The Stranger and the Turtle
"Are you sure this is a good idea?"
Dan paused to consider this. He rolled the ball of gray smart clay around in his hands, feeling it get hot. Then, he picked up the interface gauntlets.
"Come on, let's just go. Your dad would kill you if he knew."
Dan glanced back at me.
"You don't want to see what's out there?"
"Come on, Dan. Let's go back to school."
Dan pressed his hands against the sky. Against my better judgement, I stepped up behind him, and set my hand against the cornflower blue bubble. It sizzled, slightly, and felt warm. He tapped it experimentally. It did absolutely nothing. Just like it was supposed to. I turned around, surveying the clump of broken trees. One of them twitched , and a huge pod opened, dropping a squashed and half-formed couch onto the ground. Those trees had corrupted software, and weren't connected to the network. We should be out of the truancy grid here. Should.
I turned back.
Dan kicked a malformed dinner set out of the way, picked up a relatively intact plate, and plopped the ball of smart clay onto it. It stuck. Then, he picked up the gauntlets. They were black, and shiny, with silver patches on the inside of the palms and fingers.
"Where did you get this stuff, anyway?"
"My dad keeps them in the closet. For self defense, he says. He won't miss them for ages."
Dan slowly slid the gauntlets on. He exhaled slowly. There was a quiet hum, and then the gauntlets rustled, cinched up against his smaller hands. Then a hiss as they jacked into his nervous system. He flexed them experimentally, then reached out and touched the smart clay. It instantly turned fire-engine red.
I felt kind of funny, and suddenly my ears and eyes felt warm. I swallowed and blinked rapidly. The feeling subsided. Suddenly, floating in front of the gauntlets, over the ball of smart clay, was an interface menu. In my ear, an older voice said, quietly,
I jumped and looked around guiltily. There wasn't anybody there, of course. I turned back to the floating interface. Dan prodded a couple of options, which expanded. I couldn't tell what most of the stuff did. Dan looked thoughtful, then turned and addressed the gauntlets.
"Do you have a Turing Persona or something?"
There was a brief pause, and then a figure, about six inches high, appeared floating in he air on top of the smart clay.
"Hello Derek. How are you today?"
I raised an eyebrow.
He turned back to the TP.
"List help data."
"I am a Turing Persona, deisgnate 'Jonas', running on the Mark 3.11 architecture on Leddar brand Gauntlets. This unit has been running in idle mode for approximately thirty five million seconds. Power reserves at thirty two point eight percent."
"Jonas, can do open the dome?"
The TP kept staring straight ahead. It's voice remained bland.
A moment later:
"The weapon in my database designated the 'ZF-1' could create a hole approximately two meters in diameter. The barrier would re-seal in approximately eleven seconds."
Dan nodded. He started to say something, but I interrupted.
"Jonas, can you make us some kind of armor with the left over material?"
"Working... Yes. Two rubberized environment suits and one ZF-1 could be fabricated from the block currently available."
There was a brief pause, the TP vanished, and the smart clay began to unfold. It divided itself up into three smooth, gloss red spheres. Labels appeared, as if pushed in by an invisible stamp, on each one. Two spheres were marked 'BL-7 Hazardous Environment Suit.' Dan nodded.
"Pick one up."
"You pick it up."
"I've got the gauntlets. You need me in case something happens."
"Give me the gauntlets, then."
"You don't know how to use them."
He looked uncomfortable.
"Besides, I'm not sure how to get them off."
I reached out, and hesitantly touched the ball of smart clay. It was incredibly heavy for its size. As I grabbed it, it suddenly spread out, like water pouring onto a surface, incredibly fast. It engulfed my hand, spread over my chest, and across my body like a layer of something between metal and latex. A second later, it swallowed my face. I panicked for a split second in the sudden dark, before it inflated away from my face. The face plate went clear. There was a hiss as the respirator turned on. I glanced down at my hands. The outside of the suit turned a shiny black color, took on a scaled texture, and inflated until it was about three centimeters thick.
I looked over, and saw Dan's suit finishing forming on his body. He glanced at me. His mouth moved, and I heard his voice over the radio.
"Can you hear me?"
I took a step back, turned around, and surveyed the town through the glass plate. The dome of the sky was maybe a mile or so across. There was town hall, a cluster of homes, the church, a few fields and a small wood, and the lake, and then the blue dome came to an end. The sun shone down from it's mount on the dome on the rooftops and trees.
I turned back. Dan picked up the ball labelled 'ZF-1'. As he did so, it suddenly melted and reformed into a long, bulky stick. Pads formed like fluid filling a mold, on his forearm, shoulder, chest, and back, connected by flexible, spidery booms and joints.
"Dan, I'm not sure about this."
He inspected it, found a switch, and disabled it. A series of lights went red on the side. He walked back a dozen paces, pointed it at the dome of the sky. I got behind him. He glanced at me.
In spite of myself, I was curious. I nodded. He turned, took a deep breath, and pulled the trigger. There was an odd popping noise. I glanced out. Dan was lying on the ground, gasping. The air was crackling. The small grove of trees were on fire. A pod burst open prematurely, and a fetal microwave fell onto the ground. I looked in the direction of the sky. A wide hole, with smoldering edges had been opened. Dan slowly got to his feet.
"Son of a bitch, that hurt."
He inspected his chest. There were several gouges in his suit where the booms had popped loose and raked holes in the material. They were sealing themselves as I watched.
"I think I cracked a rib."
The hole in the sky was already shrinking. He glanced up at it, and began to walking forward, holding his chest. He stepped through the hole into the world outside. After a second's hesitation, I followed him.
Outside the ozone haze was still clearing. There was a definite pressure difference between the inside and the outside. I could feel the air blowing past as we left. I stepped out onto the ground, and looked around. The ground underneath my feet was the color of ashes, and cracked like clay. I looked up. There were the towering spines of rotted-out buildings all around us, bigger than anything I'd ever seen. Vines crawled them, webbed the ground. Black shapes flashed back and forth between the columns of smoke rising into the sky. Strange plants grew and melted as I watched, curling over the landscape like burning twigs. Off in the distance, vast shapes supported on needle-thin legs stalked across the landscape. Something far larger, huge geometric bulks, were dimly visible at the limits of vision.
Dan turned slowly, survey the world.
I turned around to look back at the dome. The outside wasn't blue, it was gunmetal gray, imbedded in the earth, and it bristled with what could only be weapons. A sentry gun paused to inspect us, and then returned to scanning the horizon. I looked around again. I could see one or two tiny grey dots on the horizon that could have been more domes. They must've been miles across.
"I think we'd better go back, man."
He walked a few feet away from the dome and looked out at the distant horizon. I could see what appeared to be a collapsed bridge, covered in swarm corrosion, extending out across a body of water.
"Is that a lake?"
I turned back towards the bubble, trying to figure out where we'd come from. There was no sign. I heard something buzzing. I glanced downward for the source of the noise. There was something by my feet. It almost looked like ants, except smaller, much smaller, and faster. No, it wasn't like ants, it was more like a fluid. It drifted closer to my foot. I heard Dan shout something, but I'd already stuck out a toe to poke it. It touched my foot, and suddenly there was a pulse of pain shuddering up my leg, and everything went black.
I woke up, gagging. I was wrapped in something spongy. There was a crack, and a hissing sound, and blinding light flooded in. I climbed out of the resurrection casket. The structural fibers peeled away from my skin, sending reddish brown fluid running down my skin. I stumbled out onto the ground and lay there for a moment, breathing hard.
I surveyed the room. It was about the size of a closet, with the resurrection casket in one corner, a shower at the other, and a stool with some clothes on it in the middle in the middle of the wall across from the stool was a door. I groaned, and rubbed my face. Fuck. I'd died. I stood up, slowly, feeling my joints click. Everything hurt. I stood up unsteadily, limped over to the shower, hit the button to start the water, and sat down underneath it until it washed all the bloody oil off my skin. Then I walked over to the stool. There was a note on top of a towel and the clothes. I picked it up, trying to read around the wet spots left by my fingers.
"We'll talk later. Get dressed and go into the next room. - Mom & Dad"
Oh shit. My parents were going to kill me. Again. I put the note down, picked up the towel, dried off, and put my clothes on. I crumpled up the note, stuck it in my pocket, closed the lid of the resurrection casket for the next guy, and walked out. I pretty much knew what was coming next. I'd been killed once before, when I was six, and I fell off a building onto my head. Wasn't likely to forget it any time soon.
The next room was even smaller, really just a closet. There was a small table in it and two chairs. The chair closest to the door was occupied, wearing a shredded environment suit, back facing me. Behind me, the door locked itself. A clock on the wall lit up, displaying 3600 seconds. I sighed, walked across the room, and sat down in the chair. The clock began to run.
I glanced at the corpse in the other chair. The swarm had eaten most of the face, leaving just a glazed eye, half the jawbone. and some skin and facial muscle. The skull cavity was mostly emptied out. The swarm had left the brain implants, retinal implant, and auditory implants intact, though, so there were a bunch of untouched wires running through the empty air where the head used to be. The rest of the body was similarly digested. Blood was dribbling out over the remains of the suit. It looked like the suit had tried to repair itself, but large pieces of it had been cannibalized by the swarm, and the rest had been killed when they'd zapped it to kill the infection.
I could see the hole in the head they'd opened to pull the memory card. I rubbed scar the side of my head where they'd stuck the chip in. The fact of my mortality was sinking in. If the swarm had destroyed the card, I could have lost hours, days. When was the last time I made a backup of my card? That morning? My memory was still a little hazy. It took a few days for the stuff to get from the card back into the brain.
I wondered if they'd edited me. They did that, to criminals and delinquents. I tried to figure out if I felt different than before. Couldn't tell. I looked up at the clock, and then back at the dripping corpse. I wished I'd thought to bring the towel to put over it. After a while, I tried turning the chair to face away from the body, but that was worse. Eventually, I just sat in the corner and waited for it to be over. Finally, the clock wound down to zero, and the next door opened. I left the room in a hurry, and found myself coming up a staircase into the church. Father Ed, my parents, and Dan's parents were sitting there, waiting for me. Dan emerged behind me, looking sullen. We walked up. Father Ed looked over us.
"I hope you boys understand the seriousness of what you've done."
I looked down at my feet.
He kept talking, his normally bright eyes grave.
"You stole dangerous equipment from your parents, which, incidentally, they shouldn't have had in the first place," he shot a look at Dan's father, who winced, "and by opening the dome, you not only recklessly endangered yourself, you also endangered the entire community."
He shook his head.
"On top of that, you forced me to endanger good men to retrieve your corpses from the swarm."
I didn't raise my head, but glanced over at Dan, who was staring at the ground, radiating defiance.
He looked at Dan.
"I'm especially disappointed in you, Dan. You're a very bright boy, and you could have a great future here, but you keep pulling these stunts. This is what, the fifth time you've been killed? The average is two in a century. You're eleven!"
He was nearly shouting. He took a few breaths to calm himself. He turned to me. I stared deeper into my sneakers.
"And you, Paul. I know that this wasn't your idea, but you can't allow Dan to draw you into these things. He endangers you and himself. You know better than this."
He shook his head.
"I don't want to punish either of you, but you've left me no choice. Your assembler privlidges are suspended until further notice, and both of you will spend the rest of the month cleaning the pews. Understand?"
I nodded. Dan didn't blink. My parents came up to me, and marched me away. I saw Dan being marched out the other door.
The car ride home was very quiet. Neither of them would look at me. When I got home, they proceeded to chew me out again, about how it was very difficult and time consuming to resurrect me, and how I shouldn't listen to Dan when he gets off on his tangents. Then someone punched up Chinese food from the assembler, and we ate in silence, then dad took me aside and lectured me again, and then I was sent to bed early.
I lay there in bed, staring up at the ceiling. My stomach wasn't working right, yet, and the Chinese food was marinating in watery digestive juice like a lump of tar. I felt really awful. And kind of mad, but mostly just awful. I heard a noise. The window opened. Dan climbed inside.
He was wearing some kind of combat suit. I didn't look at him.
"Where'd you get the suit?"
He was already stripping it off of himself.
"It's in the system. I got Father Jim's password, and made it on my home assembler.
He pulled the leggings off, and set the suit down in the chair. He nodded at the door.
"They chew you out bad?"
I shrugged. He nodded sagely.
"Yeah, me too. I think my parents are just going through the motions, though. My dad's more pissed about them finding out about the smart clay, and I think mom just thought it was funny."
He shook his head.
"Sorry, man. I didn't mean to get you killed. I always figured the swarms were a kid's story."
I shook my head.
"It's fine. Hey, I'm back, and this'll all blow over in a week or two."
"Most likely. Hey, do you remember seeing more domes?"
"Yeah. I think so, anyway."
"Thought so. I wonder how many there are. Hundreds? Thousands? And that's just the domes. There's so much stuff we just don't know about. Paul, have you ever considered that, out of the whole world, we only know about one measly square mile of it?"
He exhaled slowly, eyes wide in the dark.
"I wonder how big it is?"
"So? It's not like we can leave. You saw what happened last time we tried."
He stared broodily out the window, hand on his chin. He looked like a bitter mother hen.
"No, that can't be right. I think the trouble is that we had the wrong kind of suit. You can't make it out of smart clay. It'd have to be made out of the same stuff as the bubble. Regenerative white goo. And there'd need to be armor plating in it, too."
"Dan, you can't keep doing this."
He looked surprised.
"They're going to edit you. You know they are. Nobody's ever pulled the shit that you have. They won't let you get away with this forever."
He glanced at me briefly, then back out the window. His voice was oddly quiet when he replied.
"Yeah. Yeah, I know."
He sighed and stood up.
"I should probably go."
He pulled the combat suit back on. The pads sealed against his skin, the helm flipped down over his head, and the booms extended. He opened the window, shut it carefully behind him, and scuttled down the porch roof on all fours, leaping suddenly into the tree, and from there onto the ground, where I lost him in the shadows.
I lay back down in bed, and after a long time, went to sleep.
I showed up to church the next morning early to clean the pews. Dan was already there. He was talking to Uncle Lawrence. Now, Lawrence was a bit of a character. He was about a hundred and thirty, and he refused to resurrect, so he just kept getting reconstructed. This had the side effect of making him look a little weird. He was bald, and his face was carved with incredibly deep wrinkles punctuated with weirdly smooth skin. He looked like a shaved chicken.
He had his feet cocked on a pew, and he was eating an apple. He was grinning, and talking to Dan in a confidential way.
"Paul! Come and join us. I was just telling your friend here about the war."
He laughed, and took another bite of the apple. He kept talking through a mouthful of fruit.
"Of course, it wasn't really a war, in the traditional sense. There weren't really any sides. It was the crazies versus everybody else. Crazies won, of course, sort of. But damned if we didn't give them a fight. In the early days, we were getting killed so many times that we just kept the resurrection caskets running all the time. You'd get shot down, somebody'd pop your casket,and you'd go running right back to the front lines. Sometimes somebody messed up, and there were two of you running around for a while."
He shook his head slowly.
"It's funny, now, but it was pretty bad at the time. They come out of nowhere, you know. Suddenly, everyone was talking about constructors, partial constructors and atomic constructors, and universal constructors. And then everything started falling apart. All the stocks crashed, bombs were falling, the first swarms showed up. Everything fell apart."
He grinned, suddenly.
"Say, did I ever tell you boys about the flying dildos?"
I shook my head.
He cackled, gleefully.
"Damndest thing I've ever seen. Self replicating, you understand. Dildos. Big, fat, black rubber dildos. With wings. Big swarm of them, from horizon to horizon. Couldn't tell what they were, of course. Now, we'd been hiking across the wasteland for about a week at this point. Fighting off replicator swarms and Posts and TP's. Running low on food, water, kinda pissed off. My power armor was dying, and the rest of our unit was gone. It was just me, Childs, and Copper, and none of us had eaten for more than a day. And so, Childs looks out at the horizon, and he says to me, he says: Tom, Tom, the cows-"
The door opened, and Father Ed came in.
"Lawrence- what a surprise!"
"Ed! Just the man I wanted to see."
He winked at us.
Father Ed nodded in our direction. His voice and face were still friendly, but there was a warning somewhere.
"Corrupting our youth again, I see?"
"Your boy Dan here is worse'n I ever was. He'll be good for this place, lemme tell you."
Father Ed shook his head sadly.
"We're trying to... discourage Dan's more adventurous tendencies. That's why he's here."
Lawrence's face opened in surprise.
"You're having them clean the pews? Still?"
Father Ed stiffened.
"I have no doubt of that, but don't you think that's a mite old fashioned? I mean, I think that's old fashioned, and I watched this place built. Died for it, in fact. Several times."
He nods at us.
"You really going to keep these two boys here on a fine day like this cleaning pews?"
Father Ed's smile was now decidedly icy.
"I can arrange a thunderstorm, if you prefer. Lawrence, these boys ruptured the dome."
He blinked, and then turned to look at me.
"That was you?"
I nodded miserably.
He burst out laughing.
"Nicely done, boys. Nobody's done that in, hell, thirty years. I hear you burned out that grove of trees, too. About damn time somebody cleaned that up."
"Tom, they endangered everyone in the compound."
Lawrence ran his fingers over his head in a gesture that had doubtless made more sense when he had hair.
"Life is risk, Ed. You give these boys a room that they should never look in, and act surprised when they peek? How do you expect them to grow up to be fine, productive members of the community if they don't do something a bit stupid once in a while?"
He sat back again.
"Hell, when I was their age, I spent most of my time running around consensus grids with Godelian exploits, getting chased down by the network admins. Got tased plenty of times. That was risky, but it taught me everything I know about networks. Then the war came, and that was all risk. Do you know I once flew a 747 loaded with thermals into a building, without a backup? Sheer luck they found my chip in the wreckage."
"Times have changed, Tom. The stakes are just too high, now, to allow the kind of risks that were tolerated when you were young."
Lawrence's eyes grew suddenly very dangerous.
"Boy, you weren't even born when this place was founded. I remember what we sunk into stealing this little chunk of peace away from the crazies. I know the cost in human lives to build this. Don't lecture me on how precious this place is. And even so, even for all that, I still say that was a damn funny stunt with the dome."
Father Ed glanced at us, seemingly remembering that we were there.
"I don't think this is a conversation for the children."
Lawrence seemed surprised, and then nodded.
Dan looked ready to protest, but Father Ed cut him off.
"Come on, boys, it is a nice day outside. Go. You're not off the hook, though, I expect you back here tomorrow."
Dan still didn't look happy, but he followed me towards the door. Then, suddenly, something happened. My eyes and ears become uncomfortably hot, and suddenly an interface was floating around Father Ed's hands. Lawrence's, too. Ed spun a menu and pulled up a screen. Lawrence was way ahead of him, flicking through interfaces with a speed that astonished me. Father Ed frowned.
"Somebody's pinging us."
Lawrence blinked in surprise.
"They're using the old signatures. You think maybe a brain-eater got one of the old guard?"
Ed shook his head.
"Can't be, they all had the self-destruct rigging."
"Could still be a trick."
"What if it isn't, though?"
Lawrence and Father Ed made eye contact.
"I thought we were the last ones left."
"There were other domes. You and Ash told me that. Some of them might have made it."
"Those were in Texas, Ed. You think someone could have made it that far?"
"I think we should go find out."
They stood up. I started to ask what was going on, but Dan caught my arm in a grip like iron, and I held my peace.
The two of them strode out of the church without even looking at us. I glanced at Dan, and then we followed at a respectable distance. They walked down mainstreet, past the cars, past the houses, past the park. Eventually, they reached the arch at the end of the street. It was just stone. Except that around here, stone is never just stone.
Between the arches was a flat gray and featureless surface. Ed walked up to it, and pulled up another interface. Lawrence paused for a moment, and then reached off to the side, where a stick of wood was tangled in the rosebushes that ran along the Wall. I must've glanced at it a thousand times. He tore the roses off it, and pulled it out of the ground. He said something to the interface, and the stick of rotten wood melted in his hand. It turned fire-engine red, and flowed up his arm like a snake. He held out his hand, and said something else. The smart-clay swarmed over his body, forming a rather sophisticated suit of power armor. The surface looked a lot like the outside of the sky had. The end of his arm terminated in a large, dangerous looking shape.
Father Ed glanced back at him. They nodded at each other. A few people had gathered to watch. The smarter ones were running away. Dan and I weren't among them. Father Ed hit a button. The space inside the arch shimmered. After a moment, a dark shape could be seen moving through it. It was big. I took a step back. Dan didn't move, eyes fixed on the lumbering shape emerging through. Lawrence's head never turned. He simply leaned into his arm a little. I could see the support structure, but working properly, this time.
The dark shape broke the wall, which instantly sort of 'hardened' behind it. The shape, as it turned out, was a combat mech, about fifteen feet high, with some huge weapons on both arms. The surface had the same sheen as Lawrence's armor, as the outside of the bubble. White goo, Dan had said. It saw Lawrence, and froze. The running lights on the guns switched off. After a few seconds, a slightly electronic voice issued from the front of the mecha.
"I come in peace. Code August Seraphim Evergreen. I've disabled my weapons."
Lawrence didn't move.
"I'm going to release the shell, now. The atmosphere is the standard mix, yes?"
Lawrence nodded, slightly.
"Okay. Releasing the shell."
There was a hiss, and two large metal plates on the mech slid apart. A man wearing a long button-down shirt and a pair of bluejeans climbed slowly down, arms held to the sky. The mech quietly rolled backwards and settled down into a small mountain of armor plating and weaponry. Dan stared at it. He was very nearly drooling.
The man squinted forward.
"Lawrence? Jesus, you look awful. I thought you were dead!"
There was a long pause. Then, Lawrence lowered his gun. He did something with his hand. The suit slid off him, falling onto the ground in a block. He tossed it aside. He leaned forward, staring into the man's face.
"Blair? You sorry son of a bitch, I thought we lost you in Jacksonville."
"Nope. Bennings doubled back and pulled my chip."
"No shit, Bennings made it?"
"Yeah, the regenerative suit is something else. Lost some brain matter, so he wasn't quite right until he ressurected, but, hell, he saved my ass."
"Shit, I figured you both were gone. Sorry."
"Hell, man, it was a long time ago. We tracked you for a couple of thousand miles, but then some really weird shit went down in Salt Lake City."
"Weirder than the dildos?"
"Weirder than the dildos."
"I always figured you were dead, Lawrence. Never thought I'd find you hunkered down in a Turtle. Doesn't seem quite your speed."
"It's been a hundred years, Blair. Things change."
"Yeah, I guess they do."
"So what brings you here?"
"Not much, just looking for a warm bed, some trade, and a place to hole up for the night. I came here from the Fort Worth Turtle."
"You made it that far on foot?"
"Yeah. I'm trying to make it to the Alaska compound. I hear it's a little tamer up there. Not much energy to run the wilder swarms. Thinking of retiring. A little quiet sounds nice."
"You could always join a turtle. Hell, we'd be happy to have you. It ain't much, but it's home."
"Aw hell, Lawrence, I said I wanted quiet, not dead."
They fell silent. After a minute, Father Ed spoke up.
"So you're the famous Blair."
"Yes sir. You run this compound?"
"Interesting. Very interesting indeed. I admire you, and I mean that, it can't be easy to keep a place like this safe. We lose a lot of Turtles every year. We make more'n we lose, but that's cold comfort."
"Thank you. Tell me, you say you walked from Fort Worth?"
"Yes sir, I did."
"Has it become safer out there? Are things settling down?"
"Oh. I'm sorry. No, things are pretty much worse than ever. It's a big, harsh son of a bitch world out there, and most've the crap living out there can outcompete organic life any day of the week. This mech's the only thing that keeps me going. Self contained, surfaced in white goo. Bastards can't get through without a cruise missile. It's basically a mini-turtle in and of itself."
Father Ed's face fell.
"I'm sorry to give you the bad news, I truly am. But every turtle we build is another couple of miles we win back."
Father Ed nodded. He suddenly looked very tired.
I blinked, and suddenly realized that I hadn't moved since this all began. I turned around. Dan was gone. Out in front, arrangements were being made for the man to spend the night in the church. Word was circulating fast. There was a substantial delegation following him by the time he reached the church. Somehow, it had been negotiated that in exchange for tradeable information, food, supplies, and hospitality, he would distribute his knowledge of other Turtles and outside conditions in the public network. This appeared to be some kind of standard arrangement.
Most of the town ended up in the church late into the evening, listening to him tell stories. Some were war stories that we'd already heard, some were war stories we hadn't, and some were new stories all together. Stories about other Turtles, stories about travelers of the wasteland, and the things that lived in the wasteland. Some of them were almost people.
I kept seeing Father Ed looking antsier and antsier as the night went on. After about four hours, he shut it down and sent everyone home.
After everyone left, I saw Dan and Blair, sitting off to the side, talking in lowered voices. After a while, Dan left. I would've asked him about it, if I could find him, but I couldn't.
People were talking all the way home. More compounds, more towns, travelers of the wasteland! Exciting news. And Father Ed looked just angry. My parents talked about the possibilities all the way home. I joined in myself, my past indiscretions totally forgotten. And then, when I was lying in bed, I didn't even try to sleep. I changed into my pajamas and lay there on my bed, waiting. Sure enough, after about a half an hour, my window slid open, and Dan climbed inside. His new suit was less agile than the old one, but it had the oily sheen of white goo.
I glanced him down.
"You took it from Lawrence."
The man slid up his face, leaving it bare, and shiny with sweat. He nodded, and gestured at the window.
"Come on, Paul. Something's going on."
The mask slid back into place. I turned to ask him what, but he was already climbing out the window. I hurriedly pulled some shoes on, and climbed out the window after him. He stood on the porch, surveying the dark town. Overhead, stars were visible, projected onto the dome. No moon tonight. I climbed onto his back, feeling the tingle of the material against my skin. I felt almost as if i were in a dream as he cast himself off the porch, landing among the leaves easily, and sprinting off across the street into the wood.
The trees rushed past, his feet striking in the grass, a smell of apples and cut grass on the wind. I reached over and knocked on the side of his helmet. He slowed among the trees, and I climbed off, my pajamas hanging off my body in the still, quiet air. The helmet slid back. His face was oddly pink.
"Dan, what's going on?"
"There's no time, Paul. They're throwing him out."
"Who? Who's throwing who?"
"Ed and a couple of his friends. They're throwing Blair out. Lawrence doesn't know."
"I don't think they like him much, Paul."
"What are you going to do?"
His face set into its familiar, stubborn expression.
"I don't exactly know, but I'm not going to sit at home and wait."
I nodded. That was fair enough. I climbed onto his back, and he was running again, the combat armor clanking quietly with every step. Within a moment, we were clear of the woods, and coming up on the church. The porch lights were on, and a group of men were gathered around under the light. Blair was in the middle of them. He looked tired. The harsh light and dark cut the men into caricatures of dark shadows and lines. Dan stopped near the edge of the treeline.
Father Ed was saying something.
"I'm sorry, Blair. This is how it is."
"Godddamn it, let me talk to Lawrence."
"That's not going to happen, Blair."
"Now wait one minute. I'm not about to be thrown out during the dead of night like a fuckin criminal, do you understand me?"
"That's exactly what's going to happen. We're not savages. We'll provided you with fresh food and water, but you cannot stay here."
Blair started to say something. Ed was carrying a stick. He moved his hand up and down it, and it made a kachunk noise.
Blair took a step back.
"Fine. I know a lynching when I see one. I'm going."
Dan shook me off his back, absently. He sprinted away into the night. Blair turned and began to walk down main street. Ed and his men followed behind him at a safe distance. I followed all of them even further behind. Their sticks never turned from him as they walked. When he got to the gate, he climbed into his mech, which stood up and folded itself around him. He didn't engage the guns. Father Ed called up a menu on his interface, and in the shadow the gate must've opened.
I thought I saw a dark blur moving to join Blair's mech, as it turned to face the portal. I looked closer. It was Dan's combat suit. Blair's mech turned to inspect it for a moment, and then made a little shrug.
Together, they walked out of the gate, out of the Turtle, and out of my life.
I could've alerted Father Ed, I guess. Could've intervened, or tried to join them, but I didn't. I never saw either of them again.
About two hours later, Ed decanted another Dan from the resurrection vault, and drove him home.
He was never quite the same after that.
These things always turn out darker than I intend.