Joule-y Nights - Part 5: Marathon-grade plot complexity
“We have located him again?”
“Yes. Informant Y15 gave the tip-off and aerial reconaissance confirmed it.”
“Good. Major Astran will be pleased.”
“No. Orders from Dr. Von Haydes himself; Colonel-Major Astran is not to know.”
“He has other wishes for the boy. The… aptly named Project Astraeus.”
“Surely he’s not proceeding with it so soon?”
“Evidently he is.”
“The Major deserves the right to know, at least.”
“We might do better than that. A final visit.”
“Our heads will hang if Haydes finds out.”
“Then we ensure he doesn’t find out. Astran won’t try anything silly; he’s an artilleryman, not an Inquisitor. No chance of a successful breakout.”
“Very well then. Dispatch Inquisitor Sicur to bring in the boy; I will make a call to Astran.”
The roof Julie and Retis had unofficially declared their shared homestead had, in the past hours, been totally littered with books and documents; as they read them by falling moonlight, the pair ended up electing to keep only a fraction of the stuff from the pile. These were mostly technical manuals (hers) and ancient documents so old that the pages seemed to be held together by the will of the book gods themselves (his). Julie would ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over all the various little contraptions she learned how to create and service, while Retis tried to make sense of ancient scripture, religious documents, and books.
As he sorted through the slowly-shrinking pile of unchecked documents, one particular parchment caught his eye. Most of the hand-written ink upon the page was faded beyond comprehension, but one sentence stood out clearly:
“Pke Kupyat Jitpy yapp teputt uy po out tijk-ptup kose; ot pkiy, I as yetait.”
It was an utterly alien language, one Retis had never heard, seen, or perceived in the slightest before. Yet when he read the sentence, some centuries-old instinct flared to life and for the first time in his life, certain rusty cogs were turning in the back of his head. The words ‘Kupyat Jitpy’ stared out at Retis, and all his thoughts were on one word.
Retis couldn’t hope to know the significance of the word, but the momentary trance he had gone into was sufficient to jar him. He folded up the paper carefully and put it into a breast pocket on his jacket; it would be of use to him later. Somehow.
He turned back to Julie, who was engrossed in a book; he was about to make a comment on it, but then noted that the writing was a lot more flowery than most technical manuals, and most certainly not about technical things.
He leaned in to look closer; Julie noticed it and gave a blush but remained silent. Finally, Retis realised.
“Looks like you found it after all this time.”
She gave a silent nod, still red. “It’s… fitting. Thought I might as well see for myself what it… really says about our fates.”
“And what does it say?”
She gave a wry smile. “We die at the end.”
Retis exploded into a fit of laughter and she quickly joined in; half of the double meaning was sad, but dwelling on it wouldn’t do Retis any good. Still chuckling to himself, he wrapped her up into a hug. “At least we aren’t dying alone, huh?”
“Don’t jinx it. Please.”
He patted her on the back sympathetically as he disengaged the hug, turning back to look out towards the sunrise slowly peeking its way over the horizon in the east.
Julie also turned to look out towards the Churnguard city glittering away beyond No Man’s Land, and suddenly, Retis got a massive sense of deja vu as she reached back to grab his left wrist and check his watch. Meekos in headlights resumed.
“Oh no…” Julie muttered. “I’m on shift today, how could I forget…”
She bit her lower lip (it was a little cute, Retis had to admit) in anxiety; neither of them had slept properly and yet she had to go off and work. And, of course, Retis had some news to break on her.
He didn’t have the heart to tell her outright. Retis didn’t dare imagine how she might react; he felt it was probably prudent to sleep a few hours, wander off, let her find a note he’d write, and she’d have time to mull it over until he returned.
“Uh, sorry I can’t provide much for you, but… I’ll be on shift in two hours, and off shift in about fourteen hours. But I gotta go now, rejoin the others, y’know…”
As if it was the last time they’d meet, Retis gave her a feeling kiss and embrace; for all he knew, the Inquisitors would return and take him before she returned. Or she might not have him back after the note. Or any number of alternatives. She accepted his sudden intimacy gladly; whether she shared his sentiments, he couldn’t know.
They separated, she went downstairs, and he nodded off to sleep almost instantly.
Retis awoke eventually, but it felt as if he had survived the heat death of the universe and then some. An ironic time label, he noted, because of the sun boiling him in his skin where he sat. He moved sore limbs and shuffled off into the shade of the staircase entrance, which Julie had neglected to close.
But Julie had never forgott-
The combination of an audible fwip of a suppressed energy discharge, the immense pain of high-speed impact, and the searing heat of an energy bolt were sufficient to inform Retis that he had an immediate issue on his hands. His lower back felt as if it had ignited, and it may well have if the jacket caught fire.
He couldn’t fight, so his first instinct was flight.
The issue was that there was only empty space ahead; so when he stumbled away from the supposed source of the pain, he ended up stumbling off the edge of the building.
His fall was a short one; impact with a balcony was ascertained shortly afterwards. But it seemed his fun times were far from over as he lay there groaning, because the balcony was already giving louder groans. It had been weakened from artillery strikes all those years ago, and now Retis’s body hitting it at high speed was sufficient to send it toppling down.
Retis was in freefall again for a good two stories as the inertia of this balcony carried through to smash the two below, until finally, he seemed to hit a more sturdy one.
Now, sandwiched between rubble with sufficient space to breathe, wiggle his hand (though he suspected some broken fingers), and stare at the sky, he lay there, slowly falling into shock. Bleeding out wasn’t an issue; these ultraheated energy projectiles cauterized wounds as they entered. No, the dust would choke him far before the blood ran dry.
The last thing Retis perceived in his slowly clouding vision was a reflection up near the roof, hovering above a dark silhouette. And then reflection and silhouette were gone, and Retis’s consciousness followed.
Julie had practically grown a third eye used exclusively to watch the clock set up on the wall to one side of the tank assembly line in her factory. Tank shift was always a lot of heavy lifting, but also great fun: the guns had to be tested on the range before attachment, and as the most senior of the kids working at the factory, she was put in charge of that. There was something blissfully powerful in pressing a button in a control room next to the firing range and hearing the roar of the gun as it spat out a shell. Those cannons would be used on the Churnguard one day; that was all Julie could hope for.
When the bell finally went off, signaling an end to the shift, she was sprinting out of her position in the assembly line and out the door onto the smoggy streets of the Maskerlands. Her gas mask was already secured; she was itching to get it off and put her mouth to better use than taking in poorly-filtered air (for the children always got the third-rate masks).
So when she finally made the trek back to the roof of the apartment building and found no Retis, she was both incredibly disappointed and deeply saddened. He seemed to have disappeared without a trace-
But what was that? She noted a piece of chipped concrete on the edge of the roof; this hadn’t been there before.
A grim realisation of what had happened hit her like a bullet before she even looked over the edge and saw the smashed balconies and rubble below.
She only had time for one thought before her vision became a blurry mess.
Where’d his body go?
A casket, appropriately. But Retis was still very much alive, if damaged; the only complaint he had was that he was totally numb, something he attributed to the needle the reflection-faced man had jabbed him with as soon as he stirred. He had lost all motor control below his neck; the paralytic was extremely potent. He knew better than to scream for help, even though he could, due to the other sensation Retis had felt after his awakening: the man attaching a small chip to his forehead. The chip had gripped onto his head with what he could only assume were tiny claws and made a soft beep.
That it was a toxin injector implant, he was sure. That it was to prevent his escape, he was doubly sure.
The casket was being transported by some sort of loud old motor vehicle with an engine evidently directly taken from a lawnmower; it was moving at a total crawl but making noise like a thousand air raids in the process. But Retis barely cared; his thoughts were on Julie.
If he remembered correctly, the way he had collapsed off the roof made it seem as if he had fallen by accident. Hopefully the lack of a body would make her suspicious, but even if she figured out it was no accident, how would she know where to look for him?
Retis knew for a fact that the man transporting him was Churnguard; the overcoat-reflective exosuit combo was only too familiar to him. Their hands were covered by special metallic gloves with in-suite computer systems linked to unknown processes; the helmet was for the scary faceless look, and the overcoat for storage and plain fear factor. Overcoats made anything look more scary. The man who had tailed Retis all those days ago was merely a plainclothes, but evidently the corporation had grown quite tired of subtlety and sent a properly equipped agent.
The motor vehicle moved along as the sounds of the Undersprawl faded. They stopped at a border checkpoint at some stage, where the driver evidently handed over his papers in total silence; the checkpoint probably the northerly one leading towards South Gythia. From there it was just a jaunt east, a little south, and they were at Silas.
Retis slipped in and out of consciousness during the rest of journey; the Inquisitor had injected him with synthflesh coagulant near the place he had shot him, but he had still lost a fair bit of blood just from the shot. And, of course, he was emotionally drained. He felt he had an excuse to rest some more, and so he did…
…until he was rudely awakened by the casket lid being opened and another needle going into his arm. All he could see were bright blue ceiling lights.
“Do not try anything stupid,” a female voice told him softly, almost maternally. “I have injected you with the antitoxin to the paralytic you were given; you will be able to move again shortly. But as I said, don’t try anything stupid; I hope I mustn’t explain why.”
A hoarse “yes” from Retis was the only response he’d give. As he slowly got the pins and needles of sensation returning, spreading from the head, he began to look around the room. The first thing he noted was the lab-coated woman who had spoken to him; she was surprisingly young, no more than twenty five, with a beautiful face accompanied by raven black hair tied up in a simple ponytail and the most piercing green-blue eyes. They looked suspiciously recognizable, but surely there was no connection to be had there…
He barely had time to take in the rest of the room; a metal-clad cargo dock with bulkheads at one end and the car parked off to the side. A sentry stood next to a door behind the woman, rifle raised. The woman spoke again, maintaining her maternal voice. “Now, if you’re feeling strong enough, I’d like for us to move along.”
She extended a hand to help Retis up, which he accepted, climbing out of the casket and stepping unsurely onto the sterile blue-ish floor. The woman indicated for him to follow her; she wasn’t restraining him in any way, but that was probably due to the implant that Retis could still feel on his forehead. The sentry at the door gave a quick salute as the woman walked up and typed a code into the door. It slid into the wall and she walked through, Retis following.
They found themselves in a bright, sterile-white corridor with closed doors leading off to the sides at equally-spaced intervals of about five meters. They walked past four of these doors until the woman turned toward the fifth on the right and punched a code into a keypad next to the door.
It hissed open and she indicated for Retis to enter first. He did and found it to be… a lounge? It was decorated with a coffee table surrounded by plush, sterile-white armchairs and a single couch. This he did not expect, but now that he saw it, a slow feeling of understanding crept over him.
“Please wait here,” the woman told Retis, and before he could protest, she tapped a button on the keypad and the door closed, trapping him.
He could do nothing but sit on one of the chairs and wait.
Julie had by now run out of tears, and her grief had turned to anger. This wasn’t an accident. Bodies weren’t simply taken away by the authorities, and if they were, the orphanage staff would be informed. No; something else had happened.
Suddenly, she had the answer.
The man chasing Retis all those days ago.
The tear glands in her eyes received a new order from Julie’s brain; the tears they sent out were no longer the slow, despairing ones of sadness, but the rapid-fire ones of glowing rage. Within her, a reactor was reaching critical mass, and hurling her hat off the side of the building was her way of venting it.
She didn’t feel even close to satisfied, but watching the hat tumble down on the current was at least slightly soothing. But now Julie was left with a barely-dented excess of hate, no leads on how to find Retis (if he was even alive), and no hat to cover her from the sun. At least it was afternoon and relatively weak sunshine, but that was a comparatively small blessing.
She had just turned to the doorway to the staircase, deciding to ponder her options on the way down, when she saw a shape in the doorway. Her eyes widened and she bent her legs to spring to the side, but far too late; the dart had already embedded itself in her neck.
She fell backwards onto the roof, clutching futilely at the point of impact, but there was no pain; the concoction on the dart was working at immense speeds and she was already almost unconscious.
The last thing she saw before she dropped out was a red skull, hovering two metres above her spread-eagled body on the ground, and she knew she had seen that somewhere before.
The door to Retis’s temporary place of residence suddenly hissed open with a muffled beep of acceptance from the other side of the door and the ID scanner there. Before Retis even had time to even move his head towards the door, a fully armoured CIPD Invictus strode through the doorway, rifle in arms. But the rifle was lowered and Retis couldn’t tell if the Invictus even noticed his presence behind that faceless, blast-proof black visor and sealed helmet, all following the favoured Churnguard aesthetic of sterile white and imposing black, with the occasional blue armour plate, usually in the form of a shoulder pauldron denoting Captain rank. This Invictus had such a pauldron, along with a golden stripe running from the the side of the head to the shoulder, denoting the even higher rank of Yuketiot; in an ancient language, “Superior.” This Invictus was immensely highly ranked indeed, and that meant an immensely high-ranked visitor, because the Invictuses didn’t guard just anybody.
Invictus stepped to one side, allowing the person who entered the room next full berth for a wide smile.
Retis wasn’t surprised, though slightly relieved that it had been this man rather than anyone else. But he didn’t feel much of anything else.
Colonel-Major Astran, commander of the CIPD ‘Solar Storm’-class Plasma Artillery Division, on the other hand, was equal parts overjoyed and anxious about seeing his son for the first time in all these years.
Julie awoke to the red skull that had been her last sight in sleep, and to a horrific feeling of powerlessness.
She was suspended in a sticky, similarly-coloured mesh of some sort; her arms and legs restrained, her mouth covered just enough to prevent any clear words from escaping but not enough to suffocate her.
But the restraint wasn’t even close to the source of her feeling of powerlessness; no, it was the fact that she had become so tiny.
As soon as she had become attached to this matter, she felt as if a trillion new feelings opened up inside her. She could feel a thousand sensations simultaneously, sensations that she shouldn’t feel in her little room; scorching heat and freezing cold, disgusting humidity and arid dryness, the warmth of a tropical clime and the cold darkness of the hard vacuum of space. She had a thousand mouths, a thousand hands, a thousand legs. Here was she, crawling along the earth, her skin blood-red like the skull; here was she, lost in a crowd, a mere blood-red rat. And here was she, looking at her own suspended body.
It took her a moment to figure out which of her many senses were hers, but when she did, she regretted it. A humanoid skeleton stood before her, as blood-red as the other beings mysteriously connected to her; it was covered in what seemed to be fungal “flesh”, and stared at her with tri-dot eyes.
With a voice that made Retis sound like a loving mother, the monster spoke, sending chills down Julie’s spine… or was it the whole collective organism, taking her command as its own?
“Do not fear,” it told her, “You have been temporarily synchronised into Biomatrix 116 so that our collection of your mental data may be complete. We are not seeking to employ much of what you know, but certain aspects are necessary.”
It stared into space as Julie felt a sudden surge of pain; she screamed, screamed an unholy scream, for this was pain like never before known, and she willed her mind to travel elsewhere; she drifted through must be thousands of square kilometres of biomass, heading past similar lost souls like her, searching for a remote host to ease her pain. She seized the mind of a mere blood-red slug crawling along a beach in Grangor Territory, just for a moment, and just to alleviate the pain; she could control it, she could know all it knew, she could-
The image shattered and she was hurled back into her body, as her biological restraints slithered away and allowed her to collapse unceremoniously on the floor. The pain was gone, but it left a more lasting one; that of a seeing man losing his sight, or a child whose favourite toys all perished in a housefire. She had lost the ability to see into the minds of so many organisms, to feel so much; she would never forget that sensation, would beg for it to return, but she knew it never could. It never could.
She had curled into a fetal position, soaking in her own tears, when the skeleton extended a tendril of biomass and righted her with some force. It spoke again with that horrific, rasping voice.
“That pain was your separation from the Biomatrix. It is true pain, and I know it, but it is how it must be for now; the Overmind does not need another. Not for a time.”
She could do nothing but cry on his shoulder; the pain of separation was dimming, replaced by confusion. This totally failed to fit in with previous events; who was the skeleton? What was the Biomatrix? And where was Retis?
She touched the skeleton’s left cheek with one hand, silently begging for connection to return; her thoughts could not be worded, only thought. Tiny tendrils of biomass wrapped around her hand, and Julie thought. She thought of all that had happened in the past days, of all the happiness, and pain, and sorrow, and suddenly, a great realisation came to her. It was not hers; it was the skeleton thinking back.
The Overmind knows you it thought, for you were 117’s beloved.
And with that realisation, a fleeting memory brought to surface, her tears only redoubled.
This was not Tybalt. But now, she knew the true nature of what Tybalt had told her all those years ago.
Retis was not as overjoyed at meeting his father as his father was.
He remembered only too well what had happened during the Insurgency. He had been just 12 those five years ago; not even a teenager and already thrust into the worst hell.
Astran hadn’t seen his son since. But he knew of what had happened during the Insurgency, and what had happened afterwards, and as Retis looked in the eyes of his father he could only see the pained regret of a man who knows he has screwed up immensely. He was sorry for what had happened; for all the weeks Retis had spent in pain and all the years he had spent in solitude.
“It was you, wasn’t it?” Retis skipped straight to the big question.
Astran raised a puzzled eyebrow as a cringe hit his face; Julie had grown used to Retis’s voice and the woman probably knew exactly what had happened to him, but his father wouldn’t know. “Huh?”
“Ordered Inquisitors to bring me in because you missed me.”
“God no, Eres…” Retis recoiled at the use of the name. It felt foreign after all these years. Astran continued, “I had no idea. I’m not even supposed to be here, but some security lieutenants wanted to do me a favour before…”
“Huh, sure. And what about…” If Retis’s artificial voice could crack, it did. “What about the little task to hunt down the girl who stole the Prototype?”
“What?” By now Astran was becoming a little upset, and it showed in his raised voice. “Don’t be silly, Eres; I’m an Artillery officer, I would have nothing to do with-”
“No? Not even trying to kill two birds with one stone, by suggesting to the person who DOES have something to do with this that I might be a good retrieval person?”
Astran was thunderstruck. And deep down, he knew his son was right; he HAD been quietly informed by agents embedded in the Undersprawl that his son had taken the moniker of Retis and a bounty hunting job, and while he had suppressed the painful knowledge, it must have shined through long enough. And now, if what the same people who secretly allowed him in here were saying about his son’s future, he had delivered him straight to his doom.
“No. That boy is dead. You killed him with one well timed plasma strike.”
And beneath the Synthflesh, the remnants of Retis’s burn scar tissue awoke as if in a new pain, as if the fire had returned. He turned away from his father; their short exchange was finished. Astran stood, his face pale with the regret of a man sending an innocent person to the guillotine, and strode out the door, Invictus Yuketiot in tow. The door hissed shut.
Astran has left the hybrid. My avatar just traced him departing.
Good, 116. I’ll handle the rest. Keep the girl occupied. She is not to know that the hybrid is here.
I shall go speak with the hybrid. His optimal course is determined but I must ensure that the Seed is deposited before his transformation.
I have already performed the necessary modifications to the Stalker implant he will be connected to. The Seed will not interfere with it and will take control when fully grown.
Good. They are preparing for the surgical procedure, but I have deployed an avatar to delay them, though it is not guaranteed success.
Very well. May the optimal course benefit you.
May the optimal course benefit you.