CW: altered reality, subjective ambiguity, subjective splitting, isolation, death, ambiguous body horror, surveillance, combat, game interface, gang warfare, subjective hijacking, body replacement
Phassa knits her lips. Her hair of braided grass is singed sickly white at the tips, and she knows it’s because she’s been here too long. Here where Orche has schema-based the décor on the Gardens of the Queen. This cleft of dark slab monoliths; she still sees them that way, has to for what scrying her proxima as Orche’s symbiosis with the Flora requires of her. Bone tired she sees the gaunts where Orche sees the lush. Orche is keeping it from her.
How can Orche not expect jealousy? She fumes. For her all this beauty veiled, leaving her to wait around in a valley of death.
She’d found her own schema, one she’d kept from Orche; so far Orche hasn’t asked about her sojourns through the Solitude. The wastes that span fathoms collect as residue any schemas old enough to go ghost. They fall like shooting stars, she thinks, if you could see them; but her Lavendry picks them up as best relics and at worst discards. She knows it by the symmetry: a psyche halo mod. Psyche halos have numbers; with this mod comes a name, a use, a function.
My use for now is by her side. Orche is gowned, her raiment flowing, and her black hair wreathed. She sits silent on the hivic throne, itself polished black the gleam of carapace. The fall of her hair twists and snakes slender arms a pale aquamarine, like foam rippling, cresting the sea. Like waves, the same pattern creasing her eyes. She’s dyed them glade green and they glint severe through sleepy lids.
𝒪 𝒷𝓇𝑒𝒶𝓉𝒽, Orche says, her voice as if a well bubbling, overflowing, pouring over in vivre. Like a moody day breaking bright and clear and then you rinse and repeat. Until you are sure of nothing but the same pattern of mood in charge and release. So any warmth she shows is—
She puts all her energy into both. 𝐵𝒶𝒸𝓀-𝑜𝓃𝓃𝑒𝒹 𝓌𝒾𝓉𝒽 𝓉𝒽𝑒 𝒷𝓇𝑒𝑒𝓏𝑒, 𝓂𝓎 𝓅𝑜𝓁𝓁𝑒𝓃 𝓂𝑜𝓉𝑒.
“Dead air,” Phassa says, in her quiet voice, the one she wishes she could raise. She means by that, no breeze. Telling herself, too soon to lose your patience. Pace yourself. Orche laughs, sounding like glass scattered over felt, muffled, muted, fragile. The joy is all hers, somehow. Truth is Phassa finds that weird. Though I’m stuck by her, the chain knots both ways. Fastened to me or fastened to her, both ways neither of us can leave each other.
So who, she thinks, questions again, is Orche trying to impress? The blistered glass loam looks to her like Orche’s embraced a river of death through her own castle. Her own solitude. And fabbed over all this is the Flora skinning a lush over it that I can’t see. Feel it, am blooded with it, but because it’s me I’m not allowed to see it.
If the world hides from one, she thinks, does it matter? If it goes on for all else and all else can see it, but unfair, she thinks, if it sees you besides. Like Orche does, her glade eyes, which are not floronic, Phassa thinking, but more strange water, hidden behind sleeping lids, and I don’t trust them. Where she hides secrets behind feigned sleep.
𝒟𝑜𝓃'𝓉 𝓃𝑒𝑒𝒹 𝒷𝓇𝑒𝒶𝓉𝒽, 𝓎𝑜𝓊 𝒸𝑜𝓂𝑒 𝒶-𝓌𝒽𝒾𝓈𝓅𝑒𝓇𝒾𝓃𝑔. Sometimes the design cracks, falters; then some quirk spills from Orche like the Flora open petals to the networked Sun. Phassa knows the quirks of her brood but in Orche they breach her whole front because the result of her is so counter to any truth she’d keep hidden, convince you she kept it hidden.
Of course well hidden. 𝘖𝘶𝘵 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦, 𝘥𝘪𝘥 𝘺𝘰𝘶 𝘴𝘰𝘫𝘰𝘶𝘳𝘯 𝘧𝘢𝘳? 𝘏𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘵𝘩𝘦𝘳𝘦 𝘢𝘳𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘸𝘰𝘳𝘵𝘩 𝘬𝘦𝘦𝘱𝘪𝘯𝘨. Her lips crook into a bare smirk. Phassa says, “Troves and troves of not much, Orche. You know how stingy the Theocrypha is. The best stuff stays closed-loop. If you have an age that’s all that matters. Corkscrew a quick fix and then it’ll never make it to any Field.” Much less this one, she thinks. The one I’m still wandering. Because of the Chains which can’t be, she thinks, even prefixed to our hearts any longer, but must now be buried deep and entwined past the taut sinew. Seamed so deep and strangling we will never shake them off.
All the bracekeepers with Oracles putting all their faith and prayer into them. As if all that warmth is no freeflowing thing but must be kept static, buried, crushed by loam into stillness. Then the noeonic loam is fertile. Orche would be so mad she wouldn’t want to leave them anything at all.
She stands there, trying as always to see herself as Orche sees her, and failing. BG’d not by the stark lithslabs so much like lumps of charred bone but by the lush painted over it. No gnarl or wither even but in green gone cobalt in the milky light that would radiate from all the Flora, tied as they are through markers to the digitalis pluming, like blood pouring from wound, from the black walls breached. Forever out there now.
Orche appraises her. 𝒮𝓉𝒾𝓁𝓁 𝐼 𝓈𝓁𝑒𝑒𝓅 𝓁𝒾𝑔𝒽𝓉 𝓂𝓊𝓈𝒾𝓃𝑔, 𝓎𝑜𝓊 𝓀𝓃𝑜𝓌. 𝒲𝒽𝒶𝓉 𝒾𝓈 𝒶𝓃𝒹 𝓌𝒽𝒶𝓉 𝒾𝓈𝓃’𝓉. 𝒲𝒽𝒶𝓉 𝓎𝑜𝓊’𝓇𝑒 𝓀𝑒𝑒𝓅𝒾𝓃𝑔 𝒻𝓇𝑜𝓂 𝓂𝑒.
“If I kept nothing from you,” Phassa says, her voice bright, “I’d myself be empty.”
𝒫𝒶𝓇𝒶𝓃𝑜𝒾𝒹, Orche says. 𝑀𝑜𝓊𝓉𝒽𝓈 𝓉𝑜 𝒻𝑒𝑒𝒹. She’s right. All descends through her to the Flora, grief and joy both. If the Flora are grieved, Phassa thinks, they don’t show it. Keep it secret, to fester the rot at the pits, spreading just when subsumed.
The Flora have shelf life, she tells herself, letting it spill through her. In the final communion swallowed. Then I’ll have used up any point for being here.
So even as she breaks it down for Orche, the Flora her eyes for every stat, tuned as the leafware is to every presence passing and still. She reports her side, but, she thinks, Orche has the Gates. She has her own eyes, crawling, scuttling as hands off as Neutral Lotus forces them to be. Then she says it because it’s on her mind.
“Every time you summon me it’s to tell you something the spiders could tell you. You know what they’re doing, right? The framework keeps them safe. It’s for them, not you. Not even the Kindred.”
Inside she knows. Orche lives to listen to anyone at all. That’s the absent secret waiting for someone to never find. The slabs are frigid to the touch, streaming a cold burn through the weavings of her skin that is the digitalis itself woven over not even grub. As the cold seeps through the weaves, the motes passing it through, she pictures her heart stilled, crimson sinew stiffened, all in her ceasing movement. The heart she’s never had. She pulls her hand back. As she does Orche rolls her eyes. 𝒟𝑒𝓁𝒾𝒸𝒾𝑜𝓊𝓈, she says. 𝒯𝒽𝑒𝓎 𝓀𝑒𝑒𝓅 𝓂𝑒 𝓁𝑜𝑜𝓅𝑒𝒹.
If I could tell her, Phassa thinks, that we make promises for ourselves first, that we like the scene if we stay true to them, the whole way. Then she’d know. She’d know and it’d all be over. “That all you need?”
Orche’s smle is soft, breezing from the crook of slight lips. 𝐼 𝓃𝑒𝑒𝒹 𝓎𝑜𝓊 𝒻𝑜𝓇𝑒𝓋𝑒𝓇. Orche, all alone, waiting for her servant, the only one talking to her. The moment you arrive and the moment you leave. The two moments that matter most to her. So Phassa seeds the schema with sapspit, working on it beneath the veil of the lush. Seals it with a whispered kiss, as Orche tells her how pretty the Gardens are; you must die to see them, but of course you can never die.
It tested Exiles because it was supposed to. Morgan put that together from fragments of thought drawn one at a time from the Exiles dotting the room. Had to splice it together, some of them, he finds, Empdruids, and so able to spread the thought around, diffuse it into tiny stress points, less to deal with on a single level. More searching to find out what they mean. Here with no one he knows.
The chamber is grey and dry like the inside of a cocoon. In some places stitched together that he can make out with his grubsight, here and there but not everywhere. In some cases, lost behind opaque flat smoothness that reminds him of the Lustre. How it had felt wrapped around him, saying things he tried to figure out, spoke in prosaia while he'd wanted to know that Dear was still with him. Now he isn't, and Morgan is with those like him, only here because they can't be trusted.
Where they are which is nowhere near the Lustre, the clean flame that had screened them by charting a path of deceit with its messages. And many like him, grubs who have left their bodies somewhere behind the paper trees. Those which Mutate had first spread from the spores of. Their bodies husk-eyed and staring.
He thinks of his own face in sullen shadow with his weavings faded, greeting the next Exile. His geneweaves faded and torn. Faded into the growing dusk, the corrosion of the Love Chains spreading, tethers to final fates reaching. When they were in danger his Oracle had said it was a big deal. But that was a ruse, to follow the lines that bound him, in the end, to this collective of Exiles.
He's learned to find the Empdruids via the feints and shudders of the grub subreflex, that guides the sweep of sight, easy to fall into and mark once he remembered the scent of honeydew. An inward bend of palm shuffling his grubsight away, a shaking of shoulders his exhumed Skein reads with the scent infused and follows with wanting to the conduit Exiles. The scent spreading through from the trigger points of the grub's chakral control, flush across the inner skin that drags with it weary the exoshell. As he finds them the other Exiles note what he's doing and give them space, the Empdruids with their sockets falling away, the nothing in them falling away.
So he can reach bits and pieces of where they are, as the Sigilseers strain for it, sift it from the time and space and matter the chamber now contains.
Not without effort. The scent keeps him calm or at least zoned but the lactic seep that comes with it like backwash sticks where it spreads and soon coats the inner skin, starving the chakrals of the digitalis. The exoshell is blind stumbling with the pit of the grub pushing the inner skin into motion via the metronome cascades of the trigger points. The stone floor is cracked and sieved and his crossings are staggered hopskips. Most times he has to gather himself together and in his grub there is less and less of him, less of the networked soul strung taut along the abraxas of the digitalis. That which burns with the heat of sunshine, from the transmuted daylight the Flora fed off.
It pushes against the grub, weaker and weaker every time.
So at least enough to learn they've been exiled to the Black Hole Barrows, all matter warped of light in reflection from beyond the horizon of dead stars. Indiced in a planarsea called Caesaria and kept far from the churns most looped through. What this means he knows just that they are far from Orche and far from his Alt and Tender. For both, he thinks, by now they could be severed from me.
Is there a way out, he ventures to them. The Empdruids with their grubsight distant, their exhumed sockets staring off and away, over the head of his shell, or into the corners of the Barrow. They surround him, a handful of grubs, and the rest of the Exiles wander through the Barrow, centred by the mock council he's put together.
Drifting, he thinks, not here, not tethered even to the pit of their grubs. They've given up even on that. The breathing of the grubs in the dark he can hear, with his grub attuned. It spindles as if in between silent beats. Eking into the Barrow and finding his earclots now that he isn't talking. I can't languish here. It might last forever.
Orche put us here. No one even knows to look for us.
Who would look for us? The symmetry of their cluster letting the thoughts loop, containing them. So he doesn't have to follow them far to find them.
Phassa, on behalf of the chained angel.
Who is that, he signals to the locus. What he'd left behind to come here echoes even in the naked grub.
Phassa is the needle, the absence in prophecy.
The skips in what the Oracles told us. The meaning in the spaces between.
Can we signal it? Faint hope stirs in his naked grub. Though knowing not much, picking the bones of what they know dry. Where my bones now earthbound remain absent and staring, beyond the black walls. Their stare is the first part, and the clean flame follows.
When Acheron wakes, that will be a signal. Your Alt has marked much of the Chapel. Showing the thorn its insides.
So we just wait for it?
Acheron is... volatile. At this a whisper of nods fleeting through the chamber like branches rustling. Even in grub the Empdruids use massed life for expression, the way they used to train, tech up for it in their Tenders themselves always at the fringes. So that not centred, they couldn't draw on others, relied just on symbio-pheroweaves maintained by their Oracles. But Empdruids fall fast to the Oracles, their headspaces always ensconced by the thoughts of others. At the fringes obsessed with seeking out the Core to get it to stop. Tenders sustained on the symbio-pheroweaves led to keepers seeing the Skein naked, stranded through the Flora like mottling vein.
All this the exhumed Skein translates from the babelic fuzz of the Empdruids, of their thoughts piecemeal from the thoughts of others, a tattered tapestry.
So it's like, Morgan thinks, they were getting ready without knowing it, their whole lives, for the grub.
Likely to seal the Barrows in his wrath. Broken from long communion with Orche. A sieve in his totality breaching, we think. A sunder in his sight he won't tolerate.
Up to Phassa to use your Alt to breach his sub-psyche. But what your Psyche Halo harvested... the protocols will be flumed across the digitalis and the spiders will follow them as strands to her. So many of them... they won't be scared.
What can we do? he signals.
Use the Skein, they re-sign, the threads never severed. That's why they're there, put in place to guide the EV. Bone hidden by the skin of the Chains which themselves have been damaged from some time. She stitched them over like you'd seam a wound but it's the thinnest of skins.
No matter how far the Oracles saw, they couldn't see saving them. They told her that in their sterile and severe weavings they chose to thread through her, just to let her know what it feels like when something you lose matters to others even if it doesn't matter to you. Straight into her face or what she had of it so she couldn't say she wasn't listening. So she'd spun it, the exhumed Skein translates, weary now, strained, into something she could work with. A loss isn't a loss if it's all figured out. In your eyes, they'd told her, we can see the glimmers of the way you've traced all this, the eyes only we can see.
Can you hear me out there, then, he says, within his pit, and waits for the anguish of the stillness, settled over the grub like a blanket, to die with any echo. Any echo at all. In the pit of the grub the chambered void forages, for any nutrate at all, something to string its own passage, always killing distance, even and especially if severed from the skin it's known.
Acheron speaks with his eyes open. Eyes of green flame that are all she can see besides the Alt who’s fritzing, blinking in and out but keeping a locus around the eyes.
𝕿𝖊𝖓 𝖙𝖍𝖔𝖚𝖘𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝖉𝖗𝖊𝖆𝖒𝖘 𝕴 𝖈𝖆𝖓 𝖗𝖊𝖒𝖊𝖒𝖇𝖊𝖗. 𝖄𝖔𝖚 𝕴 𝖗𝖊𝖒𝖊𝖒𝖇𝖊𝖗, 𝖘𝖍𝖗𝖎𝖓𝖊 𝖕𝖎𝖑𝖌𝖗𝖎𝖒 𝖔𝖋 𝖙𝖍𝖊 𝖈𝖑𝖊𝖆𝖛𝖎𝖓𝖌 𝖈𝖑𝖔𝖙𝖍.
Cammy thinks her ears have been modded to hear it. When I gave my sight to the tower of light, she thinks. Then she'd heard them, dry skitterings through the crystallace she'd been standing on. After her last turn to see.
The voice is ancient and crackles like spitfire with labour, charge and discharge, breaks in the sound like static.
She's no expert in marker protocols genned to transfer across stata, Faunic and tracing their lineage to the beast awoken now with eyes of fire and struggling against his bindings, but the kid's Alt looks old. Its skips, shimmer slides across the stone, are rough, sparking patterns that repeat in on themselves, like the Alt has trouble homing in before phasing across the digitalis with enough matter for her deatheyes to transmute them, get them into the shell of sight and thought that she isn't used to, is cold and stark against her.
All this distant, though she can reach it, can call it her own cope before the eyes of fire, the broken sound punching through her earclots like needles lancing zits and the Alt buzzing around Acheron in unsure circles, at times closer to Acheron, at times further away. The eyes burn the green of peaking flame, of energy beneath going ersatz. There's a growl in the air that she picks from the barrage of sound like sifting dirt for twigs, for leaves, has to strain it before knowing it as the Alt. Of storm clouds brewing in churns of fate that she’ll see just when they spool themselves into her trip, will be Acheron unchained snuffing her out with a lunge, a breath.
The Alt darts forward as if it's been willing itself, the whole time, crisscrossing Acheron and in the crisscross she can see in outline laced from shadow in burning blue glitch massive shape brought low with arms stretched. These by sparks of feature and contrast that she has to collage piece by piece, as the Alt attacks, smashing its body, subsumed each time by pluming translucent smoke and then glitched back in, again and again against the massive Fauna. Put together a rough working image that she clings to in the pit of her headspace.
I need, she thinks, to get out of here.
Even starting to back away she senses something's off. They aren't fighting. This is play as ritual, as something stirring deep within and rising from shared impulse. The Alt is focused on the bindings now, smashing into them in shimmer smoke and mewls of pain streak through the noise, stronger in echo off the walls of the Chapel. Hurting himself to free Acheron. In impulse borne deep seated; the mewls confused, stricken in timbre. The pain as question as it infiltrates whatever sensate you have. She knows it like she's feeling it for him. In the pit of the grub where there is space to hold it.
Light shines and engulfs the chamber. Even through her deathly sight it reaches her, swallows her. Is all she knows even in the pit of her grub.
𝕬𝖑𝖑 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖜𝖆𝖘 𝖒𝖊𝖆𝖓𝖙 𝖋𝖔𝖗 𝖞𝖔𝖚, Acheron says, voice like thunder pealing through the light. She's tracing her steps here, putting her back on it all soon, soon scampering through the inner hall of the Chapel. The light she's running from spilling ahead of her. It blasts through her. As it does she's filled with it. So heavy the digitalis beneath the stonework is stained with it, and like it'll collapse beneath her. Beneath her grub whose feet charter smooth marble with the chill working its way through the shell. The light through her and past her, lapping at the bleak void that is what she sees and knows.
Cammy talks to a sidewalk weed, spilling in stabs from Tri-Sunlight bleached pavement. The grub's absence and her body's presence hit her in waves, in sequence, a melody of feels kept tuned by the binary.
She's in the clothes she'd stepped into the Interwave with. Had she talked to Cat Eyes before she'd left? Can't remember. All that before what the Interwave had done to her. After she'd drank juiced Tri-Sun from the nightlights.
No, she thinks. Was that the Interwave? Was that something else?
She wasn't sure, finding herself talking to the weird weed tangled through the sidewalk. She'd been losing herself through mem dep and it's the weed talking to her that clues her that she's been getting the schizophrenia spam sessions in. Fitting them into pockets of absent memory, honing her own dep-chess skills, as if to prep herself for something final coming, something her conscious self would not know to prepare for, would call that prep toxic.
The weed says the streets are empty and there's no one but you. This isn't true. She sees stragglers like always down the chiseled lane. From this she knows it’s all a dep-chess puzzle, one where for the moment she's outmatched.
"Who are you?" she says.
𝒴𝑜𝓊'𝓇𝑒 𝓃𝑒𝓌 𝒽𝑒𝓇𝑒. 𝐼'𝓂 𝓃𝑒𝓌 𝒽𝑒𝓇𝑒.
Hopeless. She needs Jewel's read on it, she thinks, because someone broke sequence somewhere, and she thinks it may have been her, through him.
Without the grubshell she's free to move. Still she doesn't want to attract the eyes of other Cluster refs. If they're seeing it, the Velih have eyes through them. Began as some neurosis in the unseen Loum but they didn't know more than that, and Jewel'd been more worried about something else. That left all the noia for her to absorb, to process like she was a sponge for it, and the focus of every roaming dep-gamer besides.
Play the tape back, she thinks, and here I am talking to a flower.
Somewhere in all those spam sessions would be the key to getting through this, the right tech absorbed and looped through her subconscious, and grey is the colour of it. She thinks, I should be neutral if I'm blind, if I can't even see who I'm fighting.
𝒩𝑒𝓊𝓉𝓇𝒶𝓁 𝐿𝑜𝓉𝓊𝓈 𝒾𝓈 𝓌𝒽𝒶𝓉 𝓉𝒽𝑒 𝓈𝓅𝒾𝒹𝑒𝓇𝓈 𝓉𝓇𝒶𝓃𝓈𝓁𝒶𝓉𝑒𝒹 𝒾𝓃𝓉𝑜 𝓉𝒽𝑒𝒾𝓇 𝒪𝓇𝒶𝒸𝓁𝑒𝒽𝑜𝑜𝒹. 𝒯𝒽𝒶𝓉'𝓈 𝒻𝓊𝓃𝓃𝓎. 𝒯𝒽𝒶𝓉 𝓈𝓉𝓊𝒻𝒻 𝓈𝓉𝒾𝒸𝓀𝓈, 𝒾𝒸𝓀-𝒷𝓊𝑔, 𝒶𝓃𝒹 𝓎𝑜𝓊 𝒸𝒶𝓃 𝑔𝑒𝓉 𝒸𝒶𝓊𝑔𝒽𝓉 𝒾𝓃 𝒾𝓉.
Hell this, she thinks. I’m sure of it now.
So she's about to process if it's time to try Jewel when she hears, in the daylight, the first warcry of the new day. Stabbing the hot air with the calls of the Gaijin Street Samurai, modulated through their hypertech, loaded out by true megacorp sponsorship, the favoured to take the Clusters this pro gang season.
She doesn't know that at the time because the GSS are new players. No one, not even the most together Loum prophets, had seen the Hiroko contract coming. Jewel had been blindsided, thinking the chillout trend, the voidic eyes, were markers not of something already in the Clusters. Of something still working into them.
She'd known that later. She'd stayed low as she made his way to him. His thread black with age and a mote aura that doesn't even try to translate feels past a cloud of worry. When she finds his aura she thinks he's hidden his physical, untwined any trace of it from the threads. Where she is, where they are, the mote auras have to cling to what's left of the husk which has been slow death for so long the final collapse of the tapestry is in sight. But even as she draws near his zoned, shifting aura, all oblique angles and opaque tones, she thinks, it could be all him.
So her aura feinting shyness, she still has the strength for that. Some reserve which she puts down to her subconscious gearing up. Planting the seeds to vine through her psyche and blossom in strengths she can use in case it's been his dep-chessing all along. Some people, she thinks, can't handle the barriers between themself and others. Would want to entangle the world in their detailed schema.
So she says, dark enough here.
He bristles less than she thought he would. Draws into himself, inverse angles as if she's mutilating him with her nosing. Really spiking home the blade and the guilt washes across her own aura in reflex. Even in his weakness, but all this means is she gathers himself to put him out of his misery. I can do this without you, she thinks.
Look, she says. Those gangers out there make it hard for me to move. If you have any last thread for me to follow, I want it now. Because it's a Velih grater out there. All kills legal, just point-referenced.
He's silent, still.
There isn't even a thread to you. Says this and she knows she's put the freeze on, questions him in the agon of silence. Would I like what I saw, if I found you? What kind of shape you in, J?
This way she layers the moment with pregnancy, with all the time he has in the world to answer. When he answers he'd better, she thinks, show some face to lose. If not in his aura in his concepts. As if all wounds in him have massed into one wound, a gaping void where he is, where he should be.
You moved with it, C. Translated the Loum through the Interwave somehow.
You kept us safe. An us. Pocketed an us and held it. Closed it off. They're saying the Interwave is dead now. I know why.
Shit, she says, why? Blowing it because she's thinking it through. Because the threads couldn't handle the complex. Hit the Interwave, yourself layered in already. But it would also work as...
Quarantine, he says, from the Dissembling. The crosswired Archeana.
Where are you? She says this tinging her aura with warmth, ready to chill it back if need be. Her mote aura grey, all familiar patterns but that washed out of it. Where before she'd been see through. Now she has a veiling to work with. It about started, she thinks, when he went too far, brought her into his struggle. It's about breathing now.
By now posted in the ground, he says.
If she even had his lips to read. She has him embodied in aura and even that, she thinks, he'd woven of himself at first. Shrouded by the line of the turn-off. If she knew some flesh was attached somewhere she could deal.
So how are you posted at all?
I cut a deal with the Velih.
You've been using agents. People are more than backup skins. She switches course. Because a dep-chess gamer would be like that, see people as states instanced and embedded within the enmeshed threads of their world. Have a way to see, to feel, if they needed it.
Thanks to the grub she knows what it's like to be missing your skin. To think out there it is severed from you. To have lost belief that you will see yourself in some third eye reflected back at you, in some wired gamer's fantasies. It exists as break from the way others see you as the way you are. Breaks off and drifts until the two are lost from each other. It could be slow or fast.
If you saw it coming it would bleed into what you said and did. She can't forget the grub. Thinks she’ll find herself there any second, as if that her true skin, as if this is a shadow of it.
You've met them, he says, but she'd been getting there too, and cuts him off. I don't want to fight, she says. It wouldn't be one now.
There are two.
Another gate, she thinks, a new frontier. I would win. Shouldn't make me your enemy now.
I don't need your permission to die, he says, and I don't need you for it now either. I existed on what I threaded into and left the real long ago.
So what, she says. Being with me in other skins is enough of an excuse. It's sketch, dude. If you can't get me a way clear, you're wasting my time. Her aura now bristles with feedback. She could, she thinks, cut him off. Cut him off and mercy kill the whole Loum. He would let her.
Still she softens up again, pink light the core fire of the discharge which fades into grey as it reaches the aura extremes. If you want to hang onto this thing so bad, make it easy on me. Route me to somewhere stable.
Somewhere, he says, someone, it doesn't matter. It's past the point where they come for you. Its past the point where they let you know at all. They just file it with the system and after you get bugged there won't be anything waiting for you outside your skin either.
You could be bugged, she says. You said some shit about keeping an us but you could just be saying it. How would I know? Her aura runs the decay lines, getting what she can out of the frays and tatters. I don't like being spun, J.
If you beat my agents, he says, I'll give you the password.
The password to what, she says. This thing is deader than dead.
Because now, he says, there's a Loum beyond the Loum. Isn't there?
I guess, she says. She thinks about it. If you're you, she says, what could do that? What could make it work?
He doesn't answer. His mote aura has darkened as if to match the pall of the dying threads. In the crookings of the plaits she sees the dulling and thinks of when it was lustrous, when pale shine coated the tufts. For a second she thinks she's frozen him again.
It would have its ways, he says, and she thinks of the sidewalk weed before the GSS had began a vibedown of the whole block. Talking to it as the Tri-Sunlight unfurled down the lane. Reasons, too. I think it likes you, C.
I'm logging off, she says. I know where to look for one of them. See you through another's eyes again soon. Even knowing logging off she'll have with her the sickly Loum and the creeping dark coating it. Take it with her as the motes fade out and in the stark real left behind the moments slice like every second she is reaching for a point where she will look back and say, if I ever knew how I got here, it was someone else knowing it.
She looks for Cat Eyes at Tachae's. Before she'd logged out Jewel had sent what spoolers he could, weaving the space around her into an aura. Marking her not for death but by death, by the space where what he has to breathe and move with should be. That space that is all that can be named for you. Wards off the gangers but not the dep-chess gamers, but them, she thinks, she can handle now that she knows she wants to fight.
Still she hears gunshots split the silence of the growing dusk. Looped again but every loop could be its final foray, she thinks. Then our chronals dissolve like bugs in acid. Our feelers counting off all this death and putting it into time.
She thinks of these dead soldiers showing up at the heraldic new dawn promised and saying, well you know I was good this season but I wasn't one of the best. As if the Velih would care about that or any other salvage of self. For them what matters is the tape and you can play that tape backwards and forwards or even splice it but the tape itself never changes. Spools out stranding like the Loum and long like a funeral dirge. It all means nothing then, condensed into splints and sacrificed one after the other as if the universe was getting cosmic kickback for each dead moment.
If death had any grace, she thinks, it would throw them back.
So inside Tachae's and chambered by rotting meat paint. Where she'd blown the fuse before has been ordered from chaos but cinder marks suggest either she'd blown some shit to atoms or they'd recycled some flame from the Velih's vault. Fuck it, she thinks of Tachae saying to Cat Eyes. Char it clean.
Still she can't put a voice to that in her head because she doesn't have it to barter for wilful fantasy of sound cloven into speech. If she's ever met Tachae, she gets, she's traded that away too. This whole time though seeing him or her with the eyes you see those you've never met. Never gamed or been gamed on by. Futile eyes searching. She shrugs that away. Cat Eyes is gone and Tachae's presence is the aether of displaced vibes. Didn't he or she care that she was in there fucking their shit up?
Through another's eyes searching. Still where do those eyes go after they have slipped away behind just another facet? Even if there are just so many facets, so many ways, that she knows of.
She thinks Tachae must have a feed set up, something letting him or her keep eyes on the place or when Cat Eye's not around any dreg could saunter in and loot the place down. Would the Velih be tuned then to that wavelength, and see that? It's not if they both saw the same thing but if they could see each other seeing.
She thinks, my eyes sieved into rippling pools reflected. To in between the light through glass. Where the symmetry and assymetry braid into each other the thread is serrated, not yet dead but peeling. To keep track. After the ache of the grub and the pit that gnawed through my voidic eyes.
It makes it a waiting game because her initial set up needs to be attacked. The hand forced. But in the darkness here she won't even see someone mapping her out. She could get hypersocialed so hard she'd see the seams, wind up so far down the strands her best option could be a suicide showdown with the gangers. Or else, she thinks, live in absence of stim from third parties. The null state that takes you out of the game for good. It happened to me once, she pictures a memdep saying. Socialed so hard I haven’t talked to anyone any splint I can remember. That’s what they would say if you talked to them, but you wouldn’t.
Because, she thinks, if I end up with no other access, no other password…
So when it comes it’s from a five o’ clock bearing, meant to grief her and she stands and takes it knowing it puts her not at a mercy, not yet, but at least on the back foot. “T wasn’t happy, basically. Said in the tapes it was as clear as our splints. Wasn’t coming out of my time or value.”
“Heard it before,” she says in reflex, drawling, “guilt trips coming in hot. Get it together. You’re probably not aware but I’m not doing this shit for myself.”
Now makes a move to her slung pack and the beater within. Seeing if he’ll stop her. Even turned off the glow of the pod is aurora sheen in glimmers beading bright past the casing. A flickering dew of light over the tape keeping it together. Buzzing frenetic. Burning her fingers as they graze it and then she’s got it held loose by her side.
“Leave me alone, then, with what’s left of you. Is that what you’re saying? Pay it off with that and make some final trip.” Now she does see, unveiled, the blankness, as the pupils track her movements, but it’s the blankness that hosts, she thinks, the blankness is how I can tell by it. Within the blankness so much space for looking out. That’s the trick, and how I didn’t catch it before.
Cat Eyes’s own features are as blank beneath the sallow of his sloping slouch cap. In the blankness of both weathered by chronal after chronal of—she thinks, this effect again—dealing with freaks like her.
Thinking of him like he’s on, she thinks, and shakes.
In the blankness of the eyes alone though the weathering is all time held and that she knows as a facet of Jewel. So she wonders how much could be left of him for him to call his own, someone else running purpose for your limbs.
“Scoudra. i56. The Dissembling. You’re wondering if that has me, too.
“T doesn’t care,” he says after. “Says damages. We don’t have,” he rolls the word, “clientele, like the megacorpos do. We supply the losers. The side street hustlers being mowed down out there.”
She shrugs. “Saints later.”
“Yea,” he says, with a long sigh. “We got all their names somewhere, right?” If there is a we, she thinks, and you can call yourself part of it. Even turned off, still slotted in, still chained all up and down the threads, and still wayward as you tell yourself you are. Wayward as you pick which threads to follow, if you can log in, if you can even see them. Here where she’d blown out half the stock to be replaced if the Velih saw it fair. Cat Eyes would have a way to log in, she thinks, and it would be better than my beater. All the tech in the world puts me at his mercy for now.
She waits, thinking, this is doing what I can.
“Okay,” he says. “But just to let you know. We deal with the B. Moths these days. You gotta pick a side, you know?”
“I don’t follow that shit,” she says. “Keep saying it,” sitting down, crossing her legs, “that someone needs to check with the Velih over it.” Have the tape show there’s nothing wrong with it. Rolls her eyes. Sick puppies. She thinks of them with feelers now, white, translucent, the wings themselves knotted into use after the feathers were shed. She thinks of the pit of the grub and how it had been forever and splints to spare in there.
As if nothing would be more useful than that.
So before she even turns it on she stares at her charred eyes reflected in dead pixel, the pod fitting out the beatertop’s chassis and screen with a shifting aura of black light. Warping even her reflection on the dead screen and then she’s thumbing it to life. The char dark in her eyes swims in the LCD, in the black light wavering. The hollows glint like gloss marble. Char hollows streaming black rippling through glass void and that's what the feeds paint themselves across, the death pooled in the pits of her eyes. Until now she hadn't seen them.
Hasn't seen them, and when they vanish beneath the feeds, she thinks, that's someone else's problem now.
The voice talks back through the Skein, through cloy and clawing on the underskein that is roped through all pre-Exiles. Morgan thought it was in their skin, threaded there somehow with all the grace Orche and the Oracles could muster, but in the grub he still feels it, guesses they do too.
A font that never runs dry because it's the pull to the push and the push is what keeps the Skein strong through use. So he knows it will stay even as the voice talks back through the pain, using it, bending it, refracting it the way a prism splits light. So that one strand of pain picked and split becomes two or three twisting. Spiderwebbing out to bind the pit of the grub. A rounded black stone like a glob of dirt strung fast and held within its own space.
Like, he thinks, a warning to the others.
Still the pit could be a morass, he thinks, and if so the pain could spread, choke up on all the space it needs to breathe. He asks the exhumed Skein if it can help, but it tells him that without SunNet signal there's not much it can do. such a base binary, it says after, like this helps. of uncertain apocryphal weight.
The buzz of communion through the barrow is faint. The grubs are bone thin, each breath ragged. They've evolved to breathe non-digitalis or at least what strain runs beyond the dead stars, but not well. The skin listens for the clotted ears, pulling double time intake of the flux and the buzz as it fades out, behind the pain, maybe all the way gone.
With each stab of pain like lactic burn white light sears the barrow. Tracing stroke to stab in silk lines like fine vapour trails. From that white light seeping the networked Sun. Constellated across the Barrow and the grubs incline to the sears of light like moths. The head tilts and the exhumed craters sweep for what he'd thought at first only he could see.
With the solaria seeping from the quicks of light the exhumed Skein translates. It excavates. From the strung network of pain, of what had begun choking the grub wiithout even the message, enmeshed anome relayed.
T҉h҉e҉r҉e҉ ҉i҉s҉ ҉n҉o҉t҉ ҉m҉u҉c҉h҉ ҉I҉ ҉c҉a҉n҉ ҉c҉a҉r҉r҉y҉,҉ ҉o҉n҉l҉y҉ ҉d҉r҉e҉a҉m҉ ҉y҉o҉u҉r҉ ҉d҉r҉e҉a҉m҉s҉ ҉f҉o҉r҉ ҉y҉o҉u҉.҉ ҉W҉h҉i҉l҉e҉ ҉I҉'҉m҉ ҉d҉r҉e҉a҉m҉i҉n҉g҉ ҉t҉h҉e҉ ҉G҉a҉t҉e҉s҉ ҉a҉r҉e҉ ҉o҉p҉e҉n҉ ҉a҉n҉d҉ ҉t҉h҉e҉y҉ ҉m҉a҉y҉ ҉p҉a҉s҉s҉ ҉t҉h҉r҉o҉u҉g҉h҉ ҉e҉i҉t҉h҉e҉r҉ ҉w҉a҉y҉
Where do they go, is his first thought, and the exhumed Skein translates an answer from the push and pull.
F҉r҉o҉m҉ ҉y҉o҉u҉ ҉t҉o҉ ҉y҉o҉u҉.҉ ҉I҉t҉'҉s҉ ҉t҉h҉e҉ ҉s҉k҉i҉n҉ ҉y҉o҉u҉ ҉l҉e҉f҉t҉ ҉b҉e҉h҉i҉n҉d҉ ҉t҉h҉a҉t҉ ҉n҉e҉e҉d҉s҉ ҉y҉o҉u҉r҉ ҉f҉e҉a҉r҉s҉ ҉n҉o҉w҉.҉
Wait, he thinks. I can get it back?
I҉f҉ ҉y҉o҉u҉ ҉t҉h҉i҉n҉k҉ ҉o҉f҉ ҉i҉t҉ ҉t҉h҉a҉t҉ ҉w҉a҉y҉.҉
Still the nerve-interface of the grub runs its chloric lines, what it strands for veins like filament spools through the grey flesh, and along them the pain runs in signal verved by each and every sense-nexii. Crafted or grown to trace the push and pull by mapping it through time and placement in the grub, landmarked by chest or limb or the emptiness of skull socket. If I could, he thinks, follow the fear when it goes. The pain pulses, steady, solemn, and he reads from that acceptance. The exhumed Skein tells him that Mutate beyond the black walls is frozen over now for stasis. cold, it says, bleak, and the Flora dessicated.
mass grave for the Tenders and those who couldn't make it without them.
first priority after threading the Skein is—he studies the grub's long fingers as the Skein talks, knowing what the it'll say next but not how it'll say it—verify the caked flesh. dispatch it to shelter.
What's shelter, he thinks, meaning it as a joke. Soft, clinging to the string, the play between the three voices, and the whole Barrow hushed as if listening in. The Empdruids, he thinks, can, and they can pass it along. What would that look like?
prior the third: restitch geneweaves.
The emptiness chambered within the grub sockets fleet skyward or what passes for his sky. Char grey domes the hollow of the Barrow, sieved and blistered now by white scorch.
Right, he thinks, that's something you do, you just do it and it wouldn't be hard at all in the Freeze. Feeling as you would the whole time one more mote in the blizzard. The Frost prepping the proto-stage of planetconsciousness for archival, to be used as a physical front when needed. Something Orche needs now not as skin but as a coat to slip into, a veil to hide behind, when she needs it. All other times she’d rather be other ways as long as it’s on call for her, the way it isn’t for me.
“You hate Orche, right?” he says, “the way I hate her, I mean.”
The exhumed Skein says it could translate, doesn’t need it answered in ache. He tells it he has to feel it. To transcribe right, he thinks. In my own body I’ll need to know.
When it comes it starts as trembling, a quaver in the shell, rippling locus to ends, wahsing out the Exiles, the exhumed Skein—all trying to find out where he’s at and losing him, losing him past the splitting anome like phosphor burning through the pit of the grub. The pit revealed as something to burn through.
Strung synapse the noose, and the psyche halo the fall. It resembles, cloister by cloister cutting off facet from face, each glinting line marking each crag and rise. Born dimpled and bruised, he thinks, and any I meet—
Shucked themselves free from this exile. Other huskshedders with bodies waiting. The light sears his forehead, flash cools, bands him in the stream. Glimmer plates banded by light and the light joins, curves, wraps around him. The strung light. From there spidering into and filling the grub. The black stone gleams. Rounded and moted, in the white shine a smear that disfigures it like skin mottles, like bruise even as the light washes out the pit.