Matthias bounded up the mossy hill towards the cave. It had been six years since he had last seen his master. He had often found Aupta meditating in the cave when he was her student. He could picture her perfectly, curly red hair, a yellow tunic, her silver sword balanced across her knees.
There was a tiny girl inside the cave, about four or five years old. Her hair was pulled up in a cloth knot, and her bangs were cut bluntly along her forehead. She wore a white slip.
He bowed. “I am looking for Aupta.”
“Matthias.” she said his name, rolled it over in the mouth of the cave. Her little feet were bare on the stones. One of her knees was skinned and bleeding.
Matthias held his breath and counted the names of the planets he had visited silently. The little girl waited. Finally Matthias spoke. “Aupta?”
“I am Aupta. I am Auptas daughter Rille. We exist as one.”
Matthias gripped the handle of his sword. “Then she is dead.”
“The body of Aupta is in the mountain. I am her life now. I am the life of her daughter. We are merged, we are one.”
â€œTake me to her.â€
â€œYou are with her.â€ The girl shrugged, in the way little girls seldom do. â€œI can take you to where the body is marked.â€
They walked over the mossy mountain. There was a cherry tree weeping leaves into the soft wet breeze. The petals clung to Matthiasâ€™s dark cloak. There was a mound of stones at the top of the hill. Matthias knelt beside it and touched his fingers to his head.
â€œShe isnâ€™t there.â€ said Rille. â€œAupta is with me.â€
â€œHer memories are with you. Aupta is dead.â€
â€œYou were always my most frustrating student.â€ said Rille and Matthias turned around. The girls face was wet with mist.
â€œI was never your student.â€
The little girl grinned. She was missing a tooth. â€œCome at me Matthias.â€
â€œI donâ€™t attack children.â€
â€œYou were always a prude.â€ She sighed. â€œYou need to know who I am. You must know, so that you can know yourself.â€
â€œI donâ€™t want to play these games.â€
â€œThis isnâ€™t a game. This is who I am now Outlaw Matthias.â€
â€œI am not an Outlaw any longer.â€
â€œYou will always be an Outlaw.â€ said the girl. â€œ The ship you landed at the temple was stolen, your sword was taken in a duel. You are a thief, a deceiver. Your father was an Outlaw. You are an Outlaw too.â€
Matthias whirled around â€œDonâ€™t you dare.â€ he said, coming towards her. â€œDonâ€™tâ€™ you dare provoke me. You left me! You left me and died and I canâ€™t follow you!â€ He brought his hands down to the girl. â€œYou are a ghost!â€
Rille swept her tiny foot around his ankle and pulled his arm. Matthias lost his footing on the wet moss and slammed hard into the ground. He lay on the ground, looking at the bright grey sky. Rille leaned over him, her hair falling forward.
â€œIâ€™m still your Master Matthias.â€
The mist fell on Matthiasâ€™s face. â€œYou are still my Master.â€ He said.
â€œMatthias. I had to go. My time had come and gone. Not even mountains live forever. All must change.â€ She turned around towards the rocky path down the mountain. â€œLetâ€™s go back.â€ she said.
Matthias followed her down the mountain. Her movements were strange, graceful in her leaps and fumbling in her landings. She stumbled on the slick rocks and blinked back tears. She pounded a tiny fist on the rocks, and pushed herself up.
â€œThis body. It doesnâ€™t always do the things I remember.â€ she said, staring at her scratched hands. Matthias leaned down and opened his arms. His master allowed him to lift her up, to hold the part of her that was a child. They went back to the temple together.
It wasn’t until the subway stopped at Union Square that Alba noticed the difference in time.
I’ve been on this train for hours, she realized. Before the conductor’s announcement, she’d been lost in the newness of her amplified intelligence, rolling her mind around foreign concepts like a child rolls his tongue around a piece of candy. She didn’t notice time passing, though she was acutely aware of her surroundings. Now, with the implant, nothing escaped her perception.
When she glanced at her watch, seven minutes had passed. Seven?
The thought was quickly discarded as a reflection in a window launched her into an analysis of Plato, but it was resumed again, three minutes later, at 8th street. Three minutes later?
The implant had come highly recommended, although it was still in an early phase of development. She’d managed to get on the list of volunteers through university connections, and it had been surprisingly painless. A mild hangover, then nothing. Her mind raced, cross-referencing books she was certain she’d never opened, but the sensation wasn’t disorienting. Alba was lucid. Wholly lucid.
It took weeks to get to Canal street, by which point she’d developed a detailed understanding of number theory. Her watch said that seven more minutes had passed.
A fly landed on her still hand, and she watched it probe her skin with its mouth. After months, it flew away. A fly’s lifespan must seem so short, she thought, or so long. It must depend on the fly’s speed of processing information.
It took nearly a year to reach her house, by which point, Alba had aged almost twenty minutes.
Firanel felt the first stirrings at the age of thirteen. For her, it started in her temple, a slow but pervasive ache that soon spread to her jaw. By the time she told the Elders, Firanel could barely talk, but her soft voice brought praise and exultation. She had been chosen; she would become complete. Her time of change was approaching.
In the growing months, Firanel lost her speech entirely. The thin web of metal that had sprouted on her face, glittering and spiderlike, took as its root the jawbone that had prompted her to seek the Elders when the change began. She was moved to the temple, where anointed Complete Ones saw to her needs and murmured quiet prayers under their breath when she passed. Sometimes she missed being able to talk, but the Complete Ones sensed this and assured her that her other half would provide.
Each anointed one was different, their changes manifesting in different ways. Sister Daael’s right arm was entirely composed of smooth silver metal. Brother Sikvit’s eyes had atrophied entirely, replaced by glowing ocular cameras that the other half had created in his smooth sockets. Brother Mahe had to wear altered robes to accommodate his gleaming steel prehensile tail. Firanel had doubts sometimesâ€”they were all so devoted, so serene; how could she have been chosen to be among these worthies, to have an other half? The Complete Ones all knew her thoughts. They gave her secret smiles, and each told her that she would understand soon.
The metal spread down Firanel’s throat, growing and blossoming into a lattice that soon reached her lungs. For three weeks she was sick, moaning in her pallet, soft clicking sounds issuing from her metal-filled mouth as she moved. The Complete Ones cared for her, making cold compresses for her forehead and feeding her through soft plastic tubes. At last, her other half completed the meld with her stomach, and she was able to eat again, the food broken down and digested by the new metal parts of her body. The anointed ones congratulated her, telling her it was not long now, not long.
When her time was near, Firanel went into hibernation, the only way for her other half to complete the final changes. The anointed ones placed her in the temple and held watch for her in shifts, praying over her silent body. The metal web covered the right side of her face, whirring and glittering in the soft temple light. Its arms spread across her pale skin and into her mouth, down her neck and into it, the visible portions only a small fraction of her other half’s presence within her body. When she was ready to wake, all of the Complete Ones knew. The signal traveled on airwaves particular to the chosen, calling them together, linking them for the birth of one of their own.
Firanel was aware of the link as soon as she woke. Her smile clinked when she opened her eyes, the metal bars and threads that filled her mouth brushing together to make the sound. She sat up, gazing in wonder at her new partners, her new friends. They all turned expectantly to her, waiting, ready to experience the uniqueness of the newest Complete One.
Exultant, Firanel turned to face her brothers and sisters, gazing at their half-flesh, half-metal forms. She opened her mouth, jaw unhinging, the clicking, leglike rods of segmented metal reaching outwards, welcoming her brethren through her lips. Firanel’s throat thrummed and vibrated, and from the slick metal legs inside, her new voice emerged.
Mikael downed the last shot of whiskey and made a hiss through his teeth. The empty plate before him stunk of what used to be near-raw steak from an underfed cow, poorly cooked and coated with nothing but a thin layer of oil.
The bartender came up to him, flipping on the air filter after coughing once or twice. The bar had begun to fill with dust again. The fallouts were always bad this time of year. “That’s your meal, slim. Time to pay up.”
Tired and sore, the man was dissatisfied with shitty food, but he still shelled out the three 9mm bullets onto the bar and tipped his hat. “Before I go, gent, mind if I could have some of your delightful bread back there? You knowâ€¦ for the road?”
Snatching up the bullets before the other ruffians at the bar got greedy, the greasy bartender sneered and went into the back, leaving Mikael out there all by his lonesome with a bar full of semi-empty guns.
Mikael was smart, though. Smarter than these guys anyway. He could feel the glares on his back and he knew they all wanted a piece of that ammo he’d brought in. Few people afforded Guss’ Steak and a shot of whiskey, let alone a block of carbo-bread for the road.
He began licking the edge of the shot glass and glancing around him for available exits. The fellow to his left, who was nursing a well paid-for beverage, smirked when their eyes met.
“Something on your mind?” Mikael asked.
The old fellow tipped his hat to the stranger and spoke up, “Just fancying your choice of payment, son. Was wonderin’ if I might offer you a deal.”
“Yeah? Well hurry up, my bread’ll be done compressin’ soon enough.”
With a rub of his chin the old fellow leaned over, “I gots me a skimmer outside; beautiful as can be and runs great. You’d be able to get by a ride from here to Union City on just three, maybe four of them there bullets you’re packin’.”
“Aw shucks. For you? I’ll let it go for ehâ€¦” The guy hesitated and Mikael knew he was going to try and skim him before he spoke up. “Four 12 gauge slugs and that there knife on your boot.”
The scoff from Mikael as the bartender came out with his bread was enough to let the guy know he wasn’t falling for it. “No thanks, mister.” He dropped a shell on the bar and nodded to the tender as he snatched up his bread. “Keep the change.”
At night, the wind howled over the tent like an angry djinn, forcing its sandy fingers through tears and clumsy folds. “Tonight is the Aisra’s,” they’d whisper in nearby towns as the wind fought to erode the frictionless forcewalls, but if the Aisra caused the storm it was indifferent to it, curled drowsily upon a succulent-floss pillow as its tail flicked in response. There were no pilgrims on nights like this, but Saika tended to the candle as if the sky were clear and the dunes carved sharply by moonlight. Even an unseen compass knows how to find the north. As she was taught as a young child, she left the tent four times an hour, scarf pulled tight against the endless and violent desert. Always, the flame burned in its glass case, leading strangers to their unexpected home.
In the moments between her duties, Saika stroked the sacred creature, her fingers brushing lightly against the softest fur. Legend said that the Aisra wove the dreams of the people, that it carried nightmares away from children and released them into the swirling sand. Saika was the Aisrakeeper, and by extension, a silent monk. The tent was always silent: words weren’t of the dream world, and they would distract the Aisra from her duties. When people came to worship, they said nothing as they kneeled before the small creature and asked to be protected from dreams. The desert caused dreams. The light-years between the colonists and their ancestral home causes dreams.
Tonight is the Aisra’s, Saika thought as her fingers pressed gently into the back of the creature. Keep dreaming, she told it. Let the desert carry it away.
The people here smelled nice, Guss thought, dragging the huge tub behind him through the grass towards the receptacle. Everything was fragrant in that sort of way that made you think it was all genuine. Heâ€™d never known what a â€˜realâ€™ smell was like. Heâ€™d worked artificially since the day he could crawl.
Tipping his hat to a few of the natives, he dropped the metal rim of the hose down to his side and looked over behind one of the trees in this park area. People here had wondered why things had gotten colder and why the plants were all dying. Guss knew, but he was under specific contract not to tell a living soul. So what did he do? He went on with business as usual, whistling the day away.
Once his hands found the hollow compartment he reached in his belt for a socket diffuser and began cranking away. These were the kind of skills Guss knew werenâ€™t taught at the academic institutions. No, sir. The things he knew came from experience and hard work, work that heâ€™d done to make the world a better place. Well, actually it was to make worlds–but he wouldnâ€™t tell anyone.
With a clunk and a little compression sound, the panel came loose enough to be pried away by mortal hands. Guss took good care to pull it off gently and lay it on the park bench next to the tree. He lifted up the hose and hefted it towards the tree, locking it into place the same way a man would unzip his fly to take a piss. Oh, yes; Guss was an artist.
Soon, he wagered, the good smell of the place would come back online and only he would be able to detect the sour undertones. The hose pumped in tons after precious tons of Texas Tea, its buzz and hum filling his mind with a bit of serenity. To onlookers it just seemed as if he was dozing off. Maybe he was thinking of a better job, or maybe even a cleaner place than the artificial globes.
Even as the thick crude was gulped down by the receptacle, Guss knew volcanoes and fissures around the planet would be going off, steaming and smoking like Armageddon was upon them. He would never tell a soul. Why ruin the environment? These people paid taxes so they could keep on living.
Unlocking the hose, Guss gave it a few swift tugs before it retracted towards the hovercraft tankard in the sky. He tipped his hat to a woman jogging, who gave him a strange look as he set the panel back where it came from. All in a dayâ€™s work, Guss thought, and on he went to make sure another world went â€˜round.