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Jitter is the word as colors blaze in brief triumph across the Shell. I wait quietly; wait for it to pass. The repairs have begun, and the Shell is busily at work. The tendrils work within me, now, as they have, and my knee and head are alive with the wavelengths of the effort. I cannot change. I cannot die. I cannot heal.
Repair, however, ah, that is different - the bits of me and Shell groping expertly for each other as they reform and blend, identity vanishing in the negotiation and compact of the shaping. Another bit of me lost to pain; another bit of Shell gained in agony. There is a flash of red, bloodying the walls, before a fading teal lights the passageway and then recedes to comforting black and brown and wall.
I find myself thinking of the bland. I try, for a moment, to imagine what it must have meant to him to descend into City, to venture where no friends wait and the walls themselves are his enemy. I, too, venture into friendless land; but the walls whisper to me and the streets hide my form.
He followed. Down here. The thought will not go away, and even as Mode drives me up from the sitting position I have waited in and flicker ghosts me through the subterranean ways of my world, I feel the thought waiting behind the bright gleaming traceries of Mode, back where the flesh resides. Wait, I will it silently. Stay. Mode brightens in response, almost angrily, and pushes me forward in mind and body as I lose sight of the thought and the manhole. Browns and greens and greys and blues and occasional reds and yellows rush across me. I feel the brief aching of a bit of purple wrapped about the silent shape of a bland that City has taken and brought to itself-the sharp needles of the white of the bones beneath sussurate over the Shell and over the flesh that sinks slowly beneath it in fear and pain.
The watchfire is low, which means somebody's going to get his ass kicked eventually. I don't even wonder who; probably some kid, clutching his gun and already scared of the world, will be given a reason to be scared of his companions. Welcome to the world, kid; where're you from? North Dakota? Well hey, welcome to the big city. How long you been here? Oh, the whole time, of course, but before that? Ahh, a school trip. Where are you now? Down by Tenth? Nice place. Not too close to the burn. I'm sure you grew older watching the River with longing and fear, but forget it; nothing's coming across. Nothing ever has.
I sigh and finish the cigarette, taking a small fierce joy in the damage it does. Look, world, look at me. If you're going to try to kill me, why, you should be happy I'm helping. The butt sails away at the flick of my finger, orange sparks and white filter spinning quickly across a sinking plane which swiftly intersects the pavement and vanishes. I stand wearily and head back down Fifty-Seventh towards dispatch, not relishing the bitching out I'm going to get, but resigned to it at this point. I'm not disappointed. The reaming takes about twenty minutes.
The Colonel isn't interested in my reasons for following the chroman, which is good, because I have no fucking idea what they are; I'm too busy staring at a point four inches over his left shoulder as he rages. The Steyr seems to occupy a large portion of his tirade. On the one hand, I can understand his anger and fear; there's no resupply here. On the other, I'm sickened by the priorities, event-driven though they might be.
Finally, of course, he lets me go, and gives me a chit for a reissue. I stick my hands in my pockets (the left hand goes through, actually) and head uptown to Seventy-ninth, deep in the heart of Humanhattan. The armory is - sick irony - in the old Museum of Natural History. Underneath dinosaur skeletons, men in black jumpsuits reverently handle the weapons that may place us beside them. This place is the safest in the borough, and the most dangerous; although it is one of the most important buildings to us, containing as it does most of our hardware supplies, it is also therefore filled chockablock with what the City calls 'proscription.' Proscribed items such as guns are a mandatory immediate death sentence in this new kinder, cleaner New York, and thus anyone even caught near this building in the event of a breakthrough will most likely die with bits of their insides resting on the pavement near their outsides.
Not a pleasant thought. Mine turn back to that morning, and the chroman I almost had. You don't see many of them around nowadays; they're the big guns, brought out when there's something special to do or kill, and City wants to make absolutely sure it doesn't get fucked up.
No one's quite sure where they came from.
I don't think anyone wants to know, either. Bot, droid, borg - could be any. Only thing sure about them is they aren't human. I take the Steyr from the armorer behind the display counter, where flint tools and stone pestles have been shoved aside to make room for a stack of handguns which rest haphazardly, gleaming dully in their coatings and small LEDs shining quietly near their breeches. I already have one of those, strapped to my leg; I don't think I've ever used it. If things get that bad, likely as not I'll not be able to worry about it.
The armorer droned patiently at me as he explained the differences in this Model Steyr from the familiar GSE-9 I lost in the sewers. Slightly higher ammo capacity, and a different ammo entirely, caseless shells which allow it to fire faster since it doesn't have to eject the empties. This, more importantly, means it shouldn't jam nearly as frequently - not that the old one did either, after all the care I put into it. The thought of that many hours of my time and attention lying in a pile of rot or being pulverized by City's exorcists irritated me, and I gripped the new one tighter. Its charge LED lit green, meaning its batteries are full. It can fire mechanically, if it runs out of power, but it's faster to ignite the rounds electronically; it saves the cocking and firing cycles.
Jesus, I don't know how I pick all that shit up. I sound like a John Bircher from Before. Shouldering the new weapon, I left the Museum. Not due anywhere until watch at dusk, I headed west, sparing a glance for the Park over my shoulder. The Park's fairly safe, as humans are still better at negotiating nature than machines; it's overgrown itself in the past few months, which helps, except for a few craters or burn scars.
Near the River, but not too close, I light my last cigarette. Some people hoard them; I don't, figuring the sooner I run out, the sooner I can quit. Somehow, though, that bastard Chance keeps resupplying me. Probably wants me to quit on my own, but hell, cancer's the least of my worries. The largest one is the chroman. I swear he looked at me, and I swear I could see his eyes, and I swear I felt something when our gazes met. Staring across the River brings no peace; all that is there is the blackened scar of Jersey, unmoving and lifeless. I can't see over the ridge, and it's not often we can get far enough up the taller buildings to look, what with no power. Those who do, however, say there's nothing to see; the wreckage goes on and on, New York's own violent spasm of rage pushed outward from its borders - how far? No one knows. We're pretty sure something's still out there; every once in a while, lightning flashes from the ground over the horizon, and once in a great while sparks fall from high above. Even as I watch, I hear a hissing tearing rip, and I turn to watch the bolts of light zip up from the massdriver at World Trade, vanishing into the darkening blue. Out along their trail, there's a brief burst of flame, and I can imagine the twinkle of shattered metal and plastic, perhaps interspersed with shreds of flesh, tumbling down to the now unforgiving earth. The cigarette doesn't last long, and I turn to head back to Fifty-seventh.
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