The Fall

A Gift « The Fall » Missionary

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11

11


AUDIO LOG #1

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This is Researcher Nadir Gerrera, Righteous Central Protection Authority. Expedition number four, RCP-8302. Team is medical aid Laura Scott, troopers Naomi Keita, Alejandro Tizera, Martin O'Connor, Fourth Parisian Grenadiers, Platoon-038, and, ah… 0059, scout and guide.

We expect a rate of ascension of at least ten floors per day, depending on time spent on recon. Descent will only occur once we come across an impassable obstacle, at which point 0059 is going to help us bail.

It is currently… 8:30 AM operational time. No abnormalities thus far, or so the scout says. We’re going up.

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The air’s cold, the way ahead dark.

Schink!

The sound of a blade scraping across rock echoes through the hollow tower. Faint blue lights glimmer in the dark, lights that upon closer inspection are little but the reflective sheen on a plexiglass helmet, its visor pulled back; in dim lights of an exploration suit, a scarred, pock-marked face smattered with purple veins rears from the murky gloom. It turns hurriedly to the side, a light-beam from dusty headgear flickering on with barely a sound. A hand crosses through the beam, a gesture followed swiftly with a soft whistle - standard scout protocol. Shuffled steps swiftly follow, echoing loud below as the face turns to survey the new level’s surroundings.

A dimension of darkness, the man notes idly, though it’s quite clear he hasn’t felt a man in a long time. His arms of steel-rimmed bones enhanced from years of modification all traced with copper and burnt skin help to stabilize himself on the narrow stairs as the others catch up from the lower floor’s depths. They’re stalling, he knows this, but it’s not their fault. The others have heavier gear, and they aren’t as adapted to this as he is.

His eyes rove around the room as he draws himself up, if they can even be called as such. They’re not his originals, far from that actually - those were scarred, vestigial things, things long since plucked from his frail flesh after a disastrous confrontation with Chinese insurgents. He’d been someone important once, though he barely remembers now; important enough for people in high places to not send him back to his country, important enough to be one of the first to receive replacement optics.

The former Soviet Union saw countless corporations rising to fill the political and spiritual vacuum. Those were heady early days before rus-corp consolidation, when Central seemed unassailable. Nefteyuganskneftekhim Petrochemical in her brightly painted fenced factories straggling the long-withered channels of the Ob river valley had been all too eager to collude with old enemies. That’s when he’d met his handlers. That was the beginning of it all.

He kicks a stone, testing the waters - something’s familiar here, though it’s of no surprise to him. Peering around, the crystal-light makes it all-too-easy to see the familiar ornate triangle carved in the floor by his foot. Craggled brows raise, star-eyes gleaming blue. There’s initials. A.R. Bending down, he traces the notches with his finger - the only one that hasn’t been replaced. Every line in the stone, every scar - they’re important. Paramount, even.

Suddenly he’s not in the tower, but in the halls of memory. It’s a different world then - the spikerunner teams weren’t sent in yet. They picked him and a few others, back in the early days when there’d been less needles and metal, more skin and blood. They’d go in, map as many floors as they could go out, and repeat.

In his mind’s eye, he’s still half human then. There’s smiles and laughter, people making jokes even though there’s more death than there is now, and far less regulation. At every level they’d pass, they’d carve a token - we’ve been here, it meant. We’re coming back.

Then the drills came in. Then it all made sense what they were doing. Then, the tower hated them. Project Ariadne, they’d come to call it after. Something about wayfinders and string.

It’s been five long years since then. Not much friends anymore, not that he’s able to make any anyway. They don’t actively keep him away from people, for they aren’t cruel - they let his chamber doors open, don’t freeze him much except to heal injury, make transfer. It’s hard, though. Hard to talk to people when he’s not a man. Hard to form words on his lips when all he’s known is danger and death for years, all he’s felt is an empty hole in his chest, a voice saying monster. It’s easier, staying in his room and staring out the window, at the birds wheeling around on little wings high above the storm-wracked seas outside the base, careless and free. Humanity isn’t his specialty, and hasn’t been for a long while now.

That’s good, though. They can’t afford him having feelings for this anyways. The scout peers down the stairwell, listening vaguely for the echoes of the handpicked group in the passages below him.

There’d been a lot of yelling about those ones back in baseline, but then others got involved, the ones he likes least: tight-lipped people in dark trench-coats, the world burning behind their eyes. They talked about things they shouldn’t, expecting him dumb and dormant and frozen like he always is between scouting missions; they calmed down the loud men with honeyed words, providing a list of names; told stories about how these were the most qualified, the best of the crop. They even gave credentials and lists, personal information.

The scout knows better than to trust the words of people with smiling eyes. The gargantuan effort to subjugate the Tower is still on-schedule: they don't care for one more 'qualified team' at all. They want a symbol. Now they want martyrs.

That’s exactly what he is, after all. It’s what he’s been for years. And so what if he dies? It’s part of the job, and he hasn’t felt alive for a long time now anyway.

Slamming his foot into the ground, familiar spines extend and latch into its smooth surface, sending a bright flash into the darkness to reveal the staircase in full, a lone pillar standing in the midst of a wide, flat plain. Vague gurgling in the dark is all that indicates the distant trickle of water. He stands still for a little; he can go on forever, but the others can’t. Tired breathing, a nearly forgotten annoyance of human life, reminds him of that.

They would have to go up another floor before being safe to rest. 0059 peers up the shaft where the spiraled stairs led hole. For a second there's a red light. It’s strange, but he doesn’t think much of it. Abnormalities in the Tower are becoming more frequent with the spike-teams working in full force now, anyway.

The fluxes were proof of that.

A hacking cough from behind him cuts through the quiet air, faint wheezing-noises following soon after. The Captain’s wiry form emerges from the gloom, sweaty cheeks flushed pink from the climb. He’s the one they picked to lead the mission, though he’s all skin and bones and soft flesh.

He’s got a good head on his shoulders, a tall man had said months back, eyes glimmering as he joked to one of the other men outside, thinking no one was listening. Reads a lot. Says everything he knows is from a book someplace. And you all know what they say about books…

“They got held up,” the Captain says at last. He’s breathing a little better now, wiry fingers fidgeting at the holster to his side. Human wheezes. “Something about moving stairs. I went ahead to let you know to wait for us, but it seems you’ve done that much already.”

Moving stairs. Yet another consequence of the Eyes’ machinations, yet another fruit of past scouting missions. The tower didn’t trust many people anymore. Eyes flicking up and down, the thin man surveys his scout, lip slightly curled but not out of malice.

The scout stands still, silent as the thin man fiddles with the cuffs of his sleeves. They’d gotten slightly torn in the climb up. Cold eyes look up once he’s done with his self-duties, a faux smile plastering itself across his face.

“We haven’t properly introduced ourselves, haven’t we?” the Captain says, cold eyes glimmering like a cat who's just found a ball of yarn to play with. A part of the scout is surprised. Most people didn’t really bother with him beyond orders anymore. “I’m Nadir. Nadir Gerrera. You are…?”

The muffled voices are talking below, but still there is no movement.

“What, you aren’t going to introduce yourself? They simply called you 0059 when I had the briefing, but I imagine that’s not quite your name.”

The scout pauses, hesitating as a howling wind suddenly buffets across the black plains in front of them. Names? He hasn't thought about names in years. Needles and fluids, long missions up the winding stairs of the tower to prepare the way for Central's great drills and engines in the world below, had long since burned the thinking out of him. His grey lips open ever so slightly, betraying his own desire to balk at the question asked of him. He’s not supposed to have desires.

“Nails”, he finally gurgles out, voice hoarse but aided by the implants in his throat, fake armaments and inner plating lining vocal cords long since destroyed in prior missions. Half-synthetic, half-authentic, it was something different now. Alien, just like Central liked it.

It’s not his real name, but it’s enough for a conversation.

“When they told me I would be getting one of you, I was… amazed,” the other man says, hand reaching out to try and touch the many instruments that wreath the scout’s wretched face. Nails catches the man’s wrist before it dares move closer, the smile melting into a vague look of surprise.

“I’m sorry.” he mutters softly, straightening his coat with smooth hands, hands that glisten under the turquoise light of the scout’s suit. Nails can’t tell if the man means it or not. “Don’t like touch, do you? … They told us about you, you know. Back when I first came to the island for the project. I’d heard rumours in my department back home, about men made of metal from darker research circles part of an offshore deal, moved around for something big. Didn’t believe them, of course. Little stock in scrappy tales, especially with how much information is buried these days, but…“

His eyes were piqued with interest now, his mouth running faster.

“You’re here. Living proof, really. I mean, I had the files, but… I have to confirm, curiosity kills. It’s one thing reading. Paper and terminals are just words… ” He fiddles once more, eyes brightening when he sees the logo he sought. He pauses for a moment, brow furrowing.

When he speaks again, his voice sounds thoughtful. “Huh. Guess he was right, you really are Russki, aren’t you?”

The silence after that is more deafening than anything else. Images flash through Nails’s head all at once: childish drawings of laboratories, hands screwing in muscles and limbs as tar leaks from blasted pipes, electric jolts, dead men torn, soul hidden, mind jumping to body after body for years upon years upon years…

The Captain’s eyes drift down, down, down below, down the sullen stairs. Despite the potent light of the shunter crystal on his helmet, there isn't much to see. A yellow phantom of the light from the floor below quickly disappears, overpowered by his own white beam.

“The others are taking quite some time, wouldn’t you agree?” No response. Not even a nod.

The Scout grunts, fumbling for a Fix. Even now, years after he had started using, the familiar needle never lost its potency. It’s all that’s keeping him together, at this point.

The first expeditions up the tower hadn't required it. But then the drills came, large spiked contraptions and weapons borrowed from forces fighting in free China, coopted for the Eyes' needs. The monstrous biters and pipes and landlines were set up soon enough too, all pillared like aqueducts out of the old governors' tales of the might of Rome, pumping oil and anomalous fluids and waste from factories and labs half a world away: from the Ruscorps, Canada, Finland, and darker places yet.

The Tower hadn’t liked that. The Tower had fought back.

“Not even saving it, are you?” The Captain’s question meets dead air. Nails isn’t meant for conversation. He doesn’t understand why the other man wants to talk so badly.

“Well, they did say you’d be hooked.” A pause, a frown. He turns. “As your Captain, I think I’m allowed to examine your model, aren’t I? I am to look after all my constituents’ well-being, as per orders above. I shouldn’t need to remind you about orders, given you’re… ” he gestures to the metal augments criss-crossing Nails’ skin. His head twitches to the right, as the other man’s fingers rest upon his joints, searching, seeking.

“Model 5A. This isn’t supposed to exist yet…” He pauses, scratching his head. “You really aren’t human, are you.”

Nails simply stares ahead. Once, maybe, there might have been a point to responding. Back when he still had eyes. Back when he could still feel pain that wasn’t a cold, induced pinprick in his wrist. Back when-

It’s not important.

Outside the stairwell, the dark grows deeper. Nails stares piercingly into the eyes of the Captain: that lucky, lucky man who had never had to leave a lab in his life, the man whose hands are smooth and uncalloused, fingers still made of flesh and blood. He hadn’t gone through the battles Nails had, hadn’t fought in war. Had the other man been ordered to hold the Throne-Fire-Spear, he might have lost his hands, too. But he hasn’t. Nadir’s a captain instead, captain of a mission into a place he’s never gone into.

That Garrera boy’s a bit of a ‘free-thinker’, as they say. None of the philosopher bullshit, of course, but thinks he’s better than everyone anyway, and moreover people in his department believe him for that, a cold man had said to Nails’ handler one rainy day a few months back, a wry smile plastered on thin lips. Men like that do no good for the world of the living. They’re the stuff of stories… With this, everyone wins.

The monster just has to do its job.

In the present, Nadir squirms, breaking their moment to clear his throat. Suddenly, a noise comes from the stairwell. The others had arrived.

“Sorry, we were held up,” says a limping, lazy-eyed trooper with a leg wrapped in gauze, his Irishman's voice slightly hoarse - Martin his name was, if the briefing was correct. It seems the bridge shift got him the worst. “Resource check. Doc’s orders.”

A subtle glare from the two other troopers, and the limping man shut himself up, hands fidgeting a holster strapped to his side. The man knew his guns, Nails was sure of that. The Eyes aren’t careless. But what use is a gun when there’s a tower that moves?

Two others pop up behind them, and the medic soon after… — Scott. Her name’s Scott. She’s a doctor from Mexico, transferred because of something that went wrong in a site somewhere. Nails likes her best. Unlike the Captain or the troopers, her smiles at him are real.

Real’s a hard thing to find these days. He’s not supposed to, not at all, but he almost feels regret for what he’s meant to do should the time come. The ghost of his handler’s voice back from transplant in Siberia whispers in his ear. English this time, not Russian.

Daedalus gave his son wings for a reason. I made you into something beautiful, for a reason. You have what many in this world could only dare to dream for. Do not be Icarus, monster. Do not make mockery of it with a fall. Fly!

As the Scout and Captain make to walk up the stairs, Doctor Scott’s gaze never leaves Nails’s cloak, Nadir's eyes darkening. Footsteps resume.

The light above beckons.


The tower is a wondrous place.

He’s been taking samples for the entire route thus far. The sheer variance in locales they pass as they spiral ever upward is impressive, to say the least. From sandstorm-come-ruins, to desert jungle, to alien hellscape - each new plane is entirely different to the one preceding it, an unspoken Pandora's box of one wonder after another, up and up into the endless climb.

And to think all it took to get a chance to see it with his own eyes was one small promise to the Eyes above; that he’d help to cement their research into a route to another reality, help them make their map, be their star-guide - no matter how many missteps he’d made in his department before. The long aeroplane and ship-rides north had all been worth it, all those lonely days at sea stiflingly shadowed by stuffy faceless men in cold black trench-coats, tacking amid icy seas beneath stilted pipelines to the frozen north with little for his own but a briefcase and admittedly brilliant credentials.

His future destination had seemed beautiful, even then on that first day he'd seen it in the mist from the port-deck - a tall, sleek thing it was, hazy top obscured by a cloud so thick it could be the edge of a painter's canvas, a black pillar rising in the wide. All pipes led to it on their teetering supports, jagged edged in the misty dawn. All ocean-aquaducts poured into the land beyond the frowning cliffs by the foot of the tower- the sea at the base of the thing broiled as if churned by old Neptune himself.

This is a project that very few know of, and even fewer are given the opportunity to lead it. To weave a path between one reality to another sounds almost silly now, when so many others have succeeded in doing just that long before him. This is different, though. If the project they told him of goes through… this could actually be reliable.

Nadir wipes his brow, peering up at Nails’s skulking form beside him. It’s a strange thing, to see a living, walking, byproduct of modern ingenuity in arm's reach, and even stranger to have it at his command. Though he was not let into the hazy details of Central’s partnership with the mega-conglomerate that ruled half of Siberia, everyone in his department back home knew Nefteyuganskneftekhim’s influence wasn’t to be taken lightly. Shady whisperings of their tenuous relations with the Authority had been a ghost story in the halls of command pyramids for decades - of all the ruscorps, it was all too fitting that this one had such strong relations with Central.

’He’ is functional proof of this Nadir decides as he takes in Nails’s jerking body with a curious gaze. The jar of replacement glass eyes on the scout’s belt glows faintly with an alien sheen. Proof indeed.

Their way up the next stair is arduous once more, though no longer hindered by any movement on the tower’s behalf. The drills must have stopped back in baseline. Loyal Alejandro, ever the stoic and dutiful, fills him in on the details of his fellow trooper’s injured leg. The man had snagged his leg on one of the spined balustrades when the passage jerked. Thankfully, no bones had been broken, and he was simply scratched.

In typical trooper fashion, Alejandro and Naomi did as they were trained to, holding their injured down long enough for Doctor Scott to administer the necessary procedures. It’d apparently led to a fresh torrent of complaints on Martin’s part, who hasn’t been the most agreeable member of their party that week anyway. He doesn’t take their work seriously enough.

Take it to a gun and some training in the islands to make a proud man feel as if he’s worth more than the gifts given to him. Nadir has a gun too, of course - who wouldn’t. But to hassle a medical professional - to hassle Laura - is simply madness. Even the tiniest scratch can prove fatal in an environment like this, especially given their exposure to extrauniversal environments. The act of patching the man up had passed swiftly, almost unnoticed, save for the white bandages around Martin's leg. No screams were allowed in their training, after all.

Laura… Laura… Nadir knows that name well. She's got work in her from time in America, or so her file says. A part of him wonders if he should have asked her about that back when they were first called to the project, but the leader in him had shut the waterworks off before they even ran. That’s what he is, really - a leader, never a follower, even if he doesn’t happen to be quite cut out for the first part.

He shivers, looking behind them. There is no monster stalking behind, rather, a white bandage with a red cross. The very woman he’d been thinking about. His eyes flit over to her almost immediately. Even after all these years…

That’s another enigma — Doctor Scott.

Nadir’s interest in the strange robotic being at their behest is of course strictly based on experimental purposes, as per his creed, but hers… he sees her eyes on the monster. She cares for it, has intent to help whenever needed, if ever. Though it’s silly, he can’t stop his heart from clenching at the very thought of that. Caring for someone’s like quicksand, an old friend had told him once, before he’d ever specialised departments and left them in the dust like all the others. One false step, and you’re sinking hard. Then it can turn to love.

He sniffed, nose scrunching at the sight of Laura and the monster. Damn platitudes.

It’s against protocol to feel jealous, but Nadir’s a researcher. He’s always experimented with things outside of the lines anyway, and to know that she can’t remember him but instead chooses a monster, even after all these years, hurts. Hurt that tastes of boiling blood and salty tears, bottled, shut-in tears born of years of cold, quiet work for Central's banner - no, Nadir couldn't dive into that emotion, not yet. Not ever.

They take several turns, moving this way and that - sometimes taking the main stair, and other times side-stairs. Nails evidently had been this way many times, and if the reports are correct - it’s taken the guides years to even have this minute sense of certainty in this place. Such loyalty breaks a captain’s heart.

The next room is purely golden; with art deco finishing across walls of glass, it’s the picture of something out of the days of the old protector program, bright and innocent. Nails stops.

“What’s wrong?” Nadir asks, not quite up the stair yet.

Nails only grunts, nodding over in front. When the Captain fully ascends, he sees it - a massive, jagged spike covered in dried fluids bisects half the room. On the far end, it looks like half the wall has been corroded away, a channel of black sludge steaming in a pool issuing from a pipe connected to the spike’s body. It’s an old model, but Nadir’s not stupid. He’s seen reports, he’s read the things they’ve given him. It’s recognisable enough for what it is: a gift from the earliest spike-running teams in the tower, back when they couldn’t drill as well as they liked and were forced to rely on anomalous waste as an agent to enhance efficiency.

Nadir hums. “Thought we’re long gone from baseline by now, no?”

“Tower shifts. Tower moves. What we do there… echoes.” The scout replies, voice hoarse as ever. “It remembers too. Do you remember the jumps in the briefing?”

Nadir nods, extending a hand out to touch the cool metal of the old spike, now half wreathed with rust and grime. Apparently, the Eyes had been organising this project for a very long while. Nadir remembers hearing about the pipelines being built even fourteen odd years ago back in the conservatory, but he'd never put much stock in it beyond it being yet another Great Project, something to turn the cameras towards for a week or month, something so common in the post-wars world. Now we are done destroying, look at what we build: they'd really run out of state enemies in those years.

People need hope. As is Central's verdict, the anomalous is to be used and conquered, tamed and integrated to help humanity prosper. A few bridges didn’t hold a candle to much other things in existence, and with the news of the States' - ah, the VDT's - final integration under Central, such things were quite mundane in comparison.

This? This was something you had to see to understand.

More talk.

“We'll need to use those needles.”

“Yes. The Fix is necessary. Only way up, 'less you want to be torn to ribbons.”

"I don't like needles," he mutters under his breath with a scowl only to hear his statement echo around the room. His ears flush in embarrassment. Of everyone in the group, it’s only Nails who notices.

As always, he only grunts, colourless glass eyes swiveling away.

Nadir turns to Laura’s— no, Doctor Scott’s, face in the rear end of the group. Old feelings from all the way back in early training, thirteen and twelve respectively, well up again. Second time in a while, perhaps one-thousandth in the entire week. Once again, he quells it almost as quick as it comes.

“You said lower down that you had an idea, one to make administering the serum more efficient?”

She nods all smiles and sunshine, something incongruous with the gravity of their situation. There’s still no recognition in her eyes.

Enough of that.

“Yes, Captain. Naomi’s been helping me. Look.”

She reaches from a pack, and the trooper does too. Naomi presents him with repurposed mouth-guards, frequently used during resistance training. They’re all plastic and metal and mesh, more made for function than comfort, but Nadir supposes it’ll have to do.

“Repurposed. You just have to place these in your mouth, and bite down. Should help us in time.” Says Naomi, unrequited. Nadir's looking elsewhere.

Her gentle smile, how he’d missed it… But his sight swiftly darts elsewhere.

“Nails?”

The scout shuffles toward him, half stuck in a haze. So remarkable…

“How many jumps are there?”

“Variable. Depends on Baseline’s whims. Usually two or three. Sometimes four. Never in quick succession. ”

“-of which we have enough for four!” says a smiling Doctor Scott.

“It’s settled then,” Nadir says. He pauses, looking around the group riddled with murmured jitters. Martin staggers up, Alejandro ensuring good form. Good. Martin needs a leash on him anyway.

A part of him hopes loyal Alejandro can fix Martin’s attitude soon, but he knows better than to think well of others. Proud men don’t usually change, not unless something terrible happens. He’s a proud man himself, after all.

Nails is looking to him expectantly. Nadir nods at the thing.

“Let’s go,”.

As they leave, he looks on at the distinct gazes of each member of the expedition. Doctor Scott is curious, peering up at the walls’ invariable geometry in some strange wonder. The stares of each trooper — Naomi, Alejandro, Martin — are one and the same. They face their exit cautious but confident, sure of their skill as ordained by their position in Central's grand scheme. Martin puts on a brave face in spite of his injury, puffing out his chest as if he had total control. When in movement, the troopers’ differences and mutual intolerance fade to nothing, replaced by cold, forceful determination.

An admirable dedication, really. One that’s hard to keep, though he’d never admit that aloud anymore. Saying such things like that in the open has gotten him in trouble in the past.

Like that, they continue on through their ascent. The noise of new steps bounces from the walls, their owners noticeably more careful and wary than before. One step forward each, and the world goes silent. Two steps forward each, and the ascent turns to a fall. Three steps forward, and it all snaps shut, save for a pulsing, red light in the distance to swallow them all.

They barely have enough time to bite down to inject, teeth near breaking under the pressure.


Through dark they fall.

The speed of descent is ludicrous, absurd, impossible, but at the same time - they are still, six lights in the everlasting nothing. To breathe is impossible, to see unnecessary. Around the six, the pieces switch, dancing and slowly clicking together as if to some forgotten song. A red glare. The puzzle comes apart and together again, different yet the same.

And in another snap, the lights are back. Around them, a different world.

1, 2, 3, 4

They stand for a minute, shaken.

5, 6, 7, 8

Then Martin collapses to the ground, and Laura Scott clenches her ears screaming.

9, 10.

Nadir rushes to Laura, Naomi and Alejandro to Martin. Nails remains still, untouched by the flux. He’s surveying the situation, watching the people around them, waiting. This floor is unfamiliar, alien. The walls are ribs of plastic, the roof carved with patterns like circuitry. He’s never been here before, never…

This isn’t a situation he’s been in in a long, long time. The Flux isn’t supposed to go down. It’s no matter, though, his conscience whispers in his mind, a voice from a man in a trenchcoat standing on a cliff. That just makes what you have to do easier, no?

Yes. This is what he trained for. Unexpected situations. It’s why he was made.

He straightens himself, the warm embrace of the serum still coursing through what little part of his body remains flesh. He can’t afford to think like that: he’s seen too much to think like that.

“I'm scanning.”

His old handler’s voice is loud in his ears.

To fall is to die. To fly is to live. Fly. Do not fall. Fly. Do not fall. Fly. Do not fall. To fall is to die. To fly is to live. Do not let the things in the shadows cloud your mind. Look to the light. Find your strength not in the self that is fickle, but in your purpose that is eternal. Fly. Do not fall. To fall is to die. To fly is to live. Fly…

That is what they said to him as he transferred. That’s what he’s been taught, and that’s what he’ll do now.

“Nails, where are we?” asks his Captain, scrambling to help up Doctor Scott, her hands over her ears and mouth open, with eyes lost in a haze of terror and confusion.

It isn’t often Nails finds himself caring for another person; in fact, it’s been years. Laura had been nice to him. To see her like this, screaming, bleeding - it stirred something he thought he had lost on his first transplant, not long after the very first mission they’d forced him into after termination, so, so long ago.

He had spent months in the tower, years even, ruined his body beyond recognition to find the route he had. Never had the tower shifted so drastically, never had it fluxed in such a fashion. He can feel it, after all: they were meant to jump, not to fall. It had always been the same… until now.

“Nails?” the Captain’s voice is shaky, the scout’s cloak shivering in the dust. Nadir's shrewd voice is almost accusatory.

“I don’t know,” Nails’s voice is colder than cold, as he scans the room for abnormalities with the program in his right eye. Nothing. Bitter ash colours the air. Everyone else is coughing from the biting dust weighing heavy on their lungs, but he remains unfazed, unfazed as he always has.

Find your strength not in the self that is fickle, but in your purpose that is eternal. Fly. Do not fall.

Of course. He would not fall.

Fly.


Nadir stares hard at the metal floor.

“What are our options?” asks Naomi. She’s turned away from Martin’s body, trying desperately to ignore it, the practiced mask of authoritarian obedience her only bulwark. The other trooper had irked her, but he did not deserve to…

“We have enough rations to last us a month, give or take,” Alejandro says, eyes distant as he looks at Martin’s body, blood seeping from its orifices as the black void slowly devours it, echoing of their fall. The Abyss was unforgiving, so cold and relentless. “We weren’t supposed to take any longer.”

Inhale, exhale. Blink once, and the body is no longer a body, just another object in the room. His face tries to look brave once more, strength displaced but clawing up again.

Is Nails smiling?

Eventually, he speaks again. “No way but forward.”

It’s a line from a training speech he’d shared long ago with his other recruits, a relic of an older time. Even the strong, neutral face he’d become renowned for among his fellow troopers' falters.

Martin’s dead.

No way but forward. Nadir tells himself. The longer they wait, the worse it’ll be. They have to keep climbing up, and arrive back home. After all, they fell, right? Home must be above.

Good joke, good joke.

Nails’s fearful gaze doesn’t make him so sure. He’s paralysed, scanning around, occasionally taking in Doctor Scott’s curled form, her voice hoarse from her screams. The crying doctor tries desperately to stand upright in Nadir's arms, hands apart from ears, but slips again. The scout steps in to help her too. Nadir fumbles through his pack with one hand, and tries to offer her water, but she recoils. Eventually, it’s Alejandro who manages to get it to her, to calm her down. Something in the trooper's attitude oozes authority, of firmness, even if there is none. He holds her shaking shoulder still. Everything's ringing.

“I was supposed to… “ She chokes out through screams, finger pointed at the floor. The trooper holds her back as she trashes in his arms, ears still bleeding as she whimpers just once more. Below them, Martin’s head is swelling, filling with black pus. He has no eyes. Why does he have no eyes?

The void had stolen more than just Martin from their group, Nadir can see that now. Finally calmed, Laura turns to drink, and Nadir sees her eyes flit over him for a little, wild yet watchful.

Is she angry at me? Or thankful?

He doubts he’ll ever know. Not anymore, anyway. A metal hand closes around his shoulder. Nails’s emotionless face looms beside him, the reeking ash in the air half-lit by the blue of the other man’s helmet. Though evidently a practiced gesture, trained by the Eyes that shaped it to help others it led to brave horrors faced, Nadir still finds some comfort in it. Not enough to quell his personal fears, though.

"That… that's not a normal flux, is it?"

Nails says nothing, only looking up, up the spiral of the twisted tower. Nadir sighs. The scout is right, there’s only one thing to really say. Even if they never make it to their destination, they still have to move forward.

“We have to go.”

Silence fills the room, but not misunderstanding. To have Authority - to have structure - is important. Wary eyes look up to the Captain. The lack of Central’s watchful and comforting eye, so annoying and so terrifying at the same time, frightens them all, but yet still they must keep on, they must make it to their destination, they must

As for him… he can’t afford to be frightened. He’s the Captain, and everyone’s relying on him. He has to push forward; he has to take the first step, or they’ll all die, Doctor Scott with them.

Thus, after a slow breath, he does. Behind them, Martin’s body dissolves to nothing, too quick to be burned with honour.

Forward.


AUDIO LOG #2

{$name}

Researcher Gerrera again. Objective modified, it’s nigh impossible now. The tower changed, but rather than jumping as expected, we fell.

[Pause.]

We have started our climb back up. Though it may be long and arduous, we will succeed. Casualties: Martin O'Connor is dead. Doctor Laura Scott is wounded, her ears shot from the fall. Her hearing is messed up, every noise seems to hurt her.

Everyone in the group is experiencing vertigo to some extent. I have vomited several times in the past few days.

0059 is managing. He was confused, at first, but quickly together we realised that we had to continue to move up as soon as possible. Keita has prepared more serum, thanks to her work with Laura before she was compromised. We are ready, should another jump occur. 0059 does not believe that will occur, though. I expected 8302 to be more like RCP-2248, but that wasn't the case. It's more… malicious.

We are travelling up now. The architecture is completely different, nothing like on Earth. The current area we traverse is most similar to the Dimensional Containment Area in Site-435, with its weird meshes of concrete and sand around Heavy Containment. Unlike the DCA, this seems almost natural in its composition.

I'm sampling as best I can, but it's difficult now. We move much slower.

Should this ever make it back to the Righteous, it will be trailblazing. Should it not - at least I have the solace in knowing that I was faithful, unto the end.

We are moving slower now. Time is broken currently. I do not know how long we have been moving, though I estimate two days since the Flux.

The atmosphere within remains stable.

{$name}

AUDIO LOG #3

{$name}

We are encamped around a strange location. It’s been almost a week since the Flux. The stairs have stopped. We are at the edge of a strange tunnel, near vertical, going through some unknown substance. It was initially covered in some kind of gelatinous film, but 0059 blasted through it. He assures he can hear beating, but none of us can confirm.

The malevolence is still there. It's tracking us. It's like RCP… I don't remember the number… the hornet hive. It isn't metallic, but the shape is the same, circular and endless, more… Alive?

[Pause.]

We are still tending to Doctor Scott’s ears. They are bleeding at random intervals, and do not seem to stop.

We are resting currently, but will move upward regardless. 0059 does not believe it wise to stay on one floor for too long. Until the next log.

{$name}

The rotted tunnel has been climbing for a while now, winding up and up with little kindness for those that clamber on its bony floor. Nadir’s sweating like he's never before, and that's saying something - he's grown up in Spain, and worked in Africa most of his life.

The rigid movement of the mechanical scout in front of him, tireless and inhuman as ever, is all that keeps the group together. That, and the serum.

The Fix. Even now, he can feel it in his blood.

It isn’t even needed anymore. There are no repeating rooms, there isn’t even a stair after they hit the tunnels, and yet… it’s addictive. It’s interesting, warm, calming. Nails had given it to him one resting period a few days ago, just to help him sleep. All of them are on it, now. It's their nectar, their ambrosia, their devil's fruit before the void.

Too many classics, Nadir. He's always been too good at remembering things like that. Ancient songs. Epics. Old stories. Drove his supervisors crazy, some vestigial remnant of being a boy that'd never quite left him.

Even facing the loss, all the hurt they’ve experienced in the damn thing, Nadir cannot get the tower to leave his thoughts. No, it wasn't even the tower anymore, but rather - these tunnels. Though he might never make it home again, it was all so interesting - far too interesting to really care about simply surviving.

He studies the walls beneath his smooth hands, walls no humans from baseline at the very least had likely ever touched. They are strangely wrought, half gloop and half bone, formless yet rigid at the same time. These don’t look like anywhere else in the tower… Why?

They bulge in and out almost randomly, dripping into the floor as if they were a thickly viscous liquid. One touch, however, disproves that: the walls, though moving, are solid.

Like glass, only faster.

The tower could not be destroyed by any human hands. Indeed — the Authority, for all its resources, could not even hope to modify the base of the thing, to move the stair, and yet… something here had managed to do just that… .

A chunk of battered gloop flies out from above him, as Nails further makes to scale the walls.

Nadir almost slips from his climb when he sees the eyes staring back at him through the mottled surface beneath his fingers. He blinks once. Whatever he saw… it’s gone.

What…

His forehead’s pounding.

It… It’s the blood rushing to my head. I’m fine. I’m-

“Captain, you coming?”

Nails’s masked face peers over the brink above to look down at Alejandro, stoic mask still strong. As with his training, the man’s not going to let some deaths derail him from duty. With a start, Nadir realises he’s not moved. Everyone else is already ahead.

“Yeah I… yeah. Just saw things.”

He’s breathing heavy, though he doesn’t know why.

“Anything important?”

“Nothing. Just my head.”

The words on his lips sound like a bad joke, and for a moment all he can taste are the ashes in his mouth, the ashes back from the Flux. Alejandro’s eyes narrow in suspicion, but he says nothing of it. There are more important things at hand.

“… Nails. He found something, Captain. He’s stopped speaking, stopped walking. We can’t get him to move. You should come.”

The captain clambers quickly up the slippery shallows of the ancient tunnel to meet his comrades. Warm air now drifts through the passage, an alien breath, and a putrid stench fills the air that he cannot bear to breathe. Everything’s a blur. He’s coughing blood again, but Naomi - ever the resourceful one - quickly fastens a gas mask over his face, the special kind specifically used for low-coherency environments. They’d not needed them yet, not until now.

It’s then his eyes meet Laura’s roving glare. Ever since the Flux, she’d been scowling at him, almost as if she remembers their history.

Remembers their history, and hates him for it.

Shit. It might prove a problem for them eventually, but not yet. Nadir is sure of that at least, of all things. For now and for him only, it’s an impermanent relief.

She’s not dead.

Finally, his hacking fit subsides. Before him, the tunnel seems to make a sudden right angle, running flat and smooth for a great distance. By the turn, Nails’s gangly mass of manufactured metal limbs and fake corpse-flesh blocks the view of a wide opening.

“Nails?”

No answer.

“Nails?”

Moving past the scout, Nadir finds himself by a gaping hole opening like a lidless eye unto a further darkness, outlined from behind by a soft blue-green light.

Just blackness.

“Nails, are you there?”

A gurgled response, more impersonal than anything Nadir had ever heard from the scout. The other man’s face is still the mask of a perfect product.

“Look.”

Peering through the empty opening, he sees it, face straining in the dark.

A massive pit opens unto nothing, a hole into an endless dark in which twisting shapes writhe and turn like waves in a primeval sea. It’s not that which piques his interest, though.

It’s the statues.

Lit by a pale glow, a thousand different figures with a thousand different poses line the walls on the far side, corpses half tressed in the same viscous, globular substance that seems to coat the shadowy tunnel behind them. All shapes and all sizes, humanoid and alien alike, are before them, lined up as if readied for a serving at some high table; all things are ruptured and twisted in different angles and forms, their faces empty sockets carved and long since defaced beyond recognition.

All look over the central hole. All look over the gloom.

Distant echoes well up then from far below, murmurs in the ancient dark. A small part of him, that vestigial animal brain that he hates so much, impresses a special fear in his mind.

This is no place for man. He shivers, his thoughts racing that the better half of him quickly pushes down. This is no place for anything but that which lies in the pit, but they’d be going forth anyway. They had to.

A mournful call resounds, ancient and sad. Nails chooses then to motion to the right, urging them to leave. They cannot waste more time there, frozen corpses be damned.

I should have been the one to make that call, Nadir thought, scowling. The statues in the pit seem to almost be grinning, mocking his incompetence.

That’s silly, though.

They stumble on.


Somewhere along the way they’d taken a wrong turn. They’ve been walking for a while now in a wide, dark space, the tunnels having long since left them. The gloom is so impenetrable even the lights on their masks don’t work, the warm, putrid air the only indicator of the true expanse that they’ve entered.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

A sudden squelch echoes in the dark just a little away from them, its source invisible. In the faint light of the masks, Nadir sees Naomi nod toward him, flare gun in hand. There is no fear in her eyes, and Nadir has no doubt her past experiences have molded her for things like this.

He lets her fire.

A brief flash lights up what it can; there are no walls which can be seen, but high above them, a roof caged with bone and dripping things encloses whatever they’re in. Other things are caught in the ceiling, though of what they cannot say. The flash was too quick.

The flare lands a long way away, a shower of fire bursting up when it hits the ground.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Laura’s muttering again as they draw closer. Something about her ears.

“The dripping’s so loud. So loud…”

Her pain eats at him.

Nails points to the fire they’d started, his mechanical reach extending to grab his captain’s arm to look.

“What the… “

It’s burning something. As the fire grows brighter, the vague shapes behind become more visible. Nadir purses his lips, fingers edging at the gun in his pocket. It’s best to be ready. Down one man, there’s no telling what awaits them..

It’s like what they had seen in the central pit, but much, much bigger: a mesh of countless bodies of countless species, all piled and carved as if hacked away for the whims of a crazed muse, fused together by a strange fluid. All about its cadaverous foundation, piles of corpses lie, half bent and half desecrated, body-bags of paint for a monstrous artist. The flames lick the base, but do not dare spread up its length almost in reverence, burning as if held back by something else - something else in the darkness.

Nadir squints, and for a moment rather than a blood-pile he sees a woman, one of many eyes and hands sat atop an ivory throne, ribbed with the bones of ancient monsters. Red blood seeps down the length of it, glistening in the orange light of the flare.

It’s beautiful, in a way.

“So loud… so loud… So… “ Laura screams suddenly. “So loud. Something’s here, they’re… “

She falls, Nails catching her. There’s a genuine look of slight discomfort on the scout’s face. It surprises Nadir. He hasn’t thought such men of steel are even capable of emotions anymore, and the scout’s been quite confident thus far in their journey, the flux besides. Such a look doesn’t seem focused on Laura either, but rather something… off. Something not seen.

The Captain’s the first to forget the dripping in the dark.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

“Captain! There’s something-”

There isn’t even a scream. Nadir turns around with gun in hand, but Naomi’s gone.

Shit. He fumbles for his gun, but Nails is already out, the spot the disappeared secforce trooper used to stand in crosshairs of a weapon of his own.

They hear a mournful, reedy moan to their right. It’s just like what they had heard faintly in the other cavern.

Silence.

“Keita?” Alejandro calls out quietly, voice edged in concern. His eyes meet Nadir’s.

A cloud of soot is kicked up around them as Nails slams his shodden boot into the floor, spines rooting themselves to the ground. Pulling a chord, he jams three syringes into his neck. It’s enough.

Cold light scans the cavern, but it doesn’t reveal anything.

“Wha-”

“Quiet,” Nails whispers as best as a mechanised human can hope to, raising his strange gun atop of his shoulder and slowly edging further towards the light. Alejandro tries to speak, but Nadir quickly claps his hand over the other man’s mouth, a finger on his lips.

There’s silence again, then…

Another moan, Laura sent staggering.

“So loud… so loud… They’re singing songs…bird-songs… ”

Nadir puts a tentative hand on the scout’s shoulder, barely reaching the curved metal plate above his metal arm.

“We should get out-”

Another moan, this time from the statue. The sounds increase in frequency. The Scout’s hesitates slightly. It's a noise so contradictory, paradoxical — was the thing truly afraid. It shouldn't be afraid. ‘He’ shouldn't be able to. Metal can't feel fear. But something's got to him, Nadir knows that much. Is it the beating he heard earlier?

Something’s wormed its way inside the man. A different noise distracts Nadir, sight struggling against the dimming light.

There’s more than one, he realises with a chill.

It’s then that they’re close enough to notice and the fire bright enough that the hackneyed statue is no longer simply a still totem of rotting bodies, but instead wreathed with something else, living shapes twisting in the orange dark; a thousand wormlike things gnaw and gaggle and tremor, gorging, knitting, stitching, eating, furrowing in blood and bone and flesh. A whining siren blares.

The worms weave across the rotted flesh, stumbling and stuttering along as if they were blind, or struggling with old habit. They move asynchronously yet coordinated, cutting and joining the pieces to build something alien, a different kind of life.

Someone - Alejandro - fires another flare.

“Wait-”

It’s too late. The flare hits the statue, the worms scattering from it with inhuman speed.

Nails stands frozen, the eyes in his skull spinning and spinning, a hand to his brow. Lights across his plated mech suit, layers upon layers thick, flash and whirr. Something’s wrong. Something’s really wrong.

The cries are frantic now, the pitch familiar. With another chill, Nadir realises they’re more akin to a crying child’s voice than that of a monster. A guttural groan, the dark is darker now. The moans in the cavern turn quick to chants, repetitive and cyclical. Whatever these things are, they’re intelligent.

We need to go. Now.

Run!

A roar, a roar, a roar. In the light of the new flare, a greater fire is catching, the silhouettes of the car-sized flesh-eating worms writhing as their shrines burn like roman candles in the dark.

A fleshy tail, its length covered in a multitude of ridged gelatinous spines, near strikes him as he runs. Chanting, chanting, chanting. Their footsteps are haunted.

A thousand gurgling voices, ancient and harsh, swirl in his mind.

Dursh-raga. Dursh-raga. Dursh-raga.

The chanting turns to screaming. Laura clutches her ears. They’re bleeding.

“So loud… “

Nadir helps Nails carry her.

“Don’t worry. We’re almost safe.”

Dursh-raga, Dursh-raga…

Images flit through his head, images not his own. A great and powerful woman of fire, a messenger of a bygone court, being chained and funneled, torn from her seat by blinding suns; floodwaters rising as a tower washes to shore in an ocean of stars; eyes opening for the first time in a world of darkness, a lone figure with a torch stealing fire from a thousand nebulae as countless gods rise and fall from swirling dust. Nadir barely catches his breath. Something’s in his head. The robotic scout’s eyes are slightly wider now. Can he see it too?

Tears blur Nadir’s vision. A voice, a child’s voice, whispers in his own tongue.

Remember, remember, remember. The worms groan. The Maker molded us, left us, but we remember. Remember. Remember. Remember that which brought us Eyes…

Alejandro fires a final flare forward, an exit revealing itself from the gloom.

Dursh-raga… Flame-Bringer… you are flesh, you are blood. Look here, on all the things we have made….

Laura shudders under their arms, old grudges forgotten in the light of a new pain.

A final scream, the floor beginning to turn to liquid mud under their feet, sucking them downward as the things in the dark draw closer.

Fear builds in him, a final chant finished.

Dursh-raga.

They climb.


Fly. Fly. Fly.

His handler’s voice is louder than ever, almost screaming in Nails’s head. Why didn’t you kill them? It’d have been so easy just then. To move that gun of yours and do your duty…

His own shuddering breaths aided by tubes fitted in narrow lungs are all he can here.

To fall is to die. To fly is to live. To fall is to-

His eyes are cold, but he can’t help but feel watched. Something is out there, chipping at his metal skull, scraping away like a chisel to rock.

Do not let the things in the shadows cloud your mind. To fall is to die. To fly is to live.

They run through tunnels, they run through the pit. The woman who smiled at him is crying in his arms. The mantra runs through his head, though his lips are still grave, as inhuman as ever.

Do not fall, monster. Fly. Fly.

The beasts of the pit will not take him. He’s not supposed to be like this. Fear was bred out long ago. So why did he feel-

Fly.

He’s seen death. He’s seen worlds shut themselves down, men and women die a thousand times over, beings upon beings, monsters upon monsters, oceans upon a thousand oceans. He’s been to the blackest of places, and come back better. He's cursed curses and blessed blessings to the candle-in-the-dark.

Why is this different? Why?

To fall is to live. To fly is to die.

No. it doesn’t go like that.

Fly. Fly!

He’s supposed to be conditioned. This isn’t meant to be the case. He’s been passed from body to body for years, every mission a consciousness moved to yet another stronger model, yet another fixed location, yet another house in which to be used. There were no problems then.

Why now?

Perhaps it was the doctor. He cared for her, as much as he could.

It’s not that, a small voice whispers in his head. You’re weak.

No, he’s-

Do not fall. Do not fall.

But he’s fallen already. Why aren’t you doing what you’re told? You have a chance, monster.

But the woman in his arms, the captain helping carry her. To make martyrs… The burning bodies in the pit. His breathing’s heavier now.

To fall is to die.

Fuck the mission. He’s not going to kill them. Not yet. She smiles at me.

But they’re dead weight.

They made him feel human again. The Captain talked-

Fly, monster!

There’s scraping again. Never in all his years in the tower, in working for Central, the Eyes, whoever, has he felt such a pure presence scraping at his mind, begging to be let in.

It’s only the flare that keeps it out, the ancient thing whose voice curls just outside his metal skull. The flare distracts it, breaks its focus long enough to stop itself from completing what it had started.

Look to the light. Do not let-

He’s supposed to be conditioned. He’s not even supposed to remember his own name, yet…

-Is to live.

Echoes in the mind, echoes in the dark. Something makes itself heard.

O, sweet Icarus, where are your wings?

He must be strong. He must stay strong, he must-

To die. Fly. Fly. Fly-

Where are your wings?

The wax is melting.


AUDIO LOG #4

{$name}

Researcher Gerrera, log number…

[Pause.]

Naomi Keita. Dead. We don’t know where the body is.

The things I’ve seen… it’s indescribable. Shit, it’s…

I won’t try to explain it. I’ll try that later, when the situation is calmer. We are moving forward now.

I don’t understand what I’ve seen. No one does, no one would.

[Pause.]

I worry for Doctor Scott.

Nails is the only one with a clear head. He’s the only one who knows what to do.

{$name}

It takes a long time, but eventually the chants fade to nothing. Nadir's hands can't stop shaking.

It’s quiet, it’s cold.

A breath.

The tunnel before them is endless and sheer, even more unforgiving than their first climb. The walls are as viscous as the last, slippery and treacherous. Only the calmed steps of the four break the stillness of the rancid place.

They’ve arrived — to whatever they have arrived. The globular mess that had taken over the previous space is still here, but to a lesser extent. Beneath their feet Nadir sees the remains of a stair poking through; it’s covered in slime of course, but it’s there nonetheless, twisting upward.

“The stairs… we’ve found the tower again,” he says, dumbfounded at their sheer luck.

They stand still for a little, catching their breath. Eventually, he raises a hand, motioning for the group behind to follow him up the stairwell to the next floor.

Nadir’s panting by the time they finish their ascent. They’ve come into a wide, vaulted room, its tall ceiling upheld by four pillars of great height and girth, set apart before a dark gloom. It’s nearly half a skyscraper tall. A thousand holes and crevices and fissures go thither in the dark to all sides of them, all wrought of the same black substance of the worms below. Though wreathed in gloom, the space has a different air about it, four great braziers of grey fire on the pillars providing… something, akin to the feeling of safety. The stairway’s familiar curve rises endlessly before them, higher and higher up into the reaches of the tower once more.

The stairs don’t reach the top properly. They’re stuck here for now. Despite the arctic wind piercing everyone’s bones, the torches do not go out. That’s good, Nadir decides - they’ll need that light.

A voice.

Flame-Bringer

He shakes his head, pinching his arm. That’s not real.

The quiet of the strange room comforts him, but he’s not naive. The cold air may be refreshing now, but he knows that things changed quickly in this space.

Just a few minutes of rest. He leans to the side. Then we’ll go.

He turns to see Nails still carrying Laura. Her hands are gone from her ears now, but in the grey limelight he can clearly see the slick blood running sitll her neck. Whatever happiness she had had was gone, whatever personhood stripped.

So loud…“

She’s still whispering.

Nails is stonefaced as ever, but Nadir knows after being with the thing for a while that he’s not normal. He’s twitching far too much, and his hand is grasping Laura’s back, probably in some vain attempt to comfort her. Was that… regret in his eyes?

I want my hand to be on her back, the captain thinks selfishly. He knows that’s not possible, though. Not anymore.

Besides, the real Laura is somewhere lost before the first jump, long gone in the lower reaches of the tower half a universe away. Her eyes are roving again. For a moment, they lock with his. Where once was cordial happiness, confusion or hate, now little but a casual vacancy resides. It hurts.

Uncomfortable with the attention and the guilt it brings, he turns to Alejandro, who’s loading a new flare into the stubby pistol he carries. The trooper’s been loyal, more loyal than a captain could ask, but his light show back there had almost cost them their lives. Did he even know that?

“Maybe if I fire a-”

Christ.

“Don’t,” Nadir says at last, mouth firm and hand at his side. Alejandro’s brow scrunches, eyes narrowed. The man’s message is clear: he’s doing whatever he thinks will help them survive. Nadir’s is clearer. He might not know how to fire a gun as well, but he sure as Hell can do it if necessary to keep them together.

He’s a leader, after all. Even if half my team is dead. Even if Nails is taking the person I love from me.

His eyes meet with Nails’s. A nod. The stairs would likely shift, and their passage would open again. Until then, they would rest.

The grey lights dance.


Nadir wakes with a start. The cold air has shifted. Groggily rubbing his eyes, he sits up. No one else in the group is awake, not yet. All is quiet.

The gloom seems darker, somehow. Wait…

He scans the group. Someone’s missing.

Nails.

Shit.

He checks frantically around the pillar. Suddenly, he sees it. At the edge of the torchlight on the far side, a faint figure’s walking silhouetted against the muted grey, the vague outline of mechanical limbs the only sign of their owner.

Laura’s asleep. Good.

He runs across the sandy floor of the massive space, hoping to catch up with Nails.

“Nails!”

He turns. His visor’s down, and he has a gun in hand.

“I must fly.“

“Nails, what’s going on?”

“Nails?”

His voice is tinged almost with a faint edge of disbelief.

“Yes, Nails. It’s your name, it’s-”

“Monster. For as long as I can remember everyone called me monster.”

They stand apart, Nadir not quite sure what to say next. Yes, this is what he's thought from the beginning, though he tried to be nice. But to hear it…

“Nails, what are you-”

The monster sways ever so slightly.

“My name…" Nails slurs, as if tasting the words on his lips. "My name is Ashton.“

For a while, all is still.

“Wait… you know… Wait, but-”

“The things in my head,” the augmented man’s voice is shaking, cracking as he says it. “They’ve been whispering to me ever since the flares. I was so good at keeping them out. I’m strong. I use the gifts that were given to me. But… They told me things. My name. How to be human again, I… ”

His shoulders are shuddering. Nadir has never seen Nails so frail, so… vulnerable.

“It felt so good.”

Dripping in the dark.

“The people with smiling eyes wanted me to kill you, you know.” Nails chokes out. “To kill all of you.”

“They? What…”

The scout’s strange gun rises. For a moment all is still, the grey light flickering on Nails’ visor. Nadir raises his hands in submission, taking a careful step backward - never once daring to run away.

“My handlers. Back in baseline. I’m not supposed to be human, but I think they fucked that up somewhere along the way, too. I couldn’t do it. I had so many chances, but I couldn’t. She…”

The man’s voice breaks a little. Laura’s still sleeping by the staircase on the far side of the room, all crumpled up. “I couldn’t.”

The gun lowers slowly, until at last it drops to the ground with a dull thud. They stand there like that for a while, silent. Nails - no, Ashton now - casts off his visor, his ugly veined face bulging in the pale light. It’s streaked with tears, blobby fat tears that don’t flow properly around the inhuman glass punctured where his eyes should be.

“The scraping things… they gave me back my name,” the scout says. A faint sheen of sweat lines his forehead. His glass eyes go vacant. “I felt so human.”

His lips are puffy and bloodless, like a fish. His eyes shut, his hands raised up as if an offering. A chill that runs down Nadir’s spine. Another step back. When Nails speaks again, it’s not his voice.

“She will come to us someday, you know? We aren’t…”

“She? Wait - Laura? Nails, are you… “

He opens his glass eyes, bright and blue. If they could hope to manage emotion, Nadir thinks they might have shone like stars.

“We aren’t forgotten," he says, something glistening down the sides of his face. It's only now Nadir sees it - there's something dark there, fluid leaking from his ears. Dark like blood. Nails speaks again, voice strangely… happy. Content. "The Flame-bringer. She- The Searchers search again, we are… we are…”

What was he saying?

“Nails— 0059, wake up!”

“I have an… invitation. They told me to come. The universe…“

Nadir shakes the scout, hoping to snap him out of the trance. Nails can’t see him through his trance, his scarred and pallid face sweating in the grey light. Shit.

“So many eyes, in this dark space. We carved it out of the ancient roots, we carved it in effigy of her Fire, her Consciousness, so that she may return…“

“Ashton, stop!”

He slaps the man’s face. The eyes are the same, cold empty spheres barely reflecting the light.

He truly wasn’t human anymore.

“You should come too,” the lost scout says, voice muted. “All must celebrate. You have… invitation.”

There’s a high-pitched keening sound. He hears Alejandro yell, gunfire in the back.

A roar in the dark. The ground below them shudders and shifts, as if water in an earthquake. Nadir grabs Ashton, pulling him back as he breaks into a run, the scout’s hulking mass barely resisting.

“Fly, fly, fly…”

Asleep, then.

Just as they make it back past the edge of the massive vault to the stair-room, a massive, tubular shape rises from the earth behind them, coiling itself around the pillars jerkily as if cranked by some terrible, invisible force. Something screams - Oh, how loud it is - screams into the recesses of his mind, and therein Nadir sees a figure — everything around them is dark, but there's a light, cold fire burning over a throne of beaten bronze. More visions now: a sad soul walks alone in darkened plains, lantern in hand; an ancient court rises and falls before swirling water, wheels turning as a snake screams with sorrow; a dark hatred festers in the hearts of old things, festers as billions are taken, chained, locked away, trapped.

Fixed.

Ashton laughs, his voice manic.

“The council of ten took her from us, locking us here away from our brethren that served them. They took her from all of us. Flame-Bringer. Dursh-Raga. They took…“

He starts shaking, clawing frantically at Nadir’s clothes. He pushes Ashton away in return, reality still half-melded in dream. It’s trying to distract him, he knows this, but- Nadir cannot unsee the stars, shining now through the arctic night. He cannot unsee the wheels turning and turning in perfect synchronicity, a story of a world unchained by faux symphony.

The worm’s head, a horror made mottled, rotting flesh enclosing teeth and spears, peeks through a hole left by its own body. But the singing, the singing! A woman's voice calls to Nadir from the present, fair and high over war-racked wastes, black-armed figures swaying in wet waters. It's alluring. The maw is closer, now. But the stars, they’re beautiful, and the Single Eye, the One above all Ones… commands.

Fear them.

A light flies from the corner of his eye, leaving a trail of smokefire — it’s a flare. Alejandro again. He’s a loyal dog. Idly he sees it pierce the worm’s wretched mouth, the fire searing its insides as if cauterising a wound. It screams.

Its body stretches, thinning and contorting against the great pillars upholding the high vaults of the tower, trying to press in, trying to crush them. Its mouth opens, and another mouth comes from inside, lines of a thousand thousand teeth whirring as if on a wheel’s axel. The second row of teeth give into another mouth, and another, and another… — And it keeps wailing, were it a bawling baby and a crying titan. The stars answer to its call, and they shimmer brighter. Its body grows thinner, ever thinner, opening into more and more mouths, more rings of teeth, more holes inside the skin. The air smells of corpse-flesh.

They’ve all been immobilized by the screaming. It stings like a sword, but sings like a siren. Laura’s tears are the only other sound, tears bleeding into the sand.

BANG-BANG-BANG — A burst of mighty firepower strikes the mouth again. Alejandro advances against the wailing, sights locked with the beast’s head. Another burst. And another. And the worm keeps crying. Another burst. And the heavens cry with it. Another burst.

Orange blood leaks from its face now filled with holes. It retreats, burrowing into the white sand.

It’s only when he’s halfway up the stairwell with the rest of the group, when Laura screams, failing to keep quiet. She’s hysterical.

It’s only then he realises he left Nails- no, Ashton, behind. Whipping around, he looks far below him to the floor of the great vaulted room. It teems with thousands of smaller thrashing worms, their maws unfurling like bleeding flowers to feast and sculpt upon the scout’s twisted metallic body, squealing in delight at the notion of a new medium with which to add to their shrines below. The larger worms squirm in the shadows, twisting hungrily just outside the torchlight of the room.

For as long as I can remember, everyone called me a monster.

There’s a familiar wail. Nadir knows then that they’re watching him, feeling him, reaching into his head. A low chanting swells. It’s a monster’s funeral.

A voice.

Dursh-raga…

Above them, a red light flashes, the stairs rearranging. They can leave, they can leave at last. The worms scatter, scurrying away to their holes: below the sand likely, or into old tunnels to either side. They’re alone now, alone but for Alejandro’s heavy footfalls, and Laura’s empty sobs. The last remaining secforce guard’s face is grim.

They go on up in the quiet dark, cold and mute. Half-lost in his haste to leave, Nadir realises something. The worms didn’t leave because they were done with their feast. No, not at all.

The worms were afraid.


There is no change in constant change — new worlds always succeed each other. As they move up the tower, landscape after landscape appears around them: dark, light, dazzling, terrifying, but every time the same. There is only the stairway as they pass, the flashes of light and colour bleeding quickly into an overwhelming monotony that grates at Nadir’s very soul.

Silence gives too much space to thought. Nadir still sees the stars whenever his eyes shut, still hears the chants whenever his feet rise. He still sees Nails crying under grey torchlight, calling himself a monster as the creature ate at his mind. The worms’ memories of the Flame-Bringer speak to him through mirage after mirage, image after image, vision after vision until it all becomes numb. Her voice reaches out to him, incomprehensible, so distant from her person he had once known. She repeats the words of the worms with no mouth to speak, her body made of burning eyes. But it isn’t made of eyes, rather of teeth, the rotating mass of mouths squealing as the great worm’s mouth edges closer. But the mouth is not a mouth, but rather corpse-wax, a statue made throne, rising to the heavens forever and ever, taunting him.

Only the sight of Alejandro and Laura distracts him. Their stare is just as absent as his, maybe more. Alejandro’s face speaks of a century of monotony, his facade of strength and courage long gone, dead with the bodies of his comrades.

“Ashton,” Nadir mutters dumbly, his voice hollow. “He wanted me to call him Ashton.”

And all the captain had treated the scout when they were alive was as a toy, some plaything to dissect.

The men with smiling eyes, Ashton had said before he died… the Eyes? Russians? It didn’t matter anymore. Someone back in baseline wants them dead. The party… they were never meant to return.

He supposes he should feel something when it comes to that, but he can’t. He feels empty like he’s breathing dead air, living borrowed time.

Nadir wants nothing more to speak, to talk to the man in front of him, to fix the loud nothing in the air. But he’s too scared, too afraid — if he opens his mouth, the worms might speak for him. They might make him give an invitation. Ashton, he…

God.

He feels no longer himself; perhaps he, too, is nothing but another statue in the everlasting lair of the worms, rotting and waiting in the dark to be fused by some black saliva and gelatinous mouth. No, he’s no longer flesh and bone indeed; they’ve dug deep in his skin, sculpting his thought and making it beautiful for their altar, an effigy for their goddess in the dark. Even if he’s free of them in body, his mind is still theirs.

Or maybe it’s not. He wouldn’t take any chances.

Laura is still broken, her eyes cold and distant. Why is she crying? Her ears have stopped bleeding, she’s stopped whimpering with every noise she makes. And if it is so hard, why does she keep walking? Why does she keep following? Perhaps out of automated belief in authority?

No, not that. She hates him. Perhaps out of love unburied by kenosis? No, not that.

The serum. It’s the only thing keeping any of them going, at this point.

Absent-mindedly, he takes a turn, stepping into a darker room — darker than the three he’s just wandered out of. He doesn’t remember what rooms he’s been through, how many, for how long. The dark calls his attention, and he stares at the night sky.

The night sky! This floor is a glass dome, glyphs writ across it that he recognizes as the Zodiac — that old Babylonian tradition he remembers crystal clear from books in his mother’s library. It doesn't matter though — it’s night, it’s time to sleep. At least, as close to it as it’s ever going to be. They’ve been walking for long, so long; they have to rest.

The stars sing beautiful songs.

Nadir turns, and a happy exclamation fails to leave his mouth. It is so dry. He smiles instead, and motions to Alejandro — we’re pulling out the sleeping bags.

He knows how Ashton felt, now. He knows how it feels to have the serum being the only thing left in your blood, any form of self lost in the horrors of another universe.

Maybe I’m the monster, his mind supplies.

He looks at the gun in his hand, the one he'd always had with him but never used, even in Nails' dying moments. It's mocking him. Quickly, he stuffs it away. The best one can do now is pretend everything's fine, right? He smiles at the others.

Alejandro smiles back, assuaged but broken. He needs to sleep. Laura’s face is empty, but somehow happier.

In beautiful disharmony, three sleeping bags are laid across the ground. Not a word is said. Not a word needs to be said. Neither Alejandro nor Nadir even think of setting up guard.

And like that, the world shuts off for just a while — and lights up again.

Nadir hears whimpering. Irregular, human whimpering. For a second, fear rushes through his veins: should he jump from the bag and confront whatever’s trying to kill him? Or should he lie still and play dead?

Those questions go unanswered as he finally recognizes the whimpers. It sounds like Alejandro. He’s crying, tumbling about in his bag. Anger, then compassion — Alejandro has been finally broken, and it would be soulless of Nadir to be angry about it. No option but to relinquish sleep, for one another’s sake.

Just try to shut off your brain. Even without sleep, resting for a while will help you. Just—

A different whimper interrupts his train of thought. It’s Laura.

“So loud… So loud… Make it stop…”

Alejandro doesn’t seem to notice.

“So loud… It has to stop…”

Laura rises from her bag. She has something in her hand. Alejandro’s crying grows quieter — and a swift, wet noise smothering it.

The victim screams, struggling against Laura. Trying to get her off, but she presses in.

“So loud, so loud…!”

More and more wet noises, one after another. One, two, three, eleven, fifteen. Alejandro’s screams have long ceased, replaced by gurgling, perhaps pleading. And then, they stop.

A dark shade rises against the night sky. It is Laura, but it is no longer her. Her shape is twisted but the same, left hand replaced with a dripping blade.

Where did she get that? — Nadir asks himself, heart rushing. His body asks him to run, to stand up and run. But if he does, Laura will follow, desperate to make the noise stop.

So he stays still. He stays still, and the stars turn to eyes: each white dot grows tenfold, red vessels extending from black center to black border. They watch, they beckon, they burn, pupils locked with his chained body.

The shade looms over him. Scanning, or absent? Does she perceive him? Does she see? It gets closer. The shadow doesn’t move, but it grows larger. The dripping blade beckons Nadir’s sight, following its tip with every single drop that runs off it and splatters on the ground. Don’t make any noise. Don’t make any noise. She’s going to hear you.

A red light flashes, for a second only. Whirring noises move about, and then: a rush of wind.

It’s gone again.

Laura’s sight is no longer pressing against him, but he cannot rest yet: to sigh would be suicidal. He keeps even more still, holding his breath as Laura walks to the lower staircase, and back. Her walk is strange, stilted. Every step is hurting her. She grabs her bag, rolling it inside its container with painful slowness. Nadir inhales desperately, no longer able to ignore the tightening in his lungs, but she doesn’t notice.

Thank God, she doesn’t notice.

Laura stands up, both her bag and Alejandro’s on her back. She turns, walking away to the lower stairs.

She walks away, going down the tower.

Nadir exhales in relief, but gargles in desperation.

The stars are red again, the eyes watching.

Even as he tries to sleep, they still peer down at him, laughing and laughing, echoes in the dark.

The worms were afraid.

He’s alone.


AUDIO LOG #5

{$name}

I— I forgot to record. I'm sorry I… I can't think straight.

I’m on the last of my rations. Doctor— Laura. Laura took the other bags. Everyone else is dead. N-nails, Ashton, 0059, is dead. How? He was supposed to… Alejandro is—

I'm not ready for this. This isn't my job. I want to go back to Paris, think about all of this with a glass of wine in hand. When will this be over?

[Pause.]

I derailed, sorry, sorry. There's just so little new going on around me. Everything is the same and nothing happens. Nothing at all. Only that—

[Pause.]

All right. I'll cut this recording and begin a new one where I can actually tell things in an orderly manner. Clinical and direct, like back home.

[Gerrera is interrupted by a loud, whirring noise, and remains silent after.]

This damned tower is mocking me.

{$name}

I don’t understand.

The sentence repeats itself, a strange mantra for a man with dying hope.

The stairs end at this floor — a bare cathedral, strange apses extending only a few meters to either side from the center of the floor. There are no more stairs, no more ascent. He doesn’t know where he is, should it be the tip of the very spire or just another pocket like the worms. He doesn’t know. He can’t know. He’s too tired. And if it’s the end…

Nadir cannot accept what this means. He can’t go down. He can’t return through the trail of bodies, go back to the putrid dark of the worm’s nest. There is no way back. Were they wrong in thinking they had descended? Perhaps there is even more tower above him, towers upon towers, billions into eternity all locked behind the cathedral ceiling.

A strangled cry gurgles from his mouth as he slams his fists into the floor.

Around him, there is nothing — carven walls and tinted glass. Whatever images the glass golds make no sense to him. It’s nothing but circular shapes, shapes he can’t interpret, empty shadows of some greater emptiness, far beyond time. He turns back to the middle of the ceiling, a massive spire protruding downward, impossibly smooth as the glass of the windows around him.

Nadir’s gazes drops, little by little, to follow the path the spike has set to the floor, perhaps in some feeble attempt to drive away the shaking of his hands; or perhaps rather to keep in the tears that await behind his eyes at bay, tears so eager to leak and turn to tide, a crushing wave in the room at the end of everything.

His eyes lock with Laura’s.

She’s facing him, sitting in the exact center of the room, hugging her legs, knife still in hand. Everything else is gone. Alejandro’s blood still crusts on her and her weapon, though it’s now long dried, a dark black-brown streak across her gaunt body.

And so the loyal man dies. Nadir shivers. He tries to set himself straight, whispering the words the Authority had told him since he was a child; as a leader, he could not afford fear, as an authority, he could not be cowed to mystery. Even what Alejandro had said, he had to move forward, move…

He stops. He isn’t a leader anymore.

He takes a shaky step backward.

The noise echoes endlessly, repeating forever from the tower walls.

She speaks, voice soft as windchimes.

“So loud…”

In a short breeze, Laura lunges forward. He can see the knife swimming his way, guided by a shaking hand. It moves slowly, so slowly, like time has stopped before his death, forever condemning him to face the darkness just a fraction of a second away.

But it doesn’t happen. It won’t happen, not so far down the line.

The tower hears him, and repeats his thoughts, feeding dread and anger into itself.

“No.”

Nadir’s hands jump forward, grabbing Laura’s. His body moves aside, and the blade barely misses. His eyes meet hers, just like they had once a thousand years ago, children in the homeroom chattering as paper planes sailed past. In some strange anticipation, their gaze deepens, pain and anger and fear subsiding for just a moment only. One second passes.

“I… ” he trails off before he finishes saying what he means. No, the time for that’s been over for a long while, now.

The next second goes by. Their faces remain apart. Nadir’s hands juggle with Laura’s in a strange, incomprehensible movement, guiding the knife from her fingers into his own. The third second passes, and so does the fourth. When his eyes blink, the tenth second has passed. The knife is buried in her chest, perfectly eating through the flesh. Her heart still beats, but her gaze is dead.

And then, she slips away. And then, and then…

She is no longer there.

He stands upright, looking around him in a perfect circle. Five figures are crouched in front of him, red light from the tower’s windows falling onto them. One of them looks back, and smirks mockingly. Martin’s face returns to the wall, and his left hand claws at it.

Naomi, Alejandro and Martin claw together, almost at the same spot. Laura and Ashton do it separately, but in perfect synchrony. A piece of the wall comes apart at Ashton’s swipe: the tower bleeds red, and Ashton devours the flesh in his hand.

All is quiet, all is beautiful. Each hand goes down, tears apart a piece of flesh, and holds it up for their mouths. Disorderly, yet symmetrical, they all gorge upon the wall, and the wall bleeds, regrowing a piece of bone in the shape of a knife, quickly eaten too. They eat and eat and eat, worms leaking from the holes, soon to be devoured as well. Eyes grow from the wounds, staring at him before being ripped apart.

White, grey, white, grey, red. Five, seven, five, seven, thirteen. One, three, five, ten, eleven.

The Tower beckons, the world silent. All is devoured in red light. Golden wheels lined with a thousand eyes gyre above him, twisting and twisting endlessly as his fallen friends fade away into nothing, their blood still slick on the blackened floor.

A broken laugh escapes him for a final time, then it all snaps shut.





And so he falls.

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