9/14 Hiatus

Hello, everyone. I have an unfortunate announcement to make.

Due to some mental health issues, I’m not going to be able to consistently post for the next few months. As such, Running with Rats is going on another hiatus.

We’ll be back online November 1. I’ll try to post some things on Patreon in the interim.

Thank you for your understanding. You guys are the best fans I could ask for.

 

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The Aeronaut’s Dream: pt. 6

Alix could hear the music from three streets away.
Trumpets blared, drums rattled, and piano keys jingled. A manzello wailed, high as a siren’s song.
Even through brick and steel, she could almost make out the tune. She didn’t know much about music, but even she could hum along- it was on the radio at least two or three times a day.
“Right. This is your last chance,” Vashe said. “You wanna back out, do it now.”
Alix bit her lip. No one said a word.
“Nvara, you ready?” Vashe asked.
“Born that way.”
Nvara stood up straighter and pushed her hair back behind her ears. In seconds, she looked like a completely different person. Maybe it was her expression, maybe it was her posture. But if Alix had to guess without knowing who she was, she’d say Nvara was the boss. The Vleylaander clothes fit her, hanging off her shoulders in crisp folds.
“Ayah,” she said. She sounded like a Vleylaander too, accent and all.
The four of them started for the door.
A guard leaned against the wall next to the door. He was barely older than Alix, with a pimply face; he wore the dull khaki Vravesva uniform, with no helmet or gas mask.
Well, they’d figured there’d be one. But it still made Alix nervous. She wanted to shove her hands in her pockets, but her robe covered them. She clenched a hand into a fist and rubbed her knuckles against her thumb.
As Nvara walked up to the door, he held up his hand.
“Do you have an invitation?” he said.
“My good man,” Nvara said. “We’re attachés. Ambassador Hooglandt has our invitations.”
Her voice still had the accent- the weird, lilting Vleylaander cadence, with sharp Rs and long Us. Alix tried to keep a straight face.
The guard frowned. His mouth twitched to the side.
“I can’t let you in without an invitation, pal. It’s not like I can just grab the Ambassador.”
“Do you want to be the one who caused an incident?” Nvara asked. She raised an eyebrow. Her face reminded Alix of a stern schoolteacher.
“N. No.” The guard fidgeted with the keys on his belt.
Nvara stared him down for a long, long moment. Then she grinned. Alix thought she saw every one of Nvara’s teeth.
“I can guarantee you, if you don’t let us pass, there will be one.” Nvara paused. “Now, if you’ll let us in, I’ll let the Ambassador know you helped us. If you don’t…”
The guard hesitated.
“Well. I. I guess I can make an exception,” he said. “For once. If you leave, I can’t let you back in.”
“That’s fine,” Nvara said. “We’re not leaving any time soon.”
He cracked the door open. The sound of the manzello and a doubl-hundred people talking rushed towards Alix. Her fingers curled in her sleeve.
“Enjoy the party,” the guard said.
“Certainly.”
Nvara gathered up her robes and swept inside. The others followed.
Alix lagged in the rear. She glanced back at the guard- he pulled a cigarette from his pocket and lit up.
“That was easy enough,” Svelen murmured.
“Aye. Now comes the vexin’ hard part.” Vashe’s lips pressed tight together.
“Why does everyone care about the ambassador?” Alix said.
“Politics,” Nvara said. “There’s war talks on.”
“Hush up,” Vashe said.
The long hallway opened up to a ballroom bigger than a city street. Alix could see her reflection in the polished floors. The peach-gold walls shimmered. A chandelier hung from the ceiling, electric candles shedding light that shattered on the crystal arcs.
Men and women, all human, mingled on the dance floor. Most of them were from Isseran. The women wore dresses with sharp collars and asymmetrical hems, covered in spiky patterns; the men, by and large, wore suits, unbuttoned at the collar, with no ties, waistcoats, or hats. In the corner, a person who looked like neither a man nor a woman wore a short skirt and a blazer with the Quorum’s insignia pinned to the lapel; they were surrounded by admirers.
A handful of people, scattered among the crowd, wore golden Yunlin silksuits or garish Vleylaand robes (thank goodness, thought Alix; they wouldn’t stand out as badly).
“Spread out,” Vashe murmured. “When it’s time, I’ll signal you.”
He tapped his cheekbone twice and his temple once.
Alix nodded, and turned.
She rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. They stung like she’d stared into a bright light for too long. It was part of her disguise- Nvara had made lenses she could wear and pass for human. But they made her eyes itch and burn.
The chandelier-light made it worse. It was too bright- electric light, yes, but white, not yellow. It made the floor and the trumpets of the brass band gleam white-bright and hurt her eyes if she caught a glimpse of it head-on.
So did the music- this close it was so vexing loud she couldn’t hear herself think. The music and the noise and the crowd of people… She didn’t know why, but all of it together it pissed her right the fuck off.
She squinted, took a deep breath, and tried to get a feel for the room.
The band was on a dias at one end of the room- all right, she’d just have to stay away from that side.
The polished dance floor stretched out in front of them, filled with small groups of people. In the centre, they danced, spinning and reeling, new dances like the pinprick and the verve. At the edges, they stood or sat in little groups, talking.
Alix caught snatches of their conversation as she walked. Half of it was gossip about people she’d never heard of; the other half was business conversations she knew were important, but couldn’t follow to save her life.
At the end of the room, though- Food!
There was a long table, with a punch bowl bigger than Alix’s head and trays tiered like a terrace. The trays were full to spilling over, covered in so much food that Alix couldn’t even tell what all of it was. There were tiny cakes, cubed pineapple, quartered moonfruit, sliced carrots and cucumbers, salmon and parsley on toothpicks with little feathers stuck to the ends, bite-sized creamhorns and lilyfingers and mintpies.
She grabbed a paper napkin and picked up as much as she could without drawing attention to herself.Why didn’t her robes have pockets? How was she supposed to hide food for later if she didn’t have them?
There wasn’t enough room on one napkin for much of anything, either, and it soaked through all too quick. The salmon leaked through the thin paper, turning it pink.
Fuck. She’d have to eat as much as she could here without drawing attention before Vashe gave her the signal. She glanced back up to make sure he hadn’t already.
As she looked around, someone tapped her on the shoulder from behind. She wheeled.
The person who stood behind her was a young man, about her age, with shaggy brown hair and eyes rimmed by dark circles. He wore glasses and a high-collared shirt under a double-breasted jacket.
She couldn’t see any caste symbols on him- not a lapel pin, not a badge, not a belt buckle, nothing. That meant one of two things- either he was a foreigner, or he was so important that no one needed to know who he was. She didn’t recognize him.
“Excuse me,” he said. He didn’t have an accent; there was something naggingly familiar about his voice, but Alix couldn’t quite place it.
“Would you like to dance?”

Running With Rats updates biweekly every second and fourth Friday. 

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The Aeronaut’s Dream: Part 5

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“Well?” Nvara said.

Alix folded her arms and stared at the mess of gleaming fabric at Nvara’s feet. Cloth-of-gold tangled around bright red and silvery-grey and a yellow so bright it made Alix’s eyes bleed.

“You sure this is right?” she said.

Nvara rubbed her nose and glared back up at Alix.

Swear to all the gods. This is Vlidwear,” Nvara said.

“Somehow I don’t trust someone who calls them ‘Vlids’ to know,” Alix said. She folded her arms.

“I mean, she’s right,” Svelen said. “Rich Vleylaanders wear this stuff.”

“But… a cape? Really?”

“Yup.” Svelen held up a jacket made of golden cloth, covered in swirling embroidery.

“Is this one for me?” he asked.

Nvara nodded. “Start getting dressed, we don’t have much time.”

Svelen shrugged the jacket on. It fit better than anything Alix had ever seen him wear.

“This stuff is fucking deck,” Alix said.

“Look at you, following the party line.” Nvara raised a shawl, looking at it critically, and tugged at the fabric. The edge of it unraveled into glowing lio. Dark blue light glowed around her hands as she shaped it; the fringe grew an inch, and tassels sprouted from the hem.

“Yeah, well,” Alix said. “There’s a difference between ‘people can’t have nice things’ and ‘this is too many nice things, put some back’.”

She put the cape on anyway. It weighed on her shoulders like a shroud. The hem grazed the ground.

“You got something for my face?” Svelen asked.

“There’s a veil.” Nvara picked it up and tossed it at him. He caught it.

“…We’re really doing this,” she said.

“Is it that strange?” Svelen wrapped his hair up in a loose turban. It was bright orange- the same shade as his freckles.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Alix said.

“Welcome to our vexin’ life,” Nvara said. She snorted.

“Oh! Did you tell Alix about the time thing?” Svelen asked.

He glanced down at the ground.

“Time thing?” Alix said.

“Forgot,” Nvara said. “We don’t have that much lio, so I’ve got to recycle what we do have. So these clothes have a time limit.”

“…You’re saying they’re gonna disappear.”

“No. They’ll turn back into lio. There’s a difference.”

“Doesn’t seem like it.” Alix frowned. This was like something right out of a fairy tale- Tattershoes running from her prince’s party as her dress turned to rags and her footmen to fish.

“It’ll last for eight hours, that should be enough time.” Nvara sounded offended. “Get dressed, Vashe’s gonna be here any minute.”

Alix unclipped the cape and grabbed a robe from the pile. It went down to her ankles and it was deep red- the same colour as her sweater. She threw it over her other clothes- there was no way she was going to trust lio-clothing to keep her warm.

Vashe opened the door.

“You fuckers get a move on,” he said. “Party starts in ten minutes.”

Alix scrambled to finish dressing. Nvara put out the fire.

The four of them left. Alix lagged behind, looking back at the bunker.

She wondered if she’d ever see it again.

The Aeronaut’s Dream, pt. 4

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TRIGGER WARNING: this episode contains scenes of medical torture and a PTSD flashback. Viewer discretion is advised. 

Alix felt small and grubby whenever she was in Solsva vrenli, even if she kept out of sight.

Vrenli just meant ‘hearth’. It was the place where each caste lived, the central fire that they gathered around to be born and marry and die. Once, long ago, Solsva vrenli had been where tanners and smiths lived. Then the smiths became factory workers, and then the Revolution happened and the workers became the highest caste. Now Solsva vrenli had towers that nearly grazed the sky, and the people who lived there were rich as could be, in both money and grease. 

And right now, Alix and Vrenli were in a maintenance tunnel under its streets. Shining stainless steel pipes and odd copper wires mingled together over Alix’s head. She could hear the whooshing and rushing of some vast machine underground behind her  and the clanking gears of the Cathedrals of Industry overhead. Sunlight filtered down through grates at the edges of the street every few hundred paces.

For Vari’s sake, the maintenance tunnel was too clean. If the grungy underbelly was still too posh for her, where was she supposed to go?

“Don’t tell me he lives in the Progress Building,” Alix muttered.

“Nope,” Vashe said. “It’s an old house.”

“Is that it?” Alix pointed up through the grate.

The building itself was about two stories high, made of brick, with the upper walls painted to look like timber. You could still tell it was brick, though- the windows were arched and lined with stone. It was at least as big as Alix’s old master’s house, and it cast a long shadow on the street above them.

“Yup. Move, I need to get a better look-”

Vashe pulled the notebook out and started jotting down notes. Alix stepped aside and squinted up at the building.

“How’d you learn Yunlin?” she asked.

“Is it any of your business?” he said.

“Not really. Just- my mother was from there.”

“Oh.” Vashe closed the notebook. “Can I ask you somethin’?” 

“Is it any of your business?” Alix said. 

He gave her a dirty look.

“Svelen swore blind and sideways you were a vexin’ thoughtform. I trust him more than I trust my own life, but you’re pretty fuckin’ rock-solid that you ain’t. And you keep talkin’ about your mother and such. So what’s goin’ on?”

Alix groaned.

“This shit again?”

“I’m just tellin’ you what he told me.”

“He thinks I am cause of my eyes, and ’cause we were both slaves,” she said. “Everyone does. It’s not personal, but-“

“You get put in a certain box by enough people, even the people who care about ya start to believe it,” he said.

Alix nodded.

“Gotcha. Just wanted to know,” Vashe said.”Like you said. Not personal.”  

She sighed, and rubbed the back of her neck.

They said that thoughtforms weren’t really people. They looked like people, sure, and acted like people. But a ray gun made out of lio could shoot real plasma rays, even if the inside was a black box that shouldn’t work by any world’s rules. In the same way, they said, a thoughtform could have ‘real’ feelings, but they weren’t the same kind of feelings everyone else had- they were just part of the illusion, there to make thoughtforms more like humans. They didn’t have souls, so any emotions they had were meaningless- hollow as a mannequin’s head.

Alix didn’t know whether or not that was true. She figured that Svelen – and now, Vashe- acted enough like humans that she ought to treat them that way, whether or not they were ‘real’ people. If they were, it was the right thing to do. And if by some chance they weren’t, it wasn’t any skin off her nose to treat them right.

But she still felt squirmingly, soul-wrenchingly uncomfortable when anyone decided that she must be a thoughtform, even if they had a good reason. It wasn’t that she hated thoughtforms, not by any stretch- but if someone thought she was one, they’d treat her wrong.

And that didn’t just mean smart remarks behind her back. It meant the room with the bright white lights and the electric shocks and recollections that were somehow both blurred and sharp. Just brushing up against that memory pulled it to the front of her mind.

A scalpel sliced into the back of her neck.

She strained against the leather straps belting her to the table, trying to break them. Her vision blurred. She clenched her teeth against the pain.

Interesting,” the voice behind her said.

“What?”

“This one’s not a black box. Whoever made it put time into it.”

Something tore her skin apart and exposed nerves to the air. The faint air current burned. She wasn’t going to scream, not if her life depended on it – but she stifled one in the back of her throat.

“How do you figure?”

“See for yourself.”

Alix felt something pulling the muscles in the back of her neck apart. She gritted her teeth harder.

“Nerve endings and everything.”

Something sharp tapped bone. Alix’s entire body shook. It hurt so much she thought she’d puke.  

“That’s strange. You sure it’s-”

“Positive.”

Metal tugged something inside her. Someone screamed and screamed and screamed. She didn’t realize it was her until her voice hoarsened away-

“Alix?”

Vashe’s hand was on her shoulder. She was breathing heavy.  Her hands were clenched into fists. The pain faded away slowly as her surroundings came back. 

“I’m fine,” she said. Her words came out quick as ticker tape, and with less thought behind them.

“Sure. But you zoned out.” Vashe’s hand didn’t move away.

“…Yeah. So? I’m fine.” Alix wanted to scream at him, but that would just prove him right.

“Ai, ai.” Vashe still looked at her the way you’d look at a baby bird with a broken wing. She wanted to punch him.

“We got what we need?” she asked.

“Mostly. Still gotta go around the front.”

“Then let’s do it.”

“Sure.” Vashe started to walk, and Alix followed. She felt limp as a squeezed-out washrag- but they had to keep moving.

This was only the rehearsal. Soon, if they were lucky, it’d be opening night.

She had to be stronger than this if there was any way they were gonna survive.


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, and free books.

Thanks for reading!

The Aeronaut’s Dream, pt. 3

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“What job? It’s not the Sveshon place, is it?” Svelen asked. “I told you that wasn’t gonna work-“

“Nope. It’s ballsier than that.” The corner of Vashe’s mouth twitched up.

“How can it be ballsier than Sveshon.” Svelen folded his arms.

“Simple,” Vashe said, and rubbed some of the frost off his horn. It turned to water in his fingers. “It’s the vexin’ Taxasho Manor.”

“…When you say ‘Taxasho’, you don’t mean…” Alix started.

“The one and only.” Vashe grinned. His teeth were sharp as knives.

Alix’s breath caught. Taxasho was a household name, so much that even thoughtforms and slaves knew who he was. ‘The greatest aeronaut of the age’, they called him- he’d sailed across the Wild Sea in only three days, nonstop. He’d become a hero for it a few years back; every child on the city’s streets wore an aeronaut’s leather cap for weeks afterwards.

“We’re robbing him?” Svelen’s eyes went wide as saucers. “How- what-”

“I’ll explain when Nvara wakes up.” Vashe rolled his head around on his neck. “She fall asleep, or did she go under?”

“She went under.” Svelen frowned, and glanced at the pill bottle on her bedside. “It was for a good reason, though. We’ve been teaching Alix to dreamrun.”

“Aight. Just be careful. We’re running low.”

Svelen reached out and shook Nvara’s shoulder.

“Nvaaaara. Nvara. Tiiiiime to get up,” he said.

She groaned, and rolled over.

“I’ll get some svass on,” Alix said.

It was an excuse to leave the room, but at the same time, she had the feeling they were all going to need it.

There was something peaceful about pouring out svass crystals, and letting the boiling water rush over them. They dissolved, turning the water dark brown. Alix stirred hers with a spoon handle and waited for the others to follow.

Svelen came out first. He sat on the floor, back an inch away from the fire barrel.

“You wanna burn yourself?” Alix asked.

“No,” he said. He scooted away.

Vashe opened the door, and Nvara followed in his wake. Nvara looked like she’d slept for a hundred years and hadn’t gotten one bit of rest in all that time- dark rings circled her eyes, and her hair still crackled with static. She grumbled her way to the svass and picked up a cup without saying a word.

“Right. Soooo.” Vashe said. He drew out the ‘o’ like a foghorn.  “Taxasho is hosting a benefit this weekend. His kid got kidnapped, he’s raising a whole bunch of money to find the brat. We get in there during the benefit, and steal the money and the lio once everyone’s asleep.”

“I dunno, this doesn’t sound right…” Svelen said. “Money for a kidnapped kid? Do we really want to steal that?”

“The kid’s been gone for five years, he’s probably dead. Besides which, it ain’t for a charity or anything like that. He’s usin’ it to look by himself. And he’s a terrible fucking person.”

“Oh?” Svelen tilted his head to one side.

“When it was legal, he used to breed his slaves.” Vashe scowled.

“You don’t mean-” Alix started.

“Whatever you’re thinking, it’s worse,” Vashe said, and spat on the floor. “Eugenicist bastard.”

“…All right, I take back what I said,” Svelen said. His lips pressed together tightly.

Nvara grunted.

“Ai, no problems here.” Alix folded her arms. “How’re we getting in?”

Vashe pulled a little leather-bound notebook from his pocket. It was a soldiers’ notebook, standard-issue khaki, with the three stars of Isseran’s flag on the front. Someone- whether Vashe or someone else- had spattered red paint over them, and it made the leather shiny.

He flipped it open. The pages- each barely the size of his palm- were covered with notes upon notes upon notes. They weren’t written in straight lines; they wound around the pages in mazy twists and turns of thought. Some of them were written in Vroxhen, the language that everyone in Isseran spoke- but others were smoothly-drawn Yunlin characters or spiky Vleylaandish script, and they tangled with long strings of numbers that were probably a code.

In the middle of this mess was a map.

It was crude- barely more than three boxes lined up- and labeled in the same jumbled way. Alix picked out a couple of words- ‘door’ and ‘guard’, and the Yunlin word for ‘bed’.

“This is Taxasho’s place,” Vashe said. “Doors- windows- guards, far as I could make out.”

He pointed to each. His finger tapped the edge of the map.

“Main entrance is here. Master bedroom’s here.”

Alix tried to make out more of the notes, but Vashe closed the notebook and tucked it into the pocket of his big black coat before she could get a look at it. He picked up his cup of svass and blew on it.

“Looks risky,” Nvara said. Alix blinked. She hadn’t even realised Nvara was paying attention.

“Not as much as you’d think. Party’s in three days,” Vashe said. “It’s one of those vexin’ ‘dance all night’ deals. Ends at three in the morning. We get into the party, we’ve got the cash. Stay long enough, we’ve got some lio in the bargain.”

“Is the cash going to be useful? Without grease, I mean,” Svelen asked.

Grease meant a lot of things. Grease was knowing the right people- which official to slip a bribe to, which officials would listen to a sob story, which Vravesva could be trusted to help and which were in league with the people who hurt you. It was knowing which shopkeepers kept extra cigarettes or sewing needles under the counter, and which landlords had a sister who had a friend who could get you fresh fruit or real svass or record albums from Nalavra- and it was knowing what to do and say to make it happen.

“Worst case scenario, we come out of it with a bunch of useless paper and some lio,” Vashe said. “I think it’s worth takin’, though. Real money’s its own kind of grease with the right people.”

Svelen nodded.    

“That still doesn’t answer my question,” Alix said. “Are we just gonna walk through the front door, or…?”

“Word in Livova Vrenli,” Vashe said, “is that the Vleylaandish ambassador’s goin’ with a full fuckin’ retinue. We disguise ourselves, slip in, slip away from the party, find where they’re keepin’ the cash, steal it, get into his bedroom, steal the lio, and get out before light.”

“You mean Senna’s word?” Nvara grumbled. She half-drained her mug in one gulp, and set it aside.

“She’s been reliable so far, ai? Get the Vravesva stick out of your ass.”

“This isn’t vexin’ caste talking, Vash’. We’ll look like fools if we go in there done up like Vlids and there’s no one there, and that’s if we make it out with our heads.”

Nvara’s Vravesva? Alix thought. That would explain a lot- if she was a member of the soldier caste, it’d make sense that she was afraid of thoughtforms and especially of shapeshifters. The Vravesva used to live in the Blight, before it was the Blight.

“- ninety percent sure,” Vashe was saying. “You can look around for yourself, if you want. We got some time. But I’m gonna need you to weave us a disguise. It don’t have to be Vleylaandish. Just thought it’d be harder to notice if we fucked somethin’ up.”

“Do we have enough lio for that?” Svelen asked.

Both Svelen and Vashe glanced at Nvara. She frowned; dark bags puffed under her eyes.

“…Yeah,” she said, after a moment’s thought. “Fabric shouldn’t take that much. But I’m gonna need a picture to work off, or somethin’.”

“I could ask Professor Senvex if he has anything,” Svelen said.

Vashe nodded. “Good idea. Me n’ Alix can case the place tonight. You and Nvara go to Senvex, and see what else you can pick up on the way. News, rumours, shit like that.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Svelen said. “Nvara, you ready to go yet?”

“…Still feel like death. Give me ten minutes,” Nvara said.

“Wait, hold the phone,” Alix said. She turned to look Vashe right in the eye. It wasn’t something she did often- eye contact made her uncomfortable, and her gaze did the same to everyone else.

“You want me to go with you?” she asked.

“Well, yeah.” Vashe grinned a razor-sharp grin. “I wanna see what you can do.”

“Thought you didn’t trust me.”

“I don’t. Yet. You’ve gotta earn it.”

Vashe ran his hand down the back of his neck, and rolled his head around.

“Any other problems with this plan, or can we start workin’?” he asked.

“Works for me if it works for the rest of you,” Svelen said.

“Yeah. I’m good,” Alix said.

Nvara nodded, and pinched the bridge of her nose between two fingers.

“Right,” Vashe said. “Let’s get to work.”


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, and free books.

Thanks for reading!

The Aeronaut’s Dream, pt. 2

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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.

“What-”

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.

Svelen nodded.

“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.”


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