Alix landed in the middle of a clearing like nothing she’d ever seen.
Trees made of brick surrounded her. Their branches crumbled upwards, turning into thin, leafless twigs of steel. Snarled roots of pipe and wire twisted into the ground at her feet. The path beneath her feet was metal, so coated in rust that dust coated her boots. Newspaper-grass and tin can bushes sprouted along each side of the path.
The goggles made the world look like an old movie. Everything was sepia and white, and it flickered as she turned her head.
“Where-” she said, aloud.
“Sshhh!” Svelen’s voice came from above her head, like the voice of a god. She blinked.
“You’re gonna wake her up,” he whispered. “Remember, you’re still in the real world too.”
Alix nodded. She hoped he could see her.
“Where do I go?” she asked.
“Follow the path,” Svelen said. “See if you can find anything glowing.”
She started along, passing through the forest uneasily. Something rustled in the undergrowth, but when she turned to look, nothing was there.
“What happens now?” Alix muttered.
Great puffs of smoke came from the undergrowth. Smog blotted out the sky, thick as the smog around the Cathedrals of Industry.
“Nvara’s at the center of her dream,” Svelen said. “You have to get to the center, find where the lio’s coming from. It’s close to her. Depending on the dream, might be her, might not. Pick up as much as you can carry and bring it back.”
“Aight.” Alix nodded, and walked onward.
She heard the great machine before she saw it. Great pneumatic whooshes and clanks echoed through the metal forest. It sounded like some kind of vast mechanical animal, slowly dying.
But she couldn’t see it properly until she’d gotten to the edge of the trees. When she did, she had to shade her eyes- light glinted off metal, so bright it blinded.
It was a building. A skyscraper made of wood, with roots that twined deep into the ground. Its windows gaped like vacant eyes, and vast machines twisted up its sides like parasitic vines.
Platforms on pulleys cranked endlessly up and down; pumps studded with gauges clunked and groaned as they pushed something out of them. Smoke rose from stacks poking out from the skyscraper’s sides. Alix wondered how it hadn’t burned down.
“Guessin’ this is it,” she said aloud.
“What is it?”
“You can’t see?”
“I’m not wearing the goggles, Alix.”
“Right. It’s a giant… machine-tree.” Still shading her eyes, she looked up its length.
“… Ah, yeah, that’s the place.” Svelen breathed out hard. “Be careful in there.”
“You’re not my vexin’ mother,” Alix said. Despite her brave words, nervousness crept up her spine like a snake.
“No, but still.” She could almost hear Svelen nervously twisting his fingers together.
“Sorry,” she said.
She started for the tower.
“Do you see anything shiny?” Svelen asked.
Alix shaded her eyes and looked up- past the grinding gears and the endless pumps. Near the very top of the tower, in one of the empty windows, there was a light. It looked more like neon than fire, though it was as sepia-toned as anything else through the goggles.
“Yeah. It’s sort of… cold?” She tilted her head to the side and squinted, trying to see it clearly.
“That’s the lio. Go get it.”
“Ai. On the move.”
She lept, caught the edge of one of the platforms, and pulled herself up onto it. It clanked as she pulled herself up. The platform swayed from side to side.
A bell clanged in the distance. Alix saw something move out of the corner of her eye.
One second, she was standing on the platform; the next, something shoved her, and she fell.
Alix grabbed at the brick, fingers scrabbling against the stone. She caught a pipe and hung. Her legs dangled into the nothingness.
She didn’t dare look down.
Above her, the thing looked down from the platform – a glowing white shape with silver, burning eyes. It looked like a hole in the world.
“Svelen? What the fuck-” she said. Her voice cracked.
“What? What’s going on?”
The white shape leaped to a platform closer to her. It was graceful as a dancer, but something about the way it moved was wrong. Its limbs had too many joints, and its outline shifted and blurred.
“Alix?” Svelen’s voice echoed in her ears.
She tried to pull herself up. Rust flaked onto her fingers. The pipe groaned.
The creature reached out for her. Its arm flicked through shapes, fast as frames of a film reel. A crab’s claw snapped at her; a bear’s claws lashed forward; a serpent hissed and bared its fangs.
The monster’s reach was just barely too short. The serpent’s breath hit her face, but its jaws snapped onto empty air.
She laughed in breathless shock. Her gaze flicked down the tree’s trunk. She was too far above to drop down onto another moving platform, but another pipe jutted out from the side. If she managed to catch it-
Something moved. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw it- the creature’s torso lengthening, stretching like rubber. It reared up like a snake.
“Alix, answer me-” Svelen said.
The creature swayed from side to side. Staticky words crackled from its mouth, like a thousand garbled radio channels all speaking at once.
“One Of End Are You Kill End The Our Us Hurt End We Our Save Our End End End End End-”
Alix let go of the pipe. She fell like a stone. The creature tumbled after her, body uncoiling like an eel’s.
She grabbed for another branch, but her fingers only scraped against the brick. Something hot and wet ran down her hand.
The ground rushed closer. Alix closed her eyes-
Something tore at her temples. Cold air hit her face like a brick.
She wasn’t falling; she was sitting on a cold concrete floor. She couldn’t feel the weight of the goggles on her face anymore, but her fingers and her temples smarted.
She opened her eyes.
Svelen stood over her, coiling up the goggles’ wires.
“Alix- Are you okay?”
She sighed, and rubbed her hand. It felt like she really had gashed herself on a brick wall, but when she pulled the glove off, her fingers were as good as new.
“I’m fine.” She scowled. “There was a – thing, chasing me. That’s all.”
“…Ohhh dear. Was it the one with the gas mask?” Svelen asked.
She shook her head.
“It was a – shapeshifter-thing,” she said. “I tried to run away. Fell off a tower.”
“So I got you just in time,” Svelen said. He looked down at the goggles, and turned them over in his hands.
“I’m guessing that if you die in a dream, you’re still dead,” Alix said.
“If you want-” he murmured. “She’s still asleep. You can try again.”
Alix raised an eyebrow.
“You’ll let me?” she said.
“…If I didn’t, you’d figure out how to do it without me,” he said.
“You’re not wrong, but-” she said.
Outside, the hatch slammed.
Alix flinched. Every time the door opened or closed, she half-expected jackbooted Vravesva goons to march in. She nervously glanced at the bunk room door.
It opened. In stepped Vashe, carrying a package wrapped in brown paper. Melting frost dripped down his horns, and his eyes were bright.
He set the package down next to the door, and rubbed his hands together.
“Boys and girls,” he said, “we’ve got ourselves a job.”
Running With Rats updates biweekly every second and fourth Friday.
If you liked this post, and want to support my writing, consider donating to my Patreon? For the price of a cup of coffee, you can get bonus content, worldbuilding notes, news, and more.
Thanks for reading!