gray-orange line of the Eye's far rim.
The sun on my suit fools a part of me into thinking it's warm out here. But there is ice in the dust and gravel, and the air is dry enough to kill. Soon we'll need to seek shelter from the afternoon winds.
But for now, the wilderness owns us, expecting nothing. And so we stand in silent freedom, gazing into the Eye.
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