I wiped my hands down on a square of tech fabric, absentmindedly watching the fabric turn ashen from the chalky dust, thick on my hands. My fingers left long streaks, capturing the outline of my handprint with amusing accuracy. And for a moment, nothing happened. It was just a piece of cloth.
And then, over the course of about a minute, the cloth began to change in my hands. My palmprint gradually became lighter, as the fabric consumed the dust, fading back to its original beige. It seemed to waver in color over long seconds, until, at last, no trace remained.
We’d come a hell of a long way since synthetic weave.
“And it won’t dissolve my hands?” I asked.
Rio shook her head. “No…we worked that out. There’s a microfiber mesh, only particulates will seep through. We have the mesh self-extrude, using Sheran’s powers, and managed to put the anchor points directly on it, so…”
“So that if you have an accident, or tear it open, we don’t have a black hole in somebody’s kitchen.” I nodded. “Smart. Also, probably necessary.”
“Yeah. Although combining three sets of powers–“
“Four. You count, too, Rio.”
“Well, it seems…excessive, just to make a self-cleaning hand towel.”
On that we could agree. And lovely as the towel was, to be perfectly frank, the amount of research and labor that had gone into it, to say nothing of the painstaking hand-crafted construction, it’s incredible uniqueness, and the potential of containing a contained, miniaturized black hole…this damn towel was probably worth a few million credits that nobody would, or should ever pay.
But it, like all of the rest of the crap that Rio and I had been working on recently, wasn’t really there for its own merits. It was a proof of concept. It existed to demonstrate the kind of mundane uses that Exhumanity could offer the world. Already, Oasis was built out of terraist-shaped rock, clothed in garb spun by an entopath, and fed with crops nurtured by an agrarist. Rio had the unique capability to bottle others’ powers up into things she crafted, and with the surge of Exhumans we received after the Blackfire incident, her potential for creative output was through the roof.
Kind of a…begrudging potential. She still preferred weaponizing things. But we were over that. Mostly.
“If I didn’t anchor the lattice, it’s basically a grenade,” she muttered.
“One that makes black holes. I’m pretty sure you could only fire that once, and then goodbye solar system.”
She seemed to chew on that for a moment before coming to tacit agreement. “I still think the self-fueling flamethrower was a winner.”
I sighed. It was always a struggle keeping her nose out of trouble, but as it was basically my job, I’d both become very adept at it, and couldn’t really complain. We were kind of making a difference here, representing Exhumanity in the best light that’d ever been cast on it. It felt rewarding.
“Well, how about you tone it down so it can be used to…I don’t know…melt snow, and we’ll have another look at it. Try to weaponize your powers against things other than humans. Like the weather, or mosquitos, or viruses.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, snatching the cloth off my hands. “I’ll be in the workshop if you need me.”
“And I’m headed to the church. Thanks, Rio.”
As she went deeper inside, I threw open the doors and spent a moment blinking in the hazy glow of the glasslands midday sun. They sky was grey with moody reflection, and the air sizzled with an appalling lack of humidity, but I didn’t let it get to me.
The church was in the new district, the ‘adjoining ring’, extending the city’s radically creative naming system…and misleading, as there wasn’t really too much ‘ring’ to speak of.
It was, however, massive. At least, relative to the rest of Oasis. It veritably bustled with activity: trade, tourism, and faith, all rolled into another hundred or so gleaming white buildings, where I’d worked hard to put the best foot of Oasis forward.
It was always a little strange, transitioning from the old city to the adjoining ring. The dreamers in the city didn’t, or couldn’t recognize my presence, lost in their own realities, in which I may not even exist. But then to cross over, suddenly there were greetings and smiles, even just the glimmer of recognition or unconscious glances at my approach…it was like returning to Earth after being somewhere alien, every time.
The church wasn’t an overly elaborate building, honestly borrowing little from the rest of the world’s idea of a building of faith, though it did have a spire to pronounce itself. Its main feature was that it was large, and in this city, that was distinction enough. I’d just wended my way down an alley filled with hucksters and porters, and was facing the broad white stone front of the building when I heard someone call out to me. A familiar voice, but one I hadn’t heard recently, it took whole microseconds to place it.
“Karu?” I asked. And so it was, a plain-clothed woman hobbling up to me on a bad leg, grin across her face, hair undercut on the sides, with a voluminous blonde sprawl creeping down the back, across her shoulders. “Karu!”
“Well hello, robot,” she said, and I was too busy grinning back and hugging her to even give her shit for it.
“I didn’t know you were coming! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because you are simply impossible to get ahold of. Have you heard of the new device known as a phone?”
I rolled my eyes at her, still finding my grin inviolable. “We have no satellites, you dork. Who the hell do you think is gonna put one up there for us? Does it look like the Oasis Space Program is taking off?”
“With the number of powers you have here, and the capability you have demonstrated, I would not be surprised. Do you mind if we sit? My leg–“
“No, not at all.” I spun around, looking for anywhere nearby, although I knew the city intimately. “Um, is the church okay?”
“Anywhere is fine. I apologize for being a bother–“
She battled away my reassurances and we spent a while apologizing in echoes as I got her through the doors and inside, where we sat in a white stone pew at the very rear of the building, our voices dropping to a hush once we were within.
I loved it in here. Though it was just a small part of the building, the back wall was studded with stained glass, the iconography of the damn dead tree of Our God filling the room with colorful light. I also spent as much time contributing prayer as I could, though with how much I had to do, sometimes it didn’t seem like enough.
“Sorry, did you want to pray?” I asked.
“I wish you would not call it that,” she sighed. “Prayer already has a meaning, and this world already has a God without you conflating the term.”
“Okay, stickler. Did you want to turn off your mind and temporarily embrace the dream, while offloading your spare mental bandwidth onto Our God so that it can divert your subconsciousness attention towards feeding the muses and maintaining the harmony of Oasis?”
She cocked her head in thought for a moment. “Nah.”
“Such an ass,” I grinned. “What are you here for? Don’t tell me it’s a social visit. Don’t tell me it’s just for me?”
“My, you sound so unsure of yourself. Your eyes widen as dinner plates when it becomes possible that you are my destination.”
“Wow. You must have seriously cracked, if you flew all the way out here to visit me,” I giggled. “Have you considered seeing a shrink? One not in the mirror?”
She started to respond but went quiet as a group of laughing teenagers broke the still air as they walked past, making their way to the front of the church and speaking with the minister. She shook her head.
“I do not know how you did it.”
“Built this. Convinced people to come here in droves to render themselves unconscious in your care.”
“I mean, hotels have been doing that for years.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I do. And honestly, sometimes I can’t believe it either.” I leaned back in the pew to look up with her, though found my eyes attracted to the stained glass, as ever. The way it played with the light…I know it was supposed to represent Our God and the dream, but it always reminded me of electricity. Sparking, sparkling, something. “I think…a lot of the world is just…genuinely grateful to Exhumans. Now that they’re on their way out, and they’re safe…and we’ve got a legit enemy of humanity to blame…”
“I have heard the experience is euphoric.”
“Yeah, that too. I know it sounds ridiculous, but legitimately non-existing for a few hours guilt-free is a huge blessing to a lot of people.” I heard my tone turn serous, and found myself looking more at the floor. “After Blackfire, there’s a lot of hurt and trauma in the world, y’know? Getting away from it…and helping others in the process…that’s the appeal. Nothing I did.”
“You marketed it. You thought of it as a solution.”
I shrugged. “Dragon did most of the work. I just had the idea. He runs the church, mostly, and I handle trade. Amazing how religion and commerce go together though.”
“As it has been since before the crusades,” she nodded.
“So if you’re not here to pray, are you looking for something to buy?” I waggled my eyebrows enticingly at her. “You know I’d give the best deal to a friend.”
She snorted a laugh. “Yes, I have great need of a new wardrobe, as well as a pen which cannot run out of ink, and costs as much as a lifetime supply of pens.”
“It’s a novelty.”
“I prefer it to the exotics, I admit. But it is ridiculous.”
“Well, we’re doing better on the computing angle. Self-chilling circuit boards are a freaking revolution, and IkaCo’s making bank on it. Next time you scoff at a hundred-credit pen with Exhuman magic inside of it, consider all the billions that they’re raking in.” I blinked at her. “Oh. Kaori’s here, is that why you visited, to see her?”
“Hmm? I had no idea. Strange that she would not tell me such, when it was through her that I arranged transit.”
“Well…she doesn’t like…talk to people…ever.” I scratched my chin as I tried to remember the last time we’d had a conversation that could be considered anything but icy. “Maybe I was just hoping. Y’know. Therapy?”
She sighed. “I have asked so many times. She has no interest, and you cannot force another to change.”
We sat in quiet for a moment as we thought, watching the teens, who had entered reverence-mode upon talking with the minister, as they were escorted to the back, to the sleeping rooms, where they’d be temporarily woven into the dream.
“No,” she said, sitting up abruptly. “Actually, I came to inquire about Saga. I heard a strange rumor a ways back, and it has rested nagging in my mind, until I could endure it no longer.”
She laughed, but I knew all too well what she was getting at. No matter how well I’d put myself or my life back together, she and I were still the same in our paranoia. Saga was our friend, Exhumans were our friends, society had changed now.
And yet, there was no taking the guardian out of me, or the huntress out of her. I wondered briefly how long it’d taken between Karu hearing something and having to act on it. I imagined…maybe a month would be all I could stand. She’d probably last longer, especially with her job.
“Um, would you maybe want to go somewhere more private to discuss?” I asked, standing. “Not too far.”
“I suppose that is an answer in and of itself. And an ominous one,” she commented.
“It’s not that bad. But it’s not…that good, either. C’mon.”
Tourism also meant food options, and all it took was a word to be seated in a private backroom while a couple plates of food were prepared for her — utterly non-authentic, but presented with the air of authentic local cuisine.
“She came by, not too long ago,” I recounted. “Looked the same as ever. Fucking…walked here, I think just to prove she could, the lunatic. This was maybe three months back. Just strolled in one day, like it was nothing.”
“Three months back,” Karu twiddled the table knife between her fingers with unnerving speed. “That was…not too far off from when I’d heard it.”
“What’d you hear?”
The knife went still, and then gently, returned to the table. “I had heard that someone had defaced Lia’s grave.”
“Yes. Dug it up. Which was bizarre to even consider, but from what investigation I was able to do, I found it factual. Nobody saw or heard anything, of course, but she could not erase herself from the cameras, and there was evidence to place her in the gravesite’s vicinity in the days preceding.”
“Maybe she was just visiting.”
“Perhaps. I certainly hope so, and that this was a simple coincidence in timing.”
“But you don’t believe in coincidences. You believe in traps, and you believe in God.”
“Have I stated it thus?” she smirked at me. “But yes. As you see, strange, but not inexplicable. After long consideration, I resolved to trust in her, to be mature, and to simply ask. However, she is not a woman easily found, hence my visitation, to the one woman with whom’s memories she cannot tamper.”
I thought it over as Karu’s food arrived. Local greens and rice, and a lot more meat than any actual Oasian ever ate in a meal. But the markup was also probably a few thousand times the cost so…yay, tourism?
“Well she came by, like I said, and seemingly, like you, just for the pleasure of visiting me and asking weird questions. I gave her the whole tour, showed her our growing commerce and the church of course…asked if she wanted to say hi to Our God, after all the help she gave us getting him set up with the church, but she said no. Said she’d spend eternity with him, didn’t want to waste any time with him now.”
“Sad, but understandable.”
“Yeah. Then she asked for a lock of my hair, to remember me by. Which was…weird.”
Karu blinked at me. “Your hair? A cable?”
“Yeah. Just like…snip one off. I thought she was kidding, and then she got really weird and pushy about it. In the end, I thought…easier to splice in a new cable than deal with her, so I did it but…yeah. Strange.”
“That is…odd, even for Saga. At least, I believe so? It is hard to hold a consistent metric up against one so inconsistent. Was there anything else?”
“Yeah. She turned down the tour, but asked a lot of questions about the new Exhumans that had come in. I was happy to tell her of course, and then she just kinda…was done, and left.”
“Huh indeed.” I frowned at her. “There was one other thing. This was after she visited but…I heard from TARGA–“
“How is she?”
“Doing great, actually. I think very happy to be working away from Exhumanity, but still in-military. I think she takes a lot of pride in making Russia shit themselves with worry at her capabilities.”
“You are beaming. Are you certain you have not found love after Athan?”
She was obviously teasing, but I still poked her in the forehead for it. “She’s like a sister. A twin sister, even. I can be proud of her.”
“Anyway. She heard of Saga?”
“She repelled Saga, actually,” I said, my voice growing cold. “One of the very few events that’s turned up since Blackfire. Saga tried to break into the research lab in Haydn.’
Karu blinked at me. “The robotics lab? Where the drones were pouring forth, from alternate-Earth?”
“Yep, that one.”
“I thought it was decommissioned, after you returned and the drone attacks ceased?”
“Decommissioned is a strong word. There was still lots of research being done on the drones we had…the ones Athan didn’t fry, anyway, along with everyone there. But yeah, Saga basically tried to walk in the base and hijack all the personnel, and TARGA fought them off with the base’s automated security. After a long stalemate, and before roboticized troops…or skyweb…could be called in, Saga just…turned and left.”
I cracked my knuckles. “Yeah I was pretty upset to hear it. I don’t know what goes on in that girl’s head at the best of times. I don’t know if this was leading up to something, or if she achieved her goal or didn’t…or if it was all just for fun.”
“With her, it is always the latter,” Karu sighed.
“True enough.” I hesitated for a moment.
“You are considering divulging something. Consider no longer, and spill your beans.”
I laughed, and got a leery eyeful, even as she forked up some rice at me.
“Alright. Well. I don’t have the data, but…from what I pulled together…I think Saga’s gone.”
“Gone, gone. I can’t find her anywhere on Earth…and although she cleans up her trail pretty good…I have a suspicion. Though…it’s based on a lack of data, rather than any actual fact. Interpret this as you will.”
“I shall,” she nodded. “Continue.”
I took a deep breath. “Well, what my trail led me to, or…conspicuously led me away from, in a million tiny parts, was…her trying to find Aesa and Al. Y’know, in the void.”
“Yeah. And maybe it’s just wishful thinking, though I’d be lying if I said the signs weren’t there. I’ve run…well…let’s just say I’ve hooked up to some supercomputers to run the data. I’m confident in my findings, even without a shred of concrete evidence.”
“Okay,” she nodded. “If we assume this to be true, what does it mean?”
“It means…and…again, possible wishful thinking here…but I think Saga kinda…realized with Lia and Athan dying…that she’s immortal, y’know? And that she needs to sort her shit out while there’s still an Earth here.”
“So she leaves it behind?”
I shook my head. “No, so she figures out a way to find other Earths. Maybe when this reality is all burned out and gone, she’ll find another universe, just beginning. She’ll become some…eternal…universe-hopper, seeing creation through, again and again. That’s…just my thoughts. But it all starts with learning as much about dimensional travel as possible.”
“Which would make Aesa and Al a valuable resource indeed,” she mused. “I see.”
“Anyway. I don’t know that she found ’em, don’t know where she is, and don’t know her motivations in the slightest. Too much baseless speculation for me to act on, even to share, if you weren’t pulling it out of me,” I grinned.
“The inquisition knows no bounds,” she grinned back.
Once we’d confirmed that neither of us had anything more on Saga, conversation turned joking and light again, as we caught up on news about old friends and new ventures. I told her all about the progress Oasis was making and in as professional and vague terms as she could, informed me of her patients’ progress, and her own personal life.
It was strange to think that the first time we’d met, I’d been encouraging Athan to beat her unconscious body over the back of the head with a crowbar and finish the job. She’d come so far in mellowing out and keeping her feet on the ground, so to speak, and it sounded like she was an active help to those around her, instead of just condemning them to hellfire and ashes.
And honestly, it was just really, really good to talk to her. Even if she was a little weird, and a little formal, we’d been through so much together now, it was impossible for there not to be a friendship blooming there somewhere.
We stayed up until she was almost falling asleep on me, at which point I found somewhere to put her up, and promised we could continue in the morning. Her gratitude was apparent, and the hug she gave me on parting was warm and genuine. Also, heavy. Felt like somehow her years and injuries never quite reached her chest.
I felt guilty, almost, as I said goodnight and walked back through the gates into the dark city, the great stone doors opening and closing around me as I climbed the hundred steps back to the inner ring, the bustle of the night workers of Oasis still rustling around me, as much as my own thoughts.
She’d commented that I looked good, that, if I did not mind her saying so, I was doing well in getting along after Athan. She was proud of me for finding something to put my love and energy into, past his absence.
We’d been through so much together, and were so close. And so it felt like something of a betrayal to say nothing. To not tell her how little I had moved on, how I still obsessed over him, and how much of myself I had rewritten to be able to function day-to-day in his absence.
I reached the inner sanctum and ducked into a side chamber. A secret panel behind a false wall. The only functioning elevator in Oasis, run on power sapped from its only electropath. Down I went, into the dark bowels of the earth, until I could feel the pressure of the tons of rock above us.
And then, in total darkness, the elevator stopped, and the door opened to a small room filled with gleaming light, reflected a million-fold on glassy eyes, always watching.
Sentient cam-drones, though only just, imbued with a spark of my own humanity. After years of experimenting, I’d found a combination of ones and zeroes that counted as life, as worthy of consideration of thought as I was. Constructed by the millions, en-masse, with no purpose or function, save one.
To stare at him. To feed the muses churning ever inside of him. To comfort him from the insanity that tormented his now-eternal body where he lay in that glimmering chamber. Sometimes it wasn’t enough, sometimes Our God had to funnel thoughts towards him.
Sometimes, he lashed out. But most of the time, he was calm, barren of life or thought. Just an existence.
“Hi, Athan,” I whispered, running my fingers over his bare chest, feeling the scars where I had reached under his ribs and pinched off his heart.
He looked at me with glassy, unfocused eyes, filled with no emotion, not seething as they once had. I knew he couldn’t recognize me through the dream, knew that whatever fake reality he was living in, it was the best possible one for his happiness. I had absolute faith in Our God, ever since the first time I’d heard words whispered through his lips.
He spoke as his sightless eyes looked through me. The same thing he always said.
He was saying it more and more, and I hoped that meant he was ever-so-slowly recovering himself. If it took a lifetime, I’d wait for him.
I bent forward and gave him a gentle kiss, finding his lips warm and soft, before turning down the lights so I could watch him sleep.