"Didn't anyone tell you? Never talk to the small ones."
- Unattributed, Floor 97
The kid was watching him again. It kept to the corners, a pair of hard eyes beneath a fringe of light hair. Gone before he saw anything more, leaving only a chill down his spine.
It wasn’t an Alloy-eater, the platinum screw hadn’t interested it at all. Hopefully it wasn’t a Scrix, but he hadn’t heard of them crossing floors. In fact, he hadn’t heard of them at all until ninety-six. If they had passed over with him, he was going to have to change plans. Either way, one thing was for sure, the kid wasn’t human.
Keeping pace, he slowly reached for the rifle on his shoulder. His night-eye was a cheap trade in from four floors down, but he saw the thing smile. It didn’t show any teeth, but that grin was more confident than friendly. Especially for a lost boy wandering some forgotten utility barrows all alone.
Unless it was an ALC. Then it was just playing with its food.
Slipping his hand off the rifle, he squinted down the hall. It was a rectangular tunnel carved from the steel mountain, complete with metallic roots snaking through the walls. There was nothing else in sight, but his Key was picking up a station transponder some two kilometers down. Unless he ran into a Fetter, he was going to have to make a run for it.
He lengthened his stride, ears perked for the patter of small feet. As the silence yawned behind him, he ran his fingers along the wall. Moving up and down, he went through the paces of a deliberate search for one of the occasional nooks secreted away by forgotten parties. He took the opportunity to turn his wrist, pressing a beaded chain against the metal. One of the orbs stuck to the wall like a burr, spitting out a chemical-analysis field that dissected the walls.
Carbon, iron, tungsten, all arranged in the right densities. He released a tight breath, at least he wasn’t staring the ALC in the face. Fighting to keep a leisurely pace, he slipped a hand inside his coat to check the shells on his belt.
Starting from the right, he found four frag-shells, two EMP, and seven explosive. They were simple shells, the sort any half-decent station could churn out. But there were more empty loops than he would like. Especially on his left.
He thumbed the first, brushing the runes carved in its tip. Feeling the etched zig-zags, he frowned and moved to the next. An inverted “T” warranted a grimace before he tested the third. It was a circular divot, and his fingers froze before scuttling off. They returned empty-handed.
“Damn.” Gritting his teeth, he drew the shell: a blunt-tipped bullet so dark it hurt to look at. But he wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice. Careful to stay casual, he reached under his jacket.
A pistol waited, a large semi-automatic designed for a time when shells were commonplace. Every bit of it was cumbersome, designed to toss rounds bigger than his thumb. Climber ripped the slide back and slotted the darksome shell in. The circular marking winked at him in the harsh light before its metal coffin shut.
Breathing a little easier, he listened. Deep as the prison, the silence echoed around him, full of imagined terrors. He checked the watches on his wrist, which read back a green line. So far, nothing had passed the bead. Not across the hall’s surface at least.
He walked. Fifty meters of lonely echoes followed. Then the shrill of a chemical change.
Climber spun, dropping a knee as he locked the child in mind. That wide smirk flashed through the dark just as the small body unfurled into a billowing canvas. It enveloped the hall, racing forward to wrap Climber up. An electro-magnetic crack challenged it by kicking out a black spark.
As the harsh flash extended the roots’ shadows, that fluttering membrane ripped open. It sealed an instant later, coasting forward as the projectile sailed the other way. Hissing, Climber scrambled backward when that onrushing shadow collapsed like a shut umbrella. Wailing winds accompanied it, tugging Climber’s jacket to a dark distortion suspended in the hall. Light warped around the edges, toyed with by the same forces dragging that murderous flyer back.
No sound escaped, but that amorphous shape gathered itself and pushed. It bubbled forward, gaining on Climber as he stumbled away. But with every contraction it shrunk, reducing itself to a murderous point. Trembling in muffled rage, it mustered its last strength and lanced out. Climber stumbled, eyes fixed on the glistening spear.
It fell short of him, shivering with incompetent rage. Layer by layer it peeled away, sucked into the dark mirage until the last drop vanished. Just as dust and light began to accrete into a fine ring, the darksome anomaly shunted into an extra-dimensional sun. Supposedly.
Silence fell with the shadows, leaving him in an unsteady twilight. Gasping a few deep breaths he stood, wincing at his trembling knees. Sweat chilled his back, gluing the static-undershirt to his upper back as he stood. And it filled his gloves, turning the inner lining cold and unpleasant.
He shook himself out, took a glance at the settling dust, then faced back down the hall.
“Good job down there.”
Climber jerked his chin up, squinting at the ceiling. A crackly chuckle shook down from the corded rafters.
“Easy, not looking to give you trouble.” The voice from above sobered up. “Hang on, coming out. Been locked up ever since that thing showed up.”
“Doors wouldn’t work.” Climber hacked a cough then frowned at his words. It had been a while since he used them and something sounded off. Taking a weary step, he shuffled through his rusty vocabulary before finding the right words. “You lose anyone?”
“A few, yeah.” There was a flinch in those words. “Folks thought they saw a kid and went to check. Can’t blame them honestly.” A distinct change worked its way into the voice. It lost the harsh ring of speakers and gained cracking footsteps.
Squinting, the Climber made out three figures trudging down the hall. They were wrapped in ragged cloth to distort their outline. Not effective against ALCs, but enough perhaps to make a Scrix hesitate. Metal plates glinted beneath, and rifles were slung over their shoulders. The man in front didn’t wear a helmet, preferring a thick beard split by a smile.
“Good to see another face up here. Call me Bravo.” The man in the lead kept his distance, but gave a small wave. “You got a name?”
After a mute second, Bravo shrugged. “Alright, suit yourself. So, what’d you use on that thing? Bullets didn’t even slow it down.”
Climber hesitated. Their demeanor was friendly enough, but truth had a way of becoming a liability. Then again, lies had just as many teeth, and left him with more scars.
“Caster.” He kept the weapon tucked out of sight. Less temptation that way.
“Damn.” Bravo whistled, took a step back, then caught himself with an embarrassed smile. “Well, that explains how you got up here. Haven’t heard from one-oh-three in years. How they doing down there?”
A wasteland bolted through Climber’s mind, miles of metal twisted like a bulldozed forest. Greasy ash covered everything, leaving stains that still lingered on his boots and gloves. It had all been cold to the touch, but the screams had kept rattling the dead air.
“That bad, huh?” Bravo answered his own question, words were soft as a child’s until he flashed a sorry smile. “Your face said it all. Hate to put you on the spot, but you know if we should be worrying? More than usual, I mean.”
“Plant failure. Maybe” Climber frowned around the words, haunted by the wailing stuck in his ear. Maybe it was just his imagination. Or maybe it might have been there since he had left. They quieted as he pushed it from mind, though feeble whispers still scratched his ear.
“Don’t seem like you believe it.”
“Screams.” Climber tapped his ear. “Caught in the wind.”
Bravo grimaced. “So not just a plant failure then. What it that thing?” He pointed down the hall, tensed for a fight. Even a useless one.
“No.” Climber shook his head slightly. “It was running too.”
“And I thought things couldn’t get any worse.” Shaking his head, Bravo stepped away with a wave over his shoulder. “Well c’mon. Let’s get inside before any more friends show up.”
As the three trudged off, some of the tension melted from Climber’s limbs. But his chest stretched like a balloon about to pop. It had been a long time, and one too many empty floors, since he last saw someone. He had lost track of how long he spent crossing floor 103, but it was enough to make a man wish for the solitude of utility tunnels.
Straightening his back, he shivered as the sweat-soaked undershirt soaked his skin. A shower, on the other hand, had a sincere allure. Trying to move as little as possible against the moist lining, he started after them.
“So, where you headed?” Bravo cheerily tossed the question back. “Fair warning, hkids won’t give you any peace and quiet.”
“And I thought that place didn’t exist.” Bravo grinned over his shoulder. “What’s got you risking life and limb for that?”
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