Counterworlds: Below

Below Poster

Below is the story of a dark technological land known as Motherboard, that survives its’ dangerous climate below the ground and under the strict ruling of its’ mad queen. In this harsh land of neon once a person reaches a predetermined age, they are fitted with a unique screen that is embedded and fused into the back of their very skulls. Any and all thoughts are revealed. Truth and lies laid bare for all to see. Privacy Is now a luxury that is scarce and far-between.






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Below

Chance

She climbs from the world above into darkness, but determination empties any fear for the unknown. Her nails chip from the grit of crimson rock and glittering dust sticks to her pale skin. Still she presses on. Taking a small misstep, she nearly tumbles to the unseen ground below, and billows dirt around her. She is resilient. Catching herself, ruby hair in her eyes, the only remark made is a soft grumble of annoyance and then a shifting of her pack further onto her shoulder. Her burning heart races as the blue glow touches her skin. And from the rocky wall, she glances at the world below.

Guilt finally tastes bittersweet for a fiery moment.

Feet on the russet floor at last, the light of the day is now an azure hue. It pulses, lighting columns of red stone, stalagmites and stalactites. She looks out to the crystal, the source of the iridescent blue and feels her chest tighten. Apprehension blocks the air from her lungs. A little ease soon takes its place in her mind. And then she breathes.

A tickling buzz from a depth within unsure – a second sight – senses a presence, eyes on her. Swift ruby eyes scan the cavern around her and spots the glimmering trail of powder blue. Whoever it is, she knows there’s far greater danger out in the universe than its pursuit. The life she left behind, broke from, would be after her.

Down to the darkened world around, everything had been a demented writers dream. The smog and blood was the steady building anticipation. A gunshot and a scream was the climaxing musical thrill. And acid had dripped from a blooming red sky. Her thoughts had once mimicked this noxious haze.

She had felt no blame then.

She had trusted this madness. The words whispered into her ear by her only trusted friend seemed so sweet. It was a freedom she had never witnessed and craved. Like a new fire in her skin, it scorched her joyfully. She desired it more than she could withstand. Innocence or sin looked the same. It wasn’t for her to judge. They were all for her to burn.

But there was a lesson in it, given to her by a midnight haired creature, a fellow madness like hers. It was chaos against itself. A perfect destruction. Yet it was unlike what she had assumed, what she was taught. Her mirror version wasn’t like her in this calamitous endeavor.

That midnight entity held a distinction of what was right and wrong. It knew passion. Because of this, her foe was more powerful than hate and fear. And in one instant, everything had lost sense. Insanity was nonsense. The monster she thought she was became useless.

And then it killed her.

Should have. Could have.

This is the weight that cannot be undone. This is forever.

Remorse is a terrible monster.

So whatever is watching her now is only a mild inconvenience.

The climb into the cavern was the hardest part of her descent. Sliding further down the russet paths, she muses over her efforts. Standing among the cones of rock pointing to the ceiling high above, she notes the pale pink hue of the dust beneath her shoes. Small nail-sized crystals are scattered about. They pulse dimly. The stones here were obviously harvested and all that remains is the gargantuan gemstone upon the mesa ahead. Seemingly untouched, it certainly was cared for, posed and isolated, high from the ground. In the girls mind she can reasonably gather that whatever is watching her now is actually guarding that stone. The warning of the danger this possesses is regarded but quickly dismissed.

Her scuffed limbs and blistered hands attest to her determination, finally climbing the plateau and facing the grand azure rock. In its’ smoothed panels she sees herself fully. Exhausted, eyes sunken; it’s clear she’s troubled yet not by blood or scrapes. With a hand out, breath caught in her throat, she touches the gem and feels the power swell through her limbs.

This could work. It should work.

Grasping onto a protruding crystal shard, the girl merely adds a little force to break it from the rest when a buzzing chirp exclaims overhead. Darting her eyes upwards to the blue trail of light and dust, an obsidian orb rings its’ alarm. It warbles in place, hovering and shrieking at her. A great eye-bot of circuitry and tech glowers down to her.

The girl, annoyed at first by the noise, turns back to her task. She picks off the piece of blue crystal, palm-sized and pulsing vitality. For a moment elation removes all those vicious demons from her mind, remorse and pain. Within her, hope is tangible.

And then the eye-bot rips her hand upwards into the sky. A rubber whip-like tendril grips tightly around her wrist.

Fingers curled around her precious shard, the girl fights against it’s pull, the eye-bot slowly trying to reel her in. It lifts her slightly, toes on the ground still before she gets free. Her limb, glowing golden and orange, flickers, becoming transparent. The girl retaliates, ready to fight the metal orb and lifts her hand, dripping in flames. She snatches at the eye-bots whip, dragging it down to the floor with her instead. The girl crushes it to her chest, building pressure. Its’ casing begins to melt under her grip, heating to a glow. And finally its’ alarm ceases, shooting out dismal sparks that eventually sputter and stop.

She drops the smoldering obsidian hunk to the floor, watching its’ lights dim. Her widening eyes rise back towards the sky, catching the buzzing noise of an eye-bot at a distance. At a dizzying forty or more, eye-bot drones swarm through the sky, zipping toward her. They emerge from an azure fog, shrilling their alarms, off-sync. The girl falters for a moment, contemplating to fight of flee. But there may be more, she thinks, and time is precious.

Mind made up, she hastens to leave, picking up the fallen gem. Yet then she stops short, the vibrations from the crystal smaller than what she remembers. Peering down into it, inspecting, it feels empty of the energy it once had. The girl darts her attention back to the grand crystal, wondering. The threat of looming danger is pushed to the wayside, hope diminishing faster than she can react. Hands out to the gleaming gem she ruminates on the possible reasons its’ power was so brief. Picking off another shard from the great stone, she concentrates, knowledge swimming through her skull.

And then she crumbles the piece into glittering dust in her hand.

Anger takes her over, too quick and blinding. Hands in fists, dripping molten stone, the girl only comes to her senses once it’s done. The crystal sits broken, melted and falling from its’ pedestal. Staring down at the demolished bot, the girls mind races to a thought. And this thought pulls her gaze back to the approaching drones.

She’d lift her arms to welcome the eye-bots if her fists weren’t stuck at her sides. Teeth grit, frustration bubbles blood and tears to the surface. Remorse gnaws at her bones, culling her heat. It leaves her drained and in mourning.

She could find another way. Yet when everything turns into her final bastion, hope has the resiliency of cellophane.

With the incoming eye-bots, the pulse under her skin quickens. A cacophony of buzzing in the air about her ruins further contemplation. Decision making would have to come to a sober mind.

The girl turns and runs.

Kicking up ruby dust, she manages little distance before the onslaught begins. Those whip-like tendrils snap at her heels and trailing garments. Sharp breezes push across her cheek and ears; proximity becoming perilous. Her footsteps become heated with sparks growing in intensity as she approaches the furthest wall. The glow of the world above is hardly visible but it’s enough of an incentive. Yet as she grasps hold of the ledge to climb up, the light seems more dim than before.

When the eye-bots wrap their tendrils across her chest, legs and limbs, her fight is minimal. Her throat is squeezed and the fire inside whittles out from her gasping lips.

Pulled into the air, from escape and promise, the girl feels remorse prick through her mind. It washes into her panicking bloodstream, changing into self pity.

Being stronger for another is so much easier than being stronger for one self. All she needs is one mote of success; to let pain and strife be all worth while. A reward doesn’t always have to be grand gesture after all.

The delivery is greater than she hoped for.

A crack of lightening, blue and sharps, erupts all around the girl. It’s blinding for a moment and then pitch darkness. The tendrils holding her loosen and then she falls. Ground somewhere below, she hears the metal orbs clanking against one another. When she lands on her side, leg twisted beneath an eye-bot, she doesn’t panic, taking this opportunity as her final shot.

Pulling her leg free, she limps down the pile of eye-bots to safety and runs into her glowing savior. With blinking tresses mixed in with bands of hair, framing a lithe face, the stranger takes a deep breath in equal amazement at seeing the other there.

We have to go before they reboot,” A soft feminine tumbles out of the strangers mouth.

Wh-why?” The other breathes, appalled yet also not resisting the aid of the mysterious girl. Apprehension within, the two say nothing else. Hand in hand, finally they escape.

Cause

“You could have died,” Was the first words out of the violet-haired girls’ mouth as soon as her savior recounted the harrowing tale. Then they kissed, stress and strain releasing in one passion filled moment. And now they argued.

I had to help. You should have seen what she had done! A whole crystal, shattered. Melting!” the savior wailed pleadingly. With her goggles off, her blue eyes were wide and tear rimmed. There was no doubt she was frustrated at not being believed.

You went off on your own. Do you have any idea what would have happened to our cause if you were captured?” The pain was evident by the violet-haired girls’ furrowing brow although no one could see her eyes behind her rounded spectacles.

You would’ve been killed.”

Oh, don’t be dramatic. Data doesn’t kill. She resets us. She couldn’t rule over no one if she got rid of everyone. As long as you have my back-up, I’ll always be here,” The blue-eyed girl spouts enthusiastically, too optimistic for her paramours point of view.

Sometimes,” She retorts curtly, arms crossing, wounded, “And, I don’t think I can handle seeing you like that… Not knowing who I am…”

To that the other girl softens, shoulders slacking and eyes falling to her feet. Moving in closer, she takes the violet-haired girls’ hands, a new look of determination and force in her features. It’s an apology, wordless but sincere.

She can help us..” Continues the savior girl, so sure and resolute.

Will she?” Returns the violet one.

Will you?” The savior girl echoes the question to the other, who stares unblinking for a second at being drawn into the conversation so sudden. She knew this was coming the moment she saw the city; it’s gleaming black towers hitting the roof, becoming one with the red rock. Everything was shining, neon colors, reflecting off panels of dark crystals. And, as well, everything was filthy. Dust and rubble from the sky showered down upon the city, as well as water, tainted with some sort of jet black oil, pooling along the floor in places. Yet people continue on, living in a crumbling infrastructure, with bright faces and hopeful smiles. Of course they need help. Of course there is a cause. The sky could collapse on them, or some other travesty lurking and building in the shadows could annihilate all those hopeful minds and beating hearts.

In the outsiders mind however, none of this concerns her.

Look, wherever you’re from, however you came to be, to us you’re sent from Mother on High,” The savior pleads, looking for salvation herself.

Switch, stop it. You’re scaring her,” The violet-haired girl chastises, seeing their guest taken aback by the intensity the other has.

Circuit,” Mocks Switch, narrowing her eyes to her lover. The little squabble however tempers her excitement and Switch begins anew, not as forceful, treading to friendly,

What’s your name?”

I ca-” Starts the girl but shakes her head, looking away and towards the covered window at the far wall. It’s useless to connect, she reasons. Silent, she crosses through the room, passing glowing gadgets and furniture, sleek yet worn. The place is littered with technological devices, wires and blinking lights in objects she cannot fathom their purpose. At the window she peers out, holding back a thick opaque curtain, wondering about this strange world beneath the ground.

There’s power in everything, twinkling in the buildings, running through glass and buzzing in the air.

It’s source isn’t seen however, something she still wishes to discover. Scanning across the buildings, towers and floating shanties, the girl manages to shorten her choices to a few structures, sitting in a cluster further on the horizon. They don’t seem connected to the rest of the city, set apart from the populace like some sort of shrine.

Lost in her thoughts, the girl nearly doesn’t see the eye-bot drone, dancing through the air, up the side of the building and window. She drops the curtain and stumbles back, falling over herself and onto the floor.

It’s all right. Our windows have a loop feed. It didn’t see you,” Switch consoles, coming to the girls side and helps her to her feet.

You’re name is Icon? Is that right?” The blue-eyed girl beams falling to bitter nostalgia,

I had a friend names Icon…”

Switch, I’m sure she’s glad you helped her, but this is not her problem. She should leave before she’s discovered without a screen,” Circuit resumes, moving to the other side of the room, opening a cabinet and leafing through the objects inside.

Icon must have looked confused to the blue-eyed girl because then Switch turned around and pulled up her waterfall of hair and multicolored tubes from the back of her head. Embedded in her very skull was a screen, glowing and flashing various images across its’ pixelated surface. Icon could see what Switch was seeing, the room in front of her yet then there was more than that. Each object Switch’s lenses glanced across, even for a moment, sends the screen flickering, displaying memories and thoughts about each piece – where they had come from, what they are used for. Icon could see the origin of a painted vase in the corner of the room, of glowing flowers set there, how they bloomed and died. She could also view the first moment Switch and Circuit kissed, in the doorway after their second date out in the city.

Icon looks away.

Circuit was coming to her side, a small pack in hand, opened for her to see, food and goods to help her on her travels,

Switch will help you out of the city but after that you’re on your own.”

Circuit!” Switch cries, letting her hair back down and turning to give her lover the look of betrayal.

You can’t ask a stranger to risk her life for us, no matter what powers you think she has-”

She does have powers. I saw it,” Switch protests, turning back to Icon in a fervor, eyes wide with pleas and distress,

She crushed a Data-drone with her bare hands and then she turned her limbs to fire. Watch my screen, you’ll see!”

Icon takes the small sack, wordlessly shoving it into her own bag, listening as Switch hit her wits end.

Circuit, show her! Show her what Data is doing to us, poisoning us with these stupid screens,” The blue-eyed girl wails, moving to her lover, a hand out to rip the glasses from her face. There’s a small scuffle, the violet-haired girl pushing the other off her. But it’s enough to knock the spectacles askew, forcing Circuit to remove them anyways.

Icon’s eyes widen, staring at the unusually calm girl, fixing her lenses while scowling to the brokenhearted girls’ eyes, reflecting light into black stained irises. Circuit winces even at the dim light until she can cover her eyes again. Icon can see why the violet-haired girl isn’t as adamant to fight as Switch is.

Whatever they aim to do, it won’t save her.

It’s true however that Icon could turn the tide for them. She can see how she could tear down the reign. Yet she hesitates, recalling that fire, smoke and blood from her past.

Is destruction all that she can create?

With a deep breath, Icon starts to leave, rushing for the door before she changes her mind, before Switch could try to convince her again. Still as her hand reaches the latch for the front door, she feels remorse suffocating her, as if there was already a debt here that she needs to pay.

I-I’m sorry,” Icon calls out tentatively, slowly turning back to the two girls, wanting them to know her sincerity. The poor Switch is in tears but says nothing, clinging to her lovers arm.

Are you sure you don’t need help out of the city?” Circuit tries again, helpful but Icon waves her off, opening the door and leaving without another word.

Retracing the path she was led through, Icon takes another look at the city below the ground, watching the people come and go, laughing joyously. But now she can see it, the screens in their skulls, displaying all emotions tender and brief for everyone to see.

If Switch could see Icon’s thoughts, she would know what a monster she is, has been.

Truth is so clear to see her, blunt and effortless.

Still Icon watches from the shadows, those eye-bots on patrol. They’re watching the citizens, collecting their every thought and lives, as intimate and mundane as they can be.

And for who? What purpose?

Passing through a strobbing tunnel, finally reaching the outskirts of the city, Icon tries to put those questions away, knowing it’s useless to ruminate over them any further.

Her goal remains the same, to find a source of power and make it back home.

Just as she emerges from the tunnel, a soft mass hits her head, knocking off her hat and falling to the floor. Icon darts her eyes to the thing that fell, curious and wondering. It leaves her breathless.

Whoops! I’m sorry miss! Did Riley hurt you? Bad wolfie!” A small squeaking voice calls from above.

Attention jolting upwards, Icon stares at a loss at the pale-little girl looking down at her, black curling hair framing her round-cheeked face. The little girl waves, letting out a laugh before disappearing behind the bannister for a moment. She reappears a few seconds later, jumping down the steps to Icon’s side.

Whe-where did you get that doll?” Icon asks, stuttering as she watches the little girl scoop up her plush toy. It’s a red furred animal like a dog, with a bushy tail and black marking over its’ limbs and face. It’s the eyes that Icon is struck by, emerald and seeming to scowl at her.

He’s not a doll. Riley’s a wolf,” The little girl corrects, letting out a playful growl and small howl, running around Icon. As she makes her third revolution, she darts off, back up the steps, above the strobbing tunnel.

Hold on,” Icon starts with a small gasp, unable to shake off her surprise so easily. With no hesitation she runs off after the little girl.

Wait! That doll! How did-? She-?!” She cries, up the steps and rushing past bystanders, nearly knocking them over. Through crumbling streets and dripping stone, she follows the bounding girl, her ruffled dress bouncing with her legs as if dancing. Into an ally, Icon follows the little one, meeting her reflection on either side by black windows. Her skin is glowing a soft yellow hue, brought on by anxiety. Finally, passing through more corridors of glass and stone, Icon meets a clearing of red bricks.

There is no tech here, no synthetic lights or electrical hums. In crimson rock sit the homes of the dead, as far as she can see.

I wanted Riley to meet mom and dad before Headmistress realizes I’m gone,” Says the little girl, a little sad but strangely joyful.

Icon turns towards the child, seeing her standing in front of a great mausoleum, carving across it’s surface of gods and goddesses. The little girl holds up the plush to the names inscribed and gives a small pained smile.

Now they’ll know I’m not alone when I get my screen tomorrow,” She says, crouching slowly before sitting on the ground all together, the doll cradled in her lap,

Riley will keep their promise for them.”

Icon fumbles for a moment before she sits down by the little girls side. For a moment she thinks back to her former life, to her mistakes and the lives she met. Temporary people. It’s bitter. And then she recalls that midnight haired creature, madness and remorse.

Disconnection is too easy.

What’s your name?” Icon asks the child, eyes falling to her hands, still scratched and dirty from her climb.

Mouse,” The little girl responds, “What’s yours?”

Icon remains silent, eyes drifting to the plush being toyed with in the girls’ hand. She wants to ask her question; she wants to ease her monsters ache.

What happened to your mom and dad?” She asks instead.

Dad got smushed when the sky shook and fell,” Mouse explains, matter-of-fact, then lowers her voice,

Mom got Glitched and Froze.”

Glitched?” Icon asks a little too loud for Mouse, who scrambles forward, pressing the doll to her face.

Shh, no one’s supposed to say it. It isn’t allowed,” The little girl scolds softly before sitting back down, eyes looking away again, mindlessly pulling at her dolls ears,

No one comes back after they Freeze like that. They get Scrapped.”

I’m sorry,” Icon mutters, licking her lips, about ask another question when Mouse darts her bright hazel eyes to the other.

Where are you from? You don’t have a screen, huh?” The little girl asks, seemingly unperturbed by the present conversation.

A-above,” Stumbles the other, a finger lifted to the air. Icon sees the innocent girls curiosity flicker across her youthful face. She knows the questions are coming yet a familiar buzz chirps overhead.

They heard us say it!” Mouse cries, grabbing onto Icon’s arm in worry.

Jumping to her feet, Icon swings Mouse onto her back, turning quickly to run back towards the city. She flees just as the eye-bots alarm reaches its’ peak and its’ tendril whips come free.

Icon hopes the shadows of the city can save her but suddenly there’s a chorus of ringing from all around. Through the sky, they come, buzzing and blinking rapidly. Icon has the people of the cities eyes on her, on the event starting to happen.

She runs, over the strobbing tunnel, past black mirrors and neon wires. Mouse clings to Icons’ neck, crying out each time a whip snaps by much too close. With no other choice, Icon begins to fight, throwing fire into the air. Eye-bots melt, falling to the floor or crashing into the walls of those shining buildings. The people begin to run, confused and scared, all their emotions easily displayed in the screens at the back of their heads.

They’re afraid of Icon.

The tendrils breeze by her cheeks once more and suddenly the weight on her back is lifted. Icon stops in her tracks, turning swiftly as Mouse is hoisted into the air, screaming and crying for help. The eye-bots try in vain to catch her but for every limb they grasp it turns to fire. Icon stands her ground. Teeth clenched, she looks up to Mouse being dragged higher and higher into the sky and she curses ever getting involved. The little girl is only so young yet she had a story. And know she knows it; now it’s Icons’ too.

Stop it!” She screams, great fountains of fire leaping into the sky at her rage, igniting the few eye-bots who were too close. They melt, sizzle and spark, crashing down wherever they fell.

I know you’re watching!” Icon yells, calling out to the eye-bots carrying Mouse away,

Queen Data! If you don’t let her go, I’ll turn your entire underground city into molten rock!”

Vowing, without holding back her strength, Icon opens her wings. Large, arching lines of fire erupt in the air at her back. They grow, nearly ten times the girls size, melting everything they touch. The people scream and flee, escaping the fire, leaving only Icon and the drones behind.

The eye-bots hover in place. She’s listening.

Your city is dying. Your people. And you’re afraid. I see it,” Icon continues, opening up her arms as she had done before. With no other thought, she shouts,

You want power? Well, here I am. Infinite!”

For a moment there is nothing but the buzzing of the drones. It rings in Icon’s head, shaking free her past memories of the sirens on the battleground, of the midnight haired creature. In her mind she reaches for passion and see she has been headed toward it unknowingly.

Icons’ flames dissipate as the tendrils wrap around her legs, arms and neck.

The ground is far below. She soars.

Icon

Little cuts across pale-skinned fingers were once the only danger she would face. Scrolls or paper were a pest to thumb through. Only once had she dropped a couple of tomes on her foot. She limped for a day. And then another, she had fallen on a tablet. The shattered glass embedded itself into the flesh of her knees and took awhile to pick out.

There was safety, however, behind those tales, behind that work. From a desk, she could endure those paper cuts and never imagine she would ever be in a world where real pain existed. The stories that she had to read were the only form of hurt that had mention. A concept to her, death and blood were only for those unlucky to be recorded. And everyone was. Across the universe, from planet to planet, a commonality was experienced that she wouldn’t know.

Hey, Nix! How long have you been doing the grind?” The voice startled her, coming from behind the screen. Clicking on the transparency of her monitor, she could see the friendly blue-gray face of her co-worker. Eyes a sharp turquoise, her co-worker naturally conflicted with the uniform all Archivists had to wear. An Archivists’ uniform was a shaded burgundy with white accents, a button-up shirt and a matching trouser-skirt combination. No one liked them, although everyone wore them.

Don’t call me that,” She had reminded her co-worker, still brushing off the brief stun the other had delivered. She was just reading through the lives and tales of a serial killer and his hundreds of victims, alone in the office as she was wont to do when the amiable workers voice had chortled in. Working alone was what she preferred. The others were uncomfortable with her presence, she knew, so she kept to herself. It didn’t bother her, to engrossed in her work to notice.

That’s not my name…” She would reiterate for probably the thousandth time that week.

Well, tell me what it is?” He’d ask jubilant; eager to know.

I don’t remember…” She’d reply, an earnest response, and thus it would start again the very next day. He probably thought it was a joke.

It wasn’t.

Thar,” She had started the conversation differently, putting her elbows on her desk and leaning forward,

Why do you keep talking to me?”

Why wouldn’t I?” Thar returned perplexed, eyes widening and eyebrows raised.

It was useless to respond to that, so she gave up quickly. Thar was new and probably ignorant to the social trend with working in headquarters. Ancients like her were best to be left alone.

A heavy sigh and a small smile to her co-worker, she shut the holographic screen off, got up and left.

Although she had a room, she hated it. She found it stifling, preferring the air fresh and cool rather than cold and circulated. Seeking comfortable solace, she ventured to the outdoors, located in the center of headquarters’ sprawling buildings, nearest to the cafeteria and dorms. Out in the sun, she had felt rejuvenated, soaking in heat and eating what little food she brought with her from her desk in the Archives Library. She never felt tired in the sun and only felt a little sluggish at night though she never needed to sleep. Food on the other-hand was a necessity to which she ate often, not caring what it was or were it had come from. A meal bar from planet Edan? Sure; Aelfens were especially keen on flavor. Jerky made from a Tralm? Who cares? They ate people anyways, regardless of laws or their relative sentience to honor code.

So she ate and sat in a grove of violet grass, surrounded by yellow twisted brush, populated with blue-green flowering buds. She wondered as she always did, about what plants and food once existed on her home world. But she couldn’t recall exactly which memory was the first, only remembering the bulk of her childhood had no plants, fresh air, or a sun.

The void of space is empty like that.

Eating while scrolling through the same document she had been reading in the library, trying to find where she had left off, she heard footsteps approach and then a person sitting down by her side.

It had suddenly dawned on her that perhaps the reason Thar spoke to her was that he was interested in her, romantically maybe. To that she quickly thought it was useless to be interested in her. She would out-live Thar on one-hand and the other…

Thar, do you have any idea just why the others avoid me?!” She snapped, jolting her head up, eyebrows furrowed in irritation. The annoyance disappeared instantly once she met the familiar hazel eyes of the man sitting next to her.

Az?!” She exclaimed in wondering relief, dropping her tablet to circle her arms around her friend. Az said nothing, letting the other end the embrace before he looks her over scrutinizing.

You’ve grown old,” He put simply, voice deep and smooth.

That I have,” She bantered back with little inflection, “I may reach withered age this time.”

A bookcase could fall on you, you never know,” He joked without a smile on his face, a normal look for Az. Although time had passed, he looked the same as he had in the past, platinum blonde hair still trimmed short to his scalp yet long on top, spiked up and poking out from under his old square cap. She knew his manner of speaking, continuing on the conversation, becoming a little excited by his surprise visit.

You were reassigned awhile ago, don’t tell me you’re back,” She spoke, a sly grin emerging as she tacked on, “Can’t imagine you back in these stupid uniforms.”

For a moment he said nothing, eyes drifting down to the tablet still lying in the grass. Az stared at the text there while she stared at him, wondering. Slowly it became obvious that something really was different with him. It should have been clear by the deep shadows beneath his eyes.

Phi,” He started, not looking to his friend, calling her by the name he had given her when they were both children.

Az remained silent again however and didn’t make an inclination to speak until he stood up, jutting his hands in his pockets and bringing out a small papered stick. He lit it from another object from his pocket, breathed in and let out a puff of smoke

I’m going to show you something, and once I do, I suggest you don’t stay here anymore,” Az finally explained digging in his pocket once more. He pulls out a silver emblazoned pocket-watch, the size of his palm and a little tarnished.

Phi stared at the device, a strange urgency filling her chest and growing stronger. With knowing what that is, with how he has it again, she knows safety no longer exists here. His appearance was an omen.

Where?” She asked getting to her feet too, a smile traveling across her lips as she adds on, “When?”

Az, known to Phi as someone of little words, keeps true to his nature, looking over to his friend and flipping open the pocket watch. With the coordinates set, all he merely does is click the top button and a terrible screeching rises carried by a vortex of wind. Light blinds Phi for a few of those screaming seconds and then it dissipates leaving an echo in her ears and a blurriness to her eyes. Az has her close, holding her still as the feeling leaves.

You know technology has improved, you don’t have to use those watches anymore,” Phi commented stepping back with a smirk and points at the yellow scale-like growths dotted around Az’s skin,

Those won’t go away but it won’t get any worse.”

Az looked down to Phi briefly without smirk or definitive emotion, the smoking paper-stick held between his lips. He gave a little noise of acknowledgment but nothing more and looked ahead. Phi’s eyes followed, looking out to a mountainous landscape of white, ice, dead plants and gray stone. The bitter wind pushed at Phi’s hair, falling over her vision but she could see they were on a secluded cliff-side and down below was a small village, their terra-colored roofs standing out beneath nothingness, partially hidden. Az motioned for her to follow, making a way down the cliff-side, a worn though covered path to the town below.

Working through the archives, you’ve seen Death plenty, haven’t you?” He started, not actually looking for an answer. Az continued talking, voice steady even as the decline was steep,

Whether age or travesty – illness, famine, accident and especially war…”

Some kill too for the thrill,” Phi remarked, nodding her head in time, recalling the previous document she had been reading. Az glanced at the other briefly, an awareness to her words.

It ends the same and you just read it, watch after it passes,” He concluded, sounding a bit of an insult to Phi’s ears. It isn’t her fault, she knew. The both of them were meant for different purposes.

The village, upon arrival, was empty more or less. Remnants of who used to live there were scattered around waiting to be put back into use, left where they had been. Every grated window was dark, save for one. Phi could taste the little smoke in the cold, a sign of life. They moved out from the village though, away from the small warmth in this tundra. In the distance, she could see movement, limited but definite. Az didn’t keep moving closer, so she didn’t as well. They watched from afar as the person, a little thing, sat by a frozen riverbed, knocking a rock into the ice repeatedly. The soft tak-tacks of chipped ice were the only sound in the wasteland as the wind was stagnant here below the mountains and cliff-sides.

It was a child, a harmless thing, bundled in furs and leather. Phi couldn’t see it’s face from where she stood. Not that it mattered anyways, her ruby eyes darting up as Az began to move again, this time without her. He walked over to the child, lifted it up and slammed it into the ice before the child could react and Phi could wonder what Az was up to.

The insides were pink and white, bubbling hot from the broken skull in the frigid air. The river was finally cracked open though. It was solid all the way through. Phi’s mouth flapped for a moment as her friend came back to her side, saying nothing, shocked.

This child’s family didn’t evacuate the area when the others did; by tomorrow, same time, an avalanche will have decimated what is left of their village,” Az explained, mechanically staring out to what he had done, the blood pooling.

Phi considered his words for a moment, eyes wide until they finally furrowed. She knew how Az worked, how emotionless he could speak although there was always a greater meaning beneath it.

Is that true?” She asked, turning completely to face him, arms crossing when he shook his head.

No, the kid was going to be stew for the parents. If not their child, it would be them. It’s survival,” Az said, looking down to his good friend while letting out a final puff of smoke before the remainder of the paper stick turned to ash.

That isn’t true either, isn’t it?” Phi countered with a smirk and a scoff.

There is a pack of hungry beasts nearby, scavenging for what little morsel they can come across, for a child left out in the wilderness by neglectful parents,” Az responded, eyes moving away to look out across the frozen river, to a treeline on the other side. A stillness settled in. He shoved his hands into his pockets for a moment while Phi cast a scrutinizing gaze across him then back to the dead child.

What do you need me to do?” She finally asks, wanting to understand Az’s reasons for bringing her into his world. He wouldn’t bring her in without reason, needing her help almost. There was already a plan in his mind, she knew this too. With the kind of work he has done, a strategic mind was sure to develop. Phi couldn’t help but trust him.

I’ll take you back to Archives, give you a day to think this through,” Az explained instead, holding to his secrets with the strength of the other name he was given, though no one calls him by that name anymore. There’s no one left alive who remembers who he had been, save for Phi.

The pocket-watch presented, set and clicked, the two were back in that clearing, in the center of HQ in seconds. Az said nothing else, looking over Phi one last time before setting a new coordinate in his watch and dissipating into another flash of white light and noise. Left alone to her thoughts, Phi could think of nothing else to do but lie back down in the grass, finish her meal and read her article.

And when dusk fell across headquarters, shadows stretching and coolness seeping in, Phi knew it was time for her to head back into the library. With everyone gone for the night, she could resume her peaceful isolation from the comfort of her own desk. Snacks in hand, she read in an empty mental silence until she came to a story that brought Az’s offer back into mind.

It was the story of an elder clan, of mothers who sacrificed their first born in hopes to continue their united community. They killed without pain, quick, and full of love. It was their custom.

Phi recalled that snow and ice, the lonely village and the child. In her mind, it was more vivid than the moment, living it again. There was Az, his swiftness and strength with which he ended that child’s life. Ice and bone crunching sound so similar in her memory. And though she didn’t acknowledge it before, she knew their was a scent to that sight. The air had a tincture of metal and burned her nose. Blood was so vibrant in that dreariness.

Whether today, that night or the day after, that child would’ve met their end. The method, reasons, or circumstances didn’t hold meaning, only that that life had to be concluded. Knowing this, Phi wondered of her own life, of Az even. Certainly death was waiting out there, somewhere and sometime. Death is a patient friend.

Eyes wandering out to the empty library, to buzzing computers and to old tomes on shelving, against walls or on carts, Phi let her curiosity reign.

In the digital database, she searched for Az’s name, any that she knew he had been called by. Nothing surfaced however, tarnishing Phi’s eagerness to dive into this world. But only a little. Next she tried her own name, or at the least the titles given to her from working in Headquarters, the Archives and the nicknames from her childhood. This time something was there, her portrait, her job and a little of her history. Yet there was nothing else, open ended; a useless search as far as she could tell.

Morning Nix! Working all night again?” Came Thar’s voice cheerful and startling. Phi shut down her monitor so quickly, static remained in the air from where it once stood.

Thar! Seriously?!” Phi shrieked, heart racing at his sudden appearance. It took her a moment to recompose, panting a little as Thar looked her over apologetically.

I’m sorry, I know that’s not your name but I don’t know what to call you… What would you like to be called?” He asked so innocently. Phi was a little disgusted by his obliviousness that he had actually scared her this time, too engrossed in her search. Switching back on her monitor, she gave a sigh, leaning back in her seat to tug at her uniforms shirt.

Nix is fine,” Phi gave in, giving a meek and defeated wave. Thar seemingly brightened, happy to have her permission at last. He went off to start his day, moving towards the bookshelves, collecting all the documents he would need for his task of the day. Staring as the other moved about the library, Phi slowly returned her mind back to Az’s offer, curiosity strong once more. Hesitant, somewhat, she wrote out Thar’s name in the database, looking for any data on him.

Unlike Az, unlike her, Thar had everything documented, his childhood, his loves, the kind of work he pursued here in HQ. Thar, different than Phi, went over the progression of technology over time across the universe, over planets and home-worlds. Phi dealt with culture and society, the mental fortitude as one or part of a whole. Thar was different than Phi. She could see it all now and furthermore, she could see how he would die.

In a week, he’d be working here, alone; flipping through those tomes, enduring those paper-cuts as she did too. And that bookcase he frequented, that familiar home to his work, would fall on him. It’d crush him, suffocate and then that would be it for Thar.

Az knew this would happen. Phi recalled his joke and this time she smiled too. That foreboding sensation returned however, ending that little joy. Looking across her monitor, at the data around her from all time to now and even the future, Phi suddenly wondered how pointless this task was. All she was doing was keeping the dead alive, compiling and saving it all for future workers like herself to see and study. Her work, if at any point, was only a reminder. It was like one of her own memories, convoluted.

Phi shut down her computer and gathered her tablet and tomes. With heavy thoughts she filed them away to a place perhaps others could use. They would find them useful, probably.

Thar, can you put this tome away for me?” She called to the man, holding out the book, the last thing to be put back to where it belongs. The jubilant creature, her co-worker, Thar smiled amiably and went to do as she asked. It was a tall shelf, one where Phi normally had to get a stool to reach, but it was one Thar could manage well-enough, only having to be on his tip-toes. And as he reached up, Phi walked over to him, so calm and casual just as Az had been.

It was a great calamitous noise as the bookcase fell on him. Those hardcovers, leather or plastic, knocked into everything. A computer was thrown to the floor. A lamp lay broken and flickering.

Phi knelt down by a groaning Thar, eyes dancing over the blood across his face. There were scratches and cuts, but not enough to kill him. She saw him wheeze back into consciousness, head rolling to look at her, eyes glimmering pain. It looked as if he was going to call for help, not having seen that it was her who did this to him. Instead his turquoise eyes glanced up to someone just behind Phi.

When she turned around, she knew it’d be Az, standing and waiting for her. He said nothing, as always, merely watched as Thar gasped. Az motioned Phi’s eyes forward however, back to the man beneath the bookcase. This time she watched pain happen. Finally she witnessed Death.

Power

Under sparkling black tiles, over pristine glass floors, in a looming crystal building – she presided over this underground city. Yet no one would’ve known, in the center of shining panes and twinkling lights, the Queen’s home was floating. She could be anywhere. She was everywhere, more than fathomed.

It was to be this way, against her will and the will of her people.

With long, thin fingers, she toyed with the silver pocket-watch, tracing the hourglass etched into it’s side. In a trailing gown, a shadowless pitch black, the Queen looked over her supposed dominion briefly before continuing their talk,

The world above is a wasteland but here, we’ve learned to thrive. Beneath our past, we’ve made it to our future. Still, we did this to ourselves. It’s our history and one we don’t shun from, but embrace to survive against it.”

A small pause, Icon waiting and wondering over the Queens’ wistful words.

So… A gem powerful enough to leap through time?” The Queen adds in with a little mocking laugh, disbelieving yet still awestruck all the same,

Where would you find it?”

That’s what I was here for. I sensed it,” Icon explains, looking out to the Queen from across the empty space of the room they stood in. It is a hexagonal case of glass and shimmering stone, but the panels could move if need be, to let them out or in, as the case depended on it. It’s how Icon was brought into this barren, sterile room. She wanted an audience with the Queen, to meet face to face.

At least I thought I did. There’s so much interference. And that false crystal you made…”

Whipping back around, the Queens’ silk-like hair hardly moved, framing her narrow and eager face.

But you sense it? Is that true?” She spoke in sharp haste.

I do but it’s difficult to pinpoint…” As Icon trails her words the Queen lifts her dark eyes to the ceiling. Soundlessly, from a panel above them an orb appears, descending just a bit before a hologram flickers out from below it. In digitized light, the whole of Motherboard is mapped out, each tower and alley remade in blue light. From out of the city, to the graveyard and further, the map stretches in all directions. Icon recognizes the cavern she came down from and the false stone there.

I came from there because of that crystals power. It was the strongest,” She explains, moving a little forward to point at the location she mentioned.

And now?” the Queen reiterated her excitement, earning a tense stare from the other.

Where’s Mouse?’ She asks instead, narrowing her eyes, knowing just what the Queen will ask of her next. And the smart Queen doesn’t have to explain, nodding her head and waving the hologram off.

She is fine, I assure you. On schedule to have her screen installed-”

What?” Icon cuts her off demanding with a gruff tone, the red of her eyes shimmering with patient fury.

Oh, don’t be surprised. Even without your arrival here, that power you have – that young girl will have what was to be… Like everyone else,” Queen Data responds with an equal fire in her stare.

But the illness… Glitch?” The red-haired girl wonders out-loud, aware now of the Queen’s actual take on the events transpiring in her Queendom.

With that gem, with your help, we could cure everyone,” She implores, moving closer to Icon with pensive patience,

It would save us all.”

Icon regards the Queen momentarily, feeling the weight on her much greater than before. A lonesome child and a whole country – it all rests on her shoulders now.

And here she recalls her own history, that other life. The memory of Az’s sudden arrival replays for another agonizing time in her mind, recalling the point made there. It was so simple before yet all at once, it wasn’t. Not really.

Az just put it simply, whereas that midnight-haired creature destroyed every point he made. Unknowingly even. Beautiful and effortless.

Icon wouldn’t follow Az’s direction again, as much as he was familiar to her. What worked for him no longer felt right to her.

So here she is at her choice, to help or burden?

What’s your story?” The red-haired girl asks, lifting wary eyes from the floor to the Queen.

The Queen gives a momentary grace of perfect stoicism before catching the others meaning. And here Icon finds vulnerability, the seemingly placid women breaking just beneath the surface.

I told you why I am here, what I’ve been through, but you?” She prods the Queen, cutting to the question plaguing her mind since she witnessed those memories on display from Switches’ mind,

Why those screens? What are you afraid of knowing?”

Data falters, a little quake but nothing more, remaining poised although her eyes seem to shine brighter with thought and heart behind them.

My sister and I ruled Motherboard once we fled underground, once our families withered away above,” She starts, a delicate hand bringing that silver pocket-watch forward to gaze into as she talks. For a brief moment, Icon doubts any of the words they had shared during this meeting, wondering if the Great Queen wished to use that pocket-watch for herself. To change time. If possible.

Yet then the Queen shuts her eyes, a deep breath exhaled through painted red lips and she holds out the watch for Icon to take.

As the eldest, I ruled first and foremost, with my husband… My king,” Data speaks, staring ahead, expression near to vacant as the red-head retrieves her device.

The screens where always ours. They once protected us. I made them to save us. Yet my sister didn’t like it. That I had everything. Motherboard. My technology. My lover…”

What did she do?” Icon inquires, voice catching slightly as with that same great poise the Queen gave her her tender life.

She was the one who started the illness, started the ever-watchful eyes, dooming us all to perish in body and spirit,” She resumed, turning slightly, a hand drifting to the back of her head. Lifting her hair, underneath the Queen held great gray scars, in the exact shape as the screens all the others of the land wore.

She wanted to tarnish my name, kill me…” Queen Data dropped her hair, turning fully again to Icon,

I removed my screen to keep myself from illness but she still managed to kill my husband… And I killed her in return…”

But the screens… You still use them?” Icon asks, stunned and confused until the Queen nods her head solemnly.

By her own design, she set them to be installed, no matter what I do or say…”

So, all you can do is watch as the city moves on it’s own? Destroy itself while the people hate you?” The red-head concludes for the Queen in her quick and fiery temper.

It’s my sisters land, yet my burden to bare,” The Queen puts softly, eyes moving downcast, lost in her own torture.

The little anger in Icon smothers out, turning to pity and renewed thought. Here there is another cause. And here she wonders what good she could do in a world falling apart while hers is already broken. Yet as her mind returns to that image of the midnight-haired girl, a girl made of fight and flames, her mind is already made up.

The city interferes with my senses. Is there any method to shut it down?” She inquires, plan forming and gaining momentum as the Queen snaps into action.

It shall be a temporary blackout, at least until the bots reboot and rush to fix the issue,” The Queen explains, motioning for the eye-bot in the ceiling to descend once more. This time as the holographic light flickers on, it shows the inner works of the city. Its’ power pulses in every building, connected. Little blips move around too, seemingly animated, different than the eye-bots. Icon realizes that power is within the people of Motherboard as well.

The bots will come after me once I shut the power,” Data remarks, pointing towards a section of the Queendom, the brightest spot on the map. It’s the source of power. She turns her head towards Icon, urgency in her eyes,

They’ll see me as a threat.”

I just need a moment. Once all the interference is gone, I’ll find it,” The red-head girl assures, not wearing the same anxiety as the Queen. Determination holds her together. If this is who she can be, like that warrior from her past, then she will be it.

She will change the course of time..

The cure however? How will you create it if the bots hold you captive?” Icon asks, worried now about the Queens’ will to see this through. Yet Data shakes her head, not apprehensive to this aspect.

I may not have much command in my own land, but I have found my methods of avoiding the procedure. After this, they will take me to get my screen,” She informs with a strange smile, moving backwards to a short pillar slowly rising from the ground,

It’s about time I join my people…”

The Queen picks up a small black device from the pedestal, semi-round, palm-sized. She moves toward Icon as the hologram shuts off. Handing the device to the red-head, she smiles earnestly.

Attach this to the crystal. It shall work instantly,” Data explains further, still so self-assured. Yet as their hands touch, Icon can feel the woman shake.

Your home won’t be free of the bots or the screens will they?” She wonders aloud, eyes moving down to both devices in her hands, a pocket-watch and the item that will save the city.

No,” The Queen agrees bluntly, moving away again. The pedestal sinks back into the floor and the eye-bot recedes back into the ceiling,

But we’ll live.”

With nothing else to add, the Queen puts their plan into motion, stairs forming in a corner of the room, down and out. As she disappears, the floor reforming, the room once again like a seamless box, Icon is left alone to her thoughts.

In her mind she fights with the desire to be defiant. Her being her isn’t what was supposed to be, yet here she is. She could change it. She could be like her.

With a small lurch, the hexagonal box Icon is in begins to move. It floats through the city, unseen still. Around buildings, over homes, the blinking lights of the city listlessly pass by unawares. Staring out from the glass Icon’s vision begins to blur, mind returning to apprehensive thoughts. Not about the task she must do, the people she could save, but what she is trying to do. It is why she came down into this strange technological world.

‘Forgive me. Mercy,’ She mutters those simple words in her mind, hoping to never forget them, as if she could. It’s all she wants, to say them to that girl who killed her once before. And from there, her future could be anywhere.

Icon goes to put both the watch and the device into her satchel with a little sigh. Shifting her pack forward, she feels a soft bump against her side. Opening her satchel she sets the device and her watch inside and pulls out Mouses’ stuffed toy. When Mouse and her were taken away, pulled apart, the doll came with her instead of that frightened little girl. Little Riley, the wolf pup, was supposed to be taking care of Mouse, yet here he is, Icon’s token of pain. Riley glowers over Icon, green beady eyes beneath a furrowing brow of russet fur.

You will always be more beast than boy,” She comments with a small grin, tossing the doll back into her bag. Turning back to the windows, the city is well gone by now. Icon hovers in her hexagonal room above a vast red canyon, much like the kind she had first arrived into. Slowly it descends, finding a clear space to land and let her out. Setting out over a blue dust-speckled floor, Icon moves to have a clear view of the city, distant on the horizon. It sits in a blue haze of light, illuminating everything, even out to here, in the middle of nowhere. Icon stares, patient breathes, steady. She focuses on the world around her, the feeling of the coolness from the ground and the heat in the air, mixing over her skin. The buzz of electricity and far off life distracts her unfortunately, like a thousand talking voices, overlapping incomprehensible. It’s strong, thrumming and incessant.

And suddenly, there is blackness.

Like a blink, the lights are out, and like the empty silence beneath the ocean, the droning currents of electricity are gone. A faint blue light emanates from the ground itself, those precious yet useless shards in the dirt becoming prominent in this darkness. Here they truly shine.

Icon’s heart leaps into kicks at last, worry building in her chest. Swallowing hard, she takes a deep breath and shuts her eyes. Through the thumping of her blood, the muscles clinging to her bones, she distances herself from her body. Further she extends, where time and matter is nonexistent. This is where power hides, in it’s own form and language.

Patient, she listens.

Finally she hears it’s words.

Reborn

The blast of brilliant emerald light was greater than the sudden illumination of when the city had resumed it’s power. It shone like a sun yet sounded like a distant storm, incoming and powerful. It was menacing, dark despite its’ shine, and shook through layers of stone. Icon had been midway through her trek back to the city when it had erupted, whatever it was. Her mission had been successful, the precious stone held in her pack next to all those items she owned, each important in their own way. And once she had discovered the artifact, she had tried to use it as Queen Data instructed.

Yet it didn’t work.

Icon wondered if something was amiss, seeking to return to the shinning city to understand the phenomenon. There was only a little tremor of anxiousness beneath her skin then but now, with the sudden eruption, she knew something hadn’t gone as planned.

It’s not as if she hadn’t anticipated it, knowing that those obscure moments where things have been going far too well are indicators to events hiding just behind the veil of comfort. Icon only felt this worry however, since that little girl. It marked as some great significance within her. She had started to feel this was the turning point in her new life. Reborn, she could make what she had done disappear.

Though that is only a dream thought, it holds a deeper meaning.

That she could change.

It would start with Mouse and, in turn, the whole city. Each move from then on would be akin to this one, further and further. A life lived selfless would be strong and simple, becoming second nature. And who she had been could remain a memory. A nightmare even, but something she could face.

Another surge of power ripples over her skin, formless before the second blast is actually seen. A few seconds more and Icon can hear the crack of heat. And then there is another few moments before the air tingles with hints of the aftershock, coming in on a gust of air that blows over her, a tempest of an omen.

Things are more unwell than she could imagine.

The city lights flicker, seeming to want to give out but the power remains steadfast during the remainder of Icon’s trek back into the city. Smoke wafts down from an unsure source, smelling of plastic. In those grimy streets she had seen before, Icon soon spots the origins of the fires, of mayhem that had sprung loose.

In melting pyres, amongst metal, stone and dark glass rubble, those eye-bots were hurled in piles. The citizens of the city roar at the flaming bots, each wearing a crimson garment across their screens. They rage and curse and cheer, oblivious as Icon moves around them and further into the city.

She is roughly knocked forward as giggling children race past her. Each child carries stones to bombard the fallen eye-bots that had yet to be tossed into the fires. They jeer and laugh. To Icon, she knows they are merely mimicking the adults, not entirely aware of the great reason for celebration or what this revolt means.

Eyes darting upwards to a nearby building, she sees the shape of the destruction across it’s surface. Those opaque slabs of crystal were melted strange. Icon knows that had been from her with how they arch. They are markings of her wings.

Unwillingly she had changed the city. Icon had thought it was safe to pass through yet here she had destroyed it in a plea. She cannot deny her affect in this land – the catalyst to the fuel.

Icon searches for a clue to the Queen’s hidden fortress, sensing devastation is just ahead. Apprehension grows as she climbs over sheets of fallen stone. Disoriented city dwellers trudge past her, covered in soot. At last her heart sinks. There is guilt too as she stares to bodies lying motionless and loved ones wailing at their sides. No one bothers to speak to Icon as she delves deeper into the war-zones core. Acknowledgment is far too precious at this moment. Not that she minds. It is understandable, for in the least, she could gather that this was the primary clue to where this all had begun. It is reasonable to deduce the Queen will be at this source as well. And, too, whatever other horror stands at her side.

A powerful pressure across Icon’s skin jolts her eyes skyward, the sensation in her head menacing as it builds up fully. The buildings in the radius lose power, the scene turning dark and finally Icon can see. Above her, in a glimmering, nearly hidden building, is the Queen’s fortress. It is only seen now because of the darkness, becoming an unsettling mirage in the air. Around the floating fortress are more of those eye-bots, swarming haphazardly, avoiding something coming after them. As they seemed to evade however, their lights dimmed, first one by one and then all together. They drop and Icon spots a beaming green arch of light above the fortress.

It is strong, this light source, and building too vast. Abiding the distress, Icon rushes forward, moving to safety behind a slab of black crystal. She doesn’t have a chance to shut her eyes to avoid the light. The blast is powerful enough to blot out her vision. Her ears are ringing as her sight slowly returns. It would take a little longer to hear correctly again but it doesn’t matter. Icon can feel the rumble through her feet, in the hardened glass crystal she shields herself with. Moving tentative out from behind her cover she watches the flying fortress come down, bouncing almost from the nearby buildings. It tears through stone and glass alike before landing; a large crack across it’s mirror surface. The cloaking effect is gone. The building is now perfectly seen by its’ imperfect shattered walls.

The dust settles in swirling puffs, covering the bystanders looking in awe at the once hidden lair of their Queen. Icon takes cautious steps forward, seeing movement just behind the broken mirrored glass. Those delicate pale fingers emerge first, limbs pulling the fallen Queen from the wreckage. A line of black is smeared, trickling from her forehead as she moves to solid ground, disoriented.

The people begin to murmur slowly, staring at the person they attributed to all this death and destruction.

A tyrant of pain!”

A devil of torture!”

Unfeeling monster!” They start to bellow, encouraging each other further. Shouting angry, their emotions sting in the air, becoming thick and poisonous. The Queen’s widened eyes dart to the world around her, her expression crumbling. That hardness, the cool countenance is only a facade and she breaks. Data darts her eyes to Icon at last, a begging stare.

She’s knocked to the ground. A rather large chunk of dark glass was hurled at the defeated Queen’s head.

Instantly Icon moves into action, rushing to Data’s aid, fire at her heels. She crouches at the Queen’s side, seeing the black blood drip from the wound on her bruised cheek. The viscous fluid stains dark across Data’s pale skin. Icon jolts fury upwards, to the bystanders still ready to attack. They don’t fight her however, having seen the destruction she could create. There are no true secrets in this land and Icon’s fire is infamous. Still they yell their betrayal, more courageous than Icon would have suspected.

She destroyed it,” Suddenly comes the soft trembling voice of the Queen beneath the rambunctious crowd.

A swift hand dig through her bag and Icon procures the device and stone for the Queen to see,

They didn’t work. Why?”

Queen Data lets out a sob, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. It didn’t seem as if her words had been heard.

Hey, listen to me,” Icon growls, pulling the shaking Queen to face her, “She destroyed what?”

The machine,” Data simply remarks. After a painful swallow she continues, “Though we don’t share thoughts, beneath it all, we had a center. An origin point given to us from our ancestors. And a place where we all go when we become Obsolete… It connected us. All of us to each other. The city. It would save us but she destroyed it… It’s useless.”

Black tears fall from her eyes and the broken ruler pushes Icon away. She rises back to her feet and out-stretches her arms, wanting the people to attack her. Icon sends out a line of fire between them before any of the city’s people can take up her offer. Finally they are warded backwards and remain silent onlookers, scared to fight against the sinister stranger. The fiery girl yanks the Queen back to her, eyes sharp and demanding,

Who did this?”

Data doesn’t say a word, dropping her gaze to the floor and remaining there, ashamed and utterly lost. Icon fumes, stuffing the device and gem into her satchel quickly to greet the crowd fully.

Which one of you started this? Who did you put in charge of this blind hatred?!”

The stranger roars, the wall of flames building in her rage. Icon’s emotion set a true silence through the people, a small wave of concern emerging on everyone’s’ faces.

Do any of you know what just happened? You could have been saved! All of you-!”

Lies!” Comes a cry from above, cutting the red-headed girls rant. Her eyes rise to the sky, to a slow descending familiar form, a glowing green staff in hand. She falls to the surface, a trail of green from her platformed boots in a wake. Though her eyes are masked by shinning emerald goggles, Icon knows who she is by the outcry from before.

What lies did she tell you? That her intentions were noble? That she cared for us?” Switch screams angry, ripping upwards her goggles at last. Her eyes glimmer hurt as she scorns,

I asked you for help and instead you helped her?!”

I was helping you. Helping all of you-”

Circuit is dead because of you, and because of that stupid sickness made by her, I can’t even see her again when I’m Obsolete…” The shimmering green girl seethes, lips twisting into a strange grin. Switch presses her staff to her chest, clearing her pain before starting anew,

You chose not to help Circuit. Help me. And for that, I know you’re just as bad as her…”

With a deep breath, Switch readies herself, eyes shutting momentarily before she lifts her staff. There’s a sensation building in the air as she points the jagged crystal end toward Icon.

She has a screen now!” The red-head shouts, a thought dawning in her mind. Truth could at last be revealed yet Switch wants nothing to do with it, settled in her decision. A sudden jolt of her limb causes Icon to prepare for the worst yet instead it’s directed at the Queen. The energy mounts in a spanse of an eye-twitch, not as great as the blasts before yet still enough to set Icon’s hair on end. The force in the air was enough to set the red-head into movement. Icon leaps, legs of fire, a wave of orange and she tackles Data to the ground. A shot of green light takes the space the two had once been, fading in then out just as quickly.

She can help you, she had a way, there can be another!” Icon tries, covering the Queen with arms of dancing orange.

Stop it! It’s over! It doesn’t matter!” Switch yells, voice straining as her expression dissolves into hysteria. The girl lunges forward, the energy building once more, the staff glowing brighter. It trails a violent light, seeming tangible, a blade of pure power. Switch swings the weapon and icon evades once more, dragging the feeble Queen back to her feet and back to safety.

It’s your fault!” Switch wails bitter, slicing through the air, going mad with each dodge and condemning look,

You just had to chose a her side, didn’t you?!”

A scythe-like blade about the tearful girls head comes down in between Icon and Data, scorching the stone before dissolving. All pain and hatred spills from the green girls eyes and mouth, now transfixed to the red-head. She seeks vengeance.

Icon removes her pack, dropping it as her body disintegrates momentarily into glowing orbs of flame. Switches blade moves through the fire, useless. Another evade, revenge dripping from every attack grows more wild, reckless. It’s too easy for Icon to drift in and out of matter, watching in growing pity as the poor girl sobs and shrills.

At last she stops, staff dug into the dirt and stone for balance. Switch pants, exhausted in both mind and body. Still she glowers accusingly toward Icon.

Suddenly her eyes widen, a soft squishy crack echoing to everyone’s ears. There’s a gasp from various mouths from the on-lookers but none from Switch as through her pale and fragile neck an eye-bots tentacle whip pierces it’s way through. Her staff clatters to the floor, body lifted into the sky as more eye-bots surround the small gathered populace. The citizens cry out and finally the battle is no longer Icon’s.

Hovering drones, the protectors yet also the menace of the people, lash out in cold indifference to the rebelling bystanders. Some bots fall, as well as some of the people; a clamoring war-zone of screams, sparks and spilled blood. Effortlessly retreating, Icon finds safety behind another slab of black crystal. She clutches her satchel to her chest, feeling the precious crystal and the device still within. In her mind she still feels there is hope and holds it strong.

From the distance, Icon searches through the fray of dust, light and smoke, seeking the Queen. When she spots her, Data doesn’t look as eager for death as she had been before.

She flees.

Icon follows.

Escaping the demise of the city, from noise and despair, she manages to keep pace with the frightened Queen. Over debris, through smoke, and under flickering lights, Icon remains at a distance, wondering what Data will do.

Switch had said she was a liar but Icon could see in that woman’s’ facade of strength that her lies could only ever be thinly veiled. It’s why she remained hidden, in expression and presence. The Queen couldn’t lie; her fear kept her honesty.

Into a building, the Queen had fled and looking up to the only slightly damaged surface, Icon noted it was one of the three towers she had seen from afar from when she had first arrived. One of the buildings lights had been knocked out, a black obelisk amongst the others. Data retreats into one of the buildings still lit. Icon follows suit.

Much like how the Queens’ fortress had been seamless slabs of opaque black glittering stones, so too is this room. It is a lobby, of sorts, however it holds a center podium, adorned with large flashing crystals. The Queen is nowhere to be found so Icon approaches the podium, red eyes dancing across the stones. With a sharp breath, held, she chooses a small muted gem and feels it sink into the stand. Ahead of her, the wall opens, a blazing white light casting out. It reminded Icon of the prisons in O.U.R.S. but here it beckoned instead of repulsed.

The Queen had been here, she could sense heat and emotion.

The doors shut as Icon enters the room, it’s size hidden by all the light. In a matter of moments, she can feel the floor quake. It’s just enough to worry her, wondering if the war outside has anything to do with it. It is over quickly and the wall to her right descends, emptying that vibrant white into the corridor.

Icon moves out into the waiting hallway, seeing lights blinking beneath glass panels, on the ceiling, walls and floor. In between those lights flickering, more light moves, blue and seeming like running water. They move power, Icon notes, spidering through circuitry and pooling into nodes before dropping away, sending power elsewhere. She follows a line, one that runs just below her feet. Away from the light of the elevator now, Icon hears movement, of clacking heels and something being dragged. She runs, turning corners until at last, she find the fallen Queen Data, face a black tear streamed mess. She kneels before a great monolith of yellow crystal, a frame of metal, coils, and wire running around it and into it’s glowing surface. One of those great wires is plugged into Data’s screen, at the base of her neck. The Queen sobs, fingers clenching at the cord. It’s wrapped around her neck tight.

Once she becomes fully aware of Icon’s approach, she crawls forward, pleadingly. She doesn’t have to explain to Icon what she aims to do, how important it is that she be connected to that glowing monolith for this. It’s the only way she can be with her husband again, her sister now – before Glitch could consume her and she would be Banned from the Afterlife of her and her ancestors.

I’ll do it,” Icon concedes, slowly crouching by the pitiful Queens’ side. A shuddering gasp from her red lips is all Data can muster before tossing her arms around the red-head’s shoulders. She shakes and cries those condemning black tears until Icon makes her offer,

First, tell me how to save Mouse.”

It isn’t the Queen’s sudden stiffness that gives Icon all the details to this error in demands, it’s the flicker of her screen from Icon’s peripheral view. The Queen does nothing to hide it, letting the red-head pull back her hair to gain a better view. From a single, brief, glance of a bed, a small body, and black crystals covering her skin – Icon loses all hope for redemption, of a new life.

She Glitched the moment the screen had been installed…” The Queen sputters out, lips sounding as if they were twisted, trying to hold in the truth.

Icon was wrong. Data could lie.

Shifting back, the red-head doesn’t let the poor Queen mutter her apologies, shaking her head slowly. Instead she brings her to face her, eyes locked, wary of what to do next. She removes her satchel and sets it to the side, letting out a hard breath of air.

Icon dissipates, becoming ethereal ribbons of red, orange, and heat. Boring into the Queen’s wide and frightened eyes, she sears flesh and boils blood in a matter of seconds, returning to form once she’s done. With the Queen an empty, eyeless husk at her feet, Icon pulls her satchel back around her shoulders. Standing fully, she pulls her watch and the crystal from her pack, an air of exhaustion in her motions. Quickly chipping at the edges of the crystal, Icon soon sets the gem into place.

With this power, the watch hums bittersweet to Icon’s ears. She watches the ancient runes light up one by one, the coordinates she needs to go illuminated at last. A finger hovering over the pocket-watches switch, she hesitates for a moment.

It’s only a moment, a memory, but an endless sort of feeling. It wavers agonizing for this second, compiling with all her other thoughts, deeds, and epiphanies. To Az, her death and now this – a notion takes from…

A midnight tinted one.

Icon presses the button and she’s gone.

Midnight

It was all to prove a point.

Az refused to explain more than that.

It was reason enough

The inevitably was perfect.

Phi relished the anticipation, the coming role she would play and sought to claim it before anyone else could. In a room above an old bar, an attic of sorts, Phi waited for the great deadline with a pounding pulse. Any and all information proved tantalizing. Every piece Az could divulge grew Phi’s dizzying curiosity. It was only because of their friendship that she would curb that gnawing appetite. However it didn’t draw her from making connections, engaging with the creatures down below. Watching, listening, Phi gathered the experience with maddening fervor. They laughed and spoke about things she couldn’t really understand yet it was thrilling. She learned what drove them, who they were – warriors in a foreign land.

It was all new to Phi but also reminiscent to the histories she had studied. What one world endured, another fought through similar things. It was a fact of life, the repetition that occurred was both unsurprising and fascinating.

What are they fighting for?” She had asked Az once to which he merely scoffed, silent as was his nature.

Phi didn’t ask again.

It didn’t matter.

None of them did. None but the girl with the midnight hair.

Az couldn’t talk to her – wasn’t allowed really – yet he had the first day she arrived here, a stranger among warriors.

He had said she wouldn’t listen to him, still he tried.

He gave her a warning.

She didn’t listen.

So now it was up to Phi, solely, relentlessly to facilitate the events that would create the meaning that only she would understand. Over and over she tried but to no avail. Vague threats went ignored. In a dream the girl seemed smart yet refused to wake up. Phi didn’t know her reasons and had little courage to ask Az what else he undoubtedly knew. And it was obvious he knew so much about her…

Az had a notebook, a record of his knowledge over this girl. Phi had seen him write in it. It was bound in a dense material, grooved with a texture, an icon of whom the notebook truly belonged to.

Nearing the deadline Phi was listless, pacing at times and grumpy. Her last effort was ignored once more and the sight of Az writing in is notebook infuriated her.

Why do we keep doing this?” She exclaimed at last, stomping with her high laced boots,

You said it yourself, she wouldn’t listen so why?”

With a kick, knocking over a pile of gadget parts she had stolen and dismantled from the people below. Phi let out another burst of steam, breaking them over the wooden floor. It wasn’t enough though. Az’s silence was inanimate; if it wasn’t for his slow blinking she would’ve though he was just another object in the room. Moving quickly, Phi knelt by him, seated in an old armchair, propped against the dirty windowsill with a foot up on a scuffed end table. The book was on his leg, open while his eyes poured over whatever contents were inside. Phi gave it a glance but nothing seemed familiar to her, black splotches across a page. She looked to Az’s sunken eyes and felt her anxiousness rise.

C’mon, it’s almost time, isn’t it? Lets’ just get it all started,” Phi coaxed, begging almost.

Az remained mute, flipping another page in his notebook, eyes in mid-blink. An absense of an answer is just an answer as well. Regardless Phi let her impatience filter out a thought she had a while ago, when Az first introduced Phi to the midnight-haired girl.

You’re infatuated with her, aren’t you?”

It was jarring in the way Az’s head turned, smoothly rotating without a change of expression. Yet it shifted strange, to something stronger than his standard glower. The intensity was rough. Az watched Phi for another quiet moment then snapped into movement. He pocketed the notebook into a compartment in the inside of his coat. Phi had to run to stop him before he reached the door to the stairwell. She shook her head, running a hand through her mess of hair.

It’s your job, I know, I’ve just heard the stats on persons in your field. It happens,” The girl admitted fault but even then Az wouldn’t say a thing. He waited however, giving Phi an out for her brazenness.

We have the charges, the spots for optimal detonation and above all we gave her time,” She took a deep breath, placing her hands on his chest. Her mouth flapped, looking away for a moment to recompose her apprehension. When she finally looked back up to him, sliding her hands down the sides of his coat, she pressed an excited smile,

All we have left to do, is start.”

Az’s pale face remained emotionless for the most part. His hazel eyes danced across Phi’s before he licked his lips, speaking pointedly,

Their enemy is on the move, but they’re not here yet.”

Phi’s ecstatic grin collapsed turning rigid. Nodding her head, she knew he was right. Az’s expertise reigned through.

That Nathan Gray, the blonde one with the facial scar,” The other began differently, sparking attention again in Phi,

There’s something peculiar about him. I’m going to watch him.”

Az shifted his coat back, pulling a metal device from his pants pocket. It looked like a pocket-watch but Phi knew what it was.

Him? Well, other than he’s close to the target there’s nothing special about him,” She explained, a little perplexed as she moved away turning back to a separate pile of tech she had acquired. This stack was full of battery empty shells, devices carved out of their circuitry and moving pieces.

I could go back over his file again for you if you’d like – his origin of birth, death, mode of operations -” Phi continued on but stopped short when she looked back to Az and found he was already gone. The door swung closed, the only indication that he had been there.

Still, even that was silent. So like him.

Wavering in place for a moment, eyes steadfast on the door, Phi pulled the notebook from her untucked button-up shirt. Realizing the coast was truly clear she flipped to the first page and began scouring the text.

It made absolutely no sense to her however, written in some strange code and constantly changing. There was one paragraph of sorts that she could loosely decipher, a name that wasn’t encrypted: Julian.

Skipping ahead to the most recent pages, Phi searched for an answer she wasn’t sure she would get. The midnight haired girl had a reason for being here but her impact was low. What would warrant the destruction soon to be delivered?

With a sudden closing of the notebook, a gamble began to take hold in Phi’s mind. There was one last thing she could try and this time there was proof in her hands. Blind determination, anxiousness and glee coursed through her as she took off out of the bar and into the courtyard down below. Sticking to the outskirts made it easy to travel; that and her knowledge of the guarding posts and the general habits of the others. Phi knew the spot the midnight haired girl would go to soon, alone even, since all her new friends were gone for the day. It was an opportunity to take.

The old resort building stood crumbling and dirty but otherwise useful. That’s why the creatures here use it. Phi had been through the structure many times, knew the vacant rooms, the dilapidated ones and those made into storage. It was just another part of her preparation. She moved into the barren lobby and up to the stairwell, passing the barred elevator. Phi made it to the roof without an encounter, a fortunate case for her initiative.

In the windowless exit way, Phi felt pensive, her hand on the door. And when she opened it, back out into the humidity and sun, the midnight-haired girl was already there. She whipped around quickly from the fire escapes ledge, eyes widening immediately at seeing the other there.

Really? You had to find me one last time, didn’t you?” The girl started, fuming seamlessly. She shrugged, a small inclination in her movement of lethargy and turned away to leave, adding bitterly,

Congratulations. I’m done. I’m going home now, you happy?”

To that Phi rushes forward some, stopping just at the side of a metal barrel stained with soot.

No! He promised! He said it was inevitable!”

There’s panic breaking through her, sinking her stomach at the prospect of her plan never coming to fruition. Az asked for her help and Phi knew a request from her long-time friend was beyond important.

You’re not done yet, not when I’ve orchestrated everything so perfectly!”

Phi was shouting, shaking some and feeling sick. There was rage building in her once more. She hated the midnight-haired girl for never doing what she was supposed to…

However at Phi’s outburst, the girl had taken a step from the fire escape, eyes narrowing and a hand clenching.

He? You mean that guy… Who was he?” The girl asked Phi, moving slowly toward the trembling red-head,

You wanted me to leave, but now you don’t… why?”

Phi falters, suddenly overcome with what she could only understand as fear. The midnight-haired girl stared, boring golden irises deep. She tore for answers.

He’s making you do this… Tell me who he is!” The girl demanded, a threatening gaze Phi had no warning to have met so abruptly. And here alone, not knowing this girl entirely, Phi didn’t know what the girl would do to get what she wanted. Tensing, Phi prepares for the worst, not entirely understanding how the girl in front of her could gather so much from so little.

And how come she was more interested in Az…

In a panic, the red-head shuffled back bringing forward Az’s notebook, at a loss of what to say. All that visible rage melted in the midnight-haired girls’ eyes, mouth opening slightly like a soundless gasp. Her eyes danced over the notebook cover, the embellished image on the front a clue for the girl. It would be her motivation to stay, to see this through to the end. At last Phi grinned, proud of the reaction she had sought for.

I told you, inevitable. This is how it has to be now, it’s written like so,” The red-head gushed, standing steadfast with the notebook between them. Rendered mute, black bangs hiding her crinkled brow, Phi pressed on, feeling successful at last,

It’s too late, you can’t leave now! You’re going to be a part of it. And so am I!”

The exclamation overtook Phi with unbridled excitement that she failed to feel cautious when the girl at last stood close, eyes dead-set on the notebook. In one quick motion it was in her hands. Heart leaping into hard pumps, Phi flailed and rushed to get it back. Her fingertips grazed the hardcover just as the other evaded, a scowl forming for Phi. With new knowledge at her disposal, the midnight-haired girl did not bother to hide her abilities, her innate gifts.

Fire erupted between them, seeming originless and swirling yellow. Phi watched in awe as the midnight-haired girl wordlessly dared her to make a move. A smile pulled at the corner of Phi’s lips, excitement fueling her again. She quaked with visions of oncoming destruction. Giving up for now would be easy.

This is going to happen, whether you want it to or not,” Phi reminded the girl, squelching her laughter and turned to run. The other was at her heels, trying to stop her but Phi retreated to the stairwell’s windowless room, slamming the door shut and locking it before the other could catch up. For a moment Phi stood there, hearing the knocks against the door and watching the shaking metal. The golden-eyed girl could very easily breakdown the door but questions would arise. There would be attention she wouldn’t want so just as quickly, the shaking subsided. The girl would give up for now too. Staring at the now immobile door another moment, Phi let out a breath she hadn’t known she was holding and left.

And she returned to her temporary home, in the room above the bar. Amid broken furniture, dust covered boxes and piles of dissected gadgets, Phi waited. There was a mixture of intrigue and dread toiling within her that kept her mind racing.

What had she given that she shouldn’t have?

Did it matter?

The girl would stay, that was what was most important.

This girl would indulge in her fantasy just a bit more before it would all finally collapse.

And with Phi’s help.

Smiling the red-head was lying on the floor still when Az returned. It was night, there was music and the chatter of voices beneath her yet Phi hadn’t noticed at all until her friend appeared.

Have you learned anything new?” She asked him, warding away her happy grin.

Az remained silent, head tilting slightly before he answered,

I hope not.”

He looked away, turning to move towards his seat at the windowsill. Sitting with his elbows on his knees, he bites a finger, deep-set eyes gazing at nothing.

Phi returned to her feet, brow furrowed, apprehension once more forming as she looks her friend over. He’s tense, strange but curious.

What do you mean?” She asks him and waits that small moment before Az starts to talk, bridging the gap between them.

He could see me, at least for a moment,” Az explained, fanged teeth sinking deep into the pale flesh of his finger. A black droplet emerged.

Your watch, it must be malfunctioning. I can fix it,” Phi started again, shaking off the apparent anxiety Az was having. The midnight-haired girls’ companion would be dead soon enough. Az shook his head at the offer, probably knowing too that it didn’t matter if the creature saw him. Still worry creased his brow for another moment before dissolving back into his standard empty gaze. There was a black mark on his lip as he put out a hand to Phi suddenly.

Er, what?” She asked him but it was a waste of dialogue, his stare adamant and the understanding coming clear. Now it was her turn to panic.

She has it,” Phi said simply, licking her lips and forced herself to stand firm. Az’s hand fell, his stare never wavering. There was anger in him, Phi knew that but for all the time she has known him, she has never seen it pass his narrowed gaze. She wondered if she would see it now, feeling her heart quicken it’s pulse.

He stayed at his distance however, silence soaked with tension. Phi fumbled with the buttons of her shirt, mouth flapping with apologies not uttered. Although Az’s expression was immovable, disappointment was evident.

I-I can get it back,” Phi stammered at last but the stone-silent man shook his head.

Remain here,” He said instead, looking away at last and returning to his feet. His brisk walk to the front door stirred the dust, leaving a cold wake. Az explained nothing else and left. It wasn’t much of a warning, or an admonishment, yet it was something Phi knew well.

So she waited, in that room, in that very spot where he left her. The sun rose and fell. Noises from below carried high and low, passing by as did time. It wouldn’t hurt her to stand, her will stronger than exhaustion, nor would she starve but as two nights came and went, Phi’s guilt grew.

When would Az return? What about the plan? How could she mess this up for him? For herself and the midnight-haired girl?

It was perfect-

And suddenly Phi was on the floor, ears ringing. An explosion. The windows in the attic had been blasted out by the shock-wave. Phi’s fingers crunched through glass and small lines of blood trickled down her face. Two more explosions, and then a third shook the floor where she lay, reaching for cognition. The sirens rose as her vision warbled, breath labored as she fought her coughs. On her back, her eyes wandered to the night sky just beyond the window. Smoke billowed upwards, outlined in an orange hue.

It had begun.

And it wouldn’t continue without her.

Phi’s eyes slid shut, a moment of reprieve to gather herself and the next she flew up coughing. Her lenses dances around the clearing she lay in, head jerking around her as she began to crawl in a dizzying panic. The forest was on fire, the stars blocked by smoke.

Yes, this is what she remembered after the explosion above the bar. She had crawled from that wreckage and made her grim future come true. Blood and gunpowder permeated from the scorched soil, giving Phi those great visions of carnage she had witnessed. Flesh was marked with bullets. The compound was brought to ruins. Those poor fools in the same costume that she wore, or those considered allies and enemies were given the same outcome. Faces were forgotten, names made pointless in the blink of metal and scent of copper. Any in her path was removed, with wordless reason and empty expression. It was all done by her hand, her-

And now she swung her attention around again, to her rifle some distance away. It had certainly been hers yet it was a melted remnant of a tool now. The memories surfaced at the sight and Phi shook with true fear.

This is it! What I’ve created just for you!” She had cried and the midnight-haired girl listened at last. It was perfect yet the message Phi had to deliver was one that took so much from them both.

With wide bewildered eyes, Phi moved across her charred yet healing skin. She looked to her hands, to fingers made into nubs of nail-less burnt skin. They ran over her arms in a brief attempt to sooth her anxiousness. It hurt to touch as it hurt to breathe. Her lungs felt on fire, but not her own, of the midnight-haired girl. This had all happened so fast since those blasts first went off and now she was here…

The sirens went off,” Came a voice. Phi didn’t need to look. At her side, appearing as if from nowhere, Az stood and watched the clouded sky. Helicopters could be heard from somewhere above. There was no gunfire anymore, no explosions or screams.

It was a relative quiet, near to dead.

The charges must not have went off…” Phi mused, eyes moving upwards to her old friend,

It’s all right, I took care of the Communication Tower.”

You exposed us,” Az returned without his usual empty space, a roughness to his tone. The red-haired girl took in the sight of his uniforms coat, the hourglass patches on his sleeves and his bayoneted rifle that hung from his shoulder. Black splotches ran down his chest. Some dried blood was splattered across his neck. He had been shot.

I-I did…” Phi confessed, eyes moving back down to her hands, the skin was a soft pink now, raw still,

But they’re dead now.”

Az said nothing, merely standing above the red-head, a coldness to his demeanor. There was accusation in his voice as he stated next,

She didn’t kill you.”

Yes, she did,” Phi returned, eyes steadfast to her healing hands. Her hair stood on end however, the cautiousness bleeding through as much as she tried to ignore it. She scoffed, continuing sheepishly,

I mean she did, yeah, but also almost.”

Her stare danced ahead of her, looking to emptiness as she recalled the pull of death. It was a void, darker than midnight. She knew it fairly intimately. And with it always came those visions, memories of her past lives. She remembered her home-world as much as she remembered meeting Az, bittersweet. Phi was aware of Az’s pacing, of his rifle being drawn, slowly pointing to her head as she was lost in her thoughts.

Just admit it, Az,” The red-head let out a heavy breath, flexing her newly formed fingers,

In a strange and morbid way, you have an affinity to her. Your target. Your job.”

Her pale friend remained silent, but wouldn’t shoot, brows furrowed. He didn’t understand Phi’s meaning and wanted to understand. She turned her head to look to him, a small smirk pulling at her cracked lips.

It’s why you look the way you do now, isn’t it? The Az I knew wasn’t so youthful looking,” Phi reasoned aloud, smile sinking to sorrow. She added with a rising voice,

This is your job! Why did you give her this much time?!”

Az’s incredulous expression didn’t move, mouth too still, not uttering his truth. Still his finger shifted to the trigger.

In an instant Phi dissolved into a force of flames, racing upwards to knock Az back. He stumbled, immersed in fire that swirled around him. It singed his clothing, made his skin red and sought to consume the air from his lungs. Az fought back, thrashing at the intangible heat and dropped his rifle. Quickly he pulled his watch from his coat, popping it open with deft hands and pressing a switch.

The sky divided and began to flicker between night and day. The forest shook strange and shadows moved around and through the two quarreling. The force of the watch shuddering to life split Az and Phi. She tumbled to the ground back in her solid form.

You could have ended this!” The red-head cried, scrambling to her feet, hands in fists,

You’re compromised! Deranged!”

She lunged again, trying to summon flames but Az knew what he was doing. As she neared to land a blow against his temple, he brandished a knife with a free hand, sinking it into the soft flesh beneath her arm. Phi screamed, held in place with her back to Az. With little effort, and precise skill, he tore it from her arm and ran it into her chest two, then four times.

Blood soaked her shirt as Phi cried but the onslaught wouldn’t be enough to bring her down. Her uninjured arm swung back, hooking around Az’s neck. She sunk to her knees, bringing the pale man down and with the momentum, Phi pushed him forward. Slammed into the dirt, face-up, Az at last let out a short groan.

The red-head took the opportunity, prying the watch from the others grip. She smashed it against the ground, hearing it crunch, gem shattered into pieces. The watches power ended, the heavy weight removed. Phi let her injured limb turn to flames and threw the watch from her as far as she could into a thicket of bushes. She turned her crimson irises to Az, fury breathing with every rapid beat of her heart. The other was already on his feet, on her and drove his knife into her neck with that same empty expression he always wore. Phi stumbled backwards, the shock of Az’s coldness more aching than the knife in her throat. He stared at her while she choked, blood in the back of her mouth pooling. Az’s eyes only turned away from her to retrieve his rifle then resumed that deadened gaze. Phi pulled the blade from her neck then fell to the floor gasping.

You-you used me…” She coarsely spoke, a hand up to the wound in her throat. Starting to shake, Phi could hear the void calling, of death once more. Her eyes watered at those memories, of different lives she had lived, homes forgotten, and names she had once been called.

You’re – you’re my friend…. What am I now then?” Phi asked, distant eyes resuming focus, now onto the rifles barrel then past to Az’s emotionless hazel eyes.

Loose ends,” He answered, the last thing he would say to her. The trigger pulled. The weapon fired. Phi crumbled forward before combusting, fire returning her flesh to ashes. Az moved quickly, stomping at the flames and scattering the remnants. He buried her in the soil, unceremoniously, with a patting of his boot.

Phi watched his callousness from the depths of the void and wept. Az was no longer the friend that she knew, or more so who she thought she understood. There wasn’t truth if he was the one to make it. In the midnight void, at the edge of death, Phi drowned in betrayal and guilt. Beneath the dirt, in pieces of both mind and body, the red-head burned.

She was a smolder as her once friend rose his eyes to the sky. The helicopters were much closer now, giving rise to shouts, new figures moving in the forest. Left with no other choice, Az dug through his coat, procuring another elaborately crafted pocket-watch. A flick of the lid, a button depressed – the silent man disappeared with a flash of light and sound.

He left her there, but Phi was an ember and soon she would return to flames. She could fix what she had done to the midnight-haired girl, to herself even. Somehow.

All Phi needed was a chance.

[The End for Now]