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The colors ripple over the aether, and the bandwidth settles momentarily to quiet, the roar of City easing down into silence for a microsecond. Into the gap, a blizzard of data flows, colors and sounds and wishes and plans, as City's minions coordinate. The silence of the bands is that of the water gap, swept clean by interstellar hydrogen; the stellar passageway opened to us for a brief time. All too soon, it is over, and the chaos closes down over us again. I shut my ears and wait for Mode; standing in lockdown I can see the shapes of small life fluttering across the pavement. I have not eaten since...I cannot remember. I cannot die. I cannot heal.
Bones of buildings, bones of blands, bones of brothers; all lie twisted in the world about me. I can see my world from the outside in my mind's eye; a Shell of images making an exploded sphere; the inner surfaces that which my eye can see. Would it reflect from the back? Would I see myself questing out? I cannot say.
There is a call, and I drop to the ground, flowing northwards towards Seventy-ninth. I listen, tasting, hearing; the Park. I am wracked with fear before flicker excises it and Mode applauds, pushing my curling form over the ridges of the bottom. The Park. Blands rule there, mostly; the life is overwhelming, and there is no City to help and hide. There is no color save theirs; and although flicker is adept at washing Park, Mode is not as facile at flowing through it. Sixty-fifth street curls past me in a wave of broken concrete, the nose of a long-dead Metro-North train thrust up from the downbelow of Park Avenue through the mall. Pressed there by some unknown catastrophe, the eyeless front of the train stares quietly and blindly at the sky, waiting for its peace. It does not look at peace where it is; it looks like pain stood waiting for us to pass.
I do, wincing inward as it washes over flicker and I feel its anguish.
Flicker does not, though, and neither does Mode; both can only think of North, now.
The street is not flat anymore. Even the blands were never able to achieve that fully; but in their time, it was not cratered and split, broken and black. Jutting slabs offer flicker a friendly visage; we laugh past them in oiled splendor with blocks vanishing south of us. Past Seventy-second. A lone and solitary tree waits proudly before Seventy-seventh street, poking leaves at the painful blue sky. Flicker does not pay it notice, merely ingests and washes it across me. Mode breaks, a little thing, and a leaf falls to the ground cut at the stem. Four hundred ninety-six of its brethren wait to share its fate in the months ahead; to share the drop, the fall, the impact, but not the quick flashing shred of Mode's disgust as the green pulp is spread in my path over the next five blocks. I cannot imagine what Mode has done and why; I cannot imagine at all at this time. My fingers tingle, the last small pat of chlorophyll and water dropping from them to bounce slowly into a crevice in the hardened skin of the world.
At Seventy-ninth I turn, to the left, to see the walls and life of the Park rising up. Green and brown and blue and yellow and orange and life are the colors that the Park wears, and so too then must I. I do not slow; the wall is before me, with pocks and cracks and veins of grime. Cresting it in one smooth wave, I feel Mode hesitate and release me as I drop to a level of overgrown grass. Flicker absorbs it, paints it, sends it flowing over my Shell, and I freeze, not locked but still, as I search the area with eyes. No one is there. No blands to be seen. Find the hole, said City. Block it up. Kill it. Make it Wall.
Park has a strange surface; soft yet sharp, green yet...complex, colors split and waving, changing shape and size and hue with angles to the sun. The blue above is painful still, but muted here beneath the Life of trees. One two three four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve and there are still more, more flowing into sight at each moment; these are but those I could touch with nary more than a step. Counting is pointless; slinking to turn past a tree a motion catches our eye, Mode and I, and lockdown comes in a juddering impact that nearly topples me. My eyes, released even in lockdown, question; a squirrel hops past. Relief is a color; I can feel it washing over my Shell and settling inward to meet at my core in a brief pulse of warmth. Mode is not so certain; it does not release, it does not break, for long moments of indecision, then it breaks, finally, and the squirrel does not see its fate as Mode grabs it, singing with the heat of Function as it ends the squirrel and spatters its hot blood on my hands.
I cannot imagine what Proscription dictated that the squirrel must die. Mode cannot interpret the Park; perhaps what is Proscribed is different here. The hole is here. It must be made wall. Mode urges me on, over low hills and rocks and trees, towards a location City has given that I have never seen.
Atop one low hill, as I slide across it, I see a pair of Blands-too late to lock, and too far to break; I freeze as they turn ot the sound of my passage, faint, faint but present. One moves a gun from shoulder to hand, searching. My eyes track his, intently. I can feel flicker waving grass across me, and after a moment or two he gives up, turning to his companion in conversation. Plant courses through me; power, and longing, and the two thousand three hundred forty-one blades of grass that even now support the weight of my Shell and I.
The blands are standing atop the Hole! I can see it, now, a manhole pulled back to reveal a blackness. Mode is relieved at the sight of the manhole, familiar database comforting with data. I begin to edge closer, flattening myself to the grass and ground. Within ten feet, I feel the first cold touch of Lockdown and give myself to it, feeling joints lock as Mode gathers biological and mechanical resources. My eyes must be visible simply through the speed of their questing dart; constantly checking both blands, the hole, the area.
I scream forward silently, the first's Proscription bending and shattering with me as Mode hurls me forward. I feel a small touch of warmth as the second Bland dies, the only contribution to the world a few measly kilocalories of heat that had warmed his blood and would warm Mode for the next few minutes. I felt its gratitude. The first is on the ground making small noises of pain and fear while scrabbling at his ruined hand; I flow past him into the black to let the scent and sign of City earth envelop me. The tunnel beneath the Park traverses east-west; I glance down each but there is no sign of movement. City was not specific; I have no instructions as to direction, and I set out for the west and the enemy. It is a long journey; flicker almost restful in its slippery passage of black and brown and grey. There is no light save occasional cracks in the tunnel ceiling through which flow a dusty wan illumination and occasional inversed plumes of dust and grit. Blocks follow on blocks; I pour over the floor of the passage, looking up to see the corner blinding me.
Lockdown grabs in a stuttering wave of indecision before surrendering and allowing me to edge forward around the corner. There is no one there; but lights are visible faintly down the tunnel which exits the corner to run southwest for several blocks before fading into darkness and angle. There is nowhere to return to, and I continue on, wondering only now if the bland left at the entrance has passed on a warning. Steps and slides and motions and waves and walls and floor passing my hand; the feeling of earth and soil and stone and hiding darkness on the palms of Shell.
Mode considers, briefly (I can feel it) returning to the beginning of the hole and making it wall as previously instructed; I feel, however, that to make it wall at the far ends of the tunnel woud be preferable, and I remain in motion. The next corner turns the tunnel west again, and I crest its sideways ridge to find myself in a manhole, wires hanging from a ruined frame and conduits passing through the cramped space vomiting still lifes of sinuous faded color, greenish ends. Here, there is a brightness; the copper cladding and core of one conduit's wiring indicates it has been recently cut. Grasping one end at random, I move it slowly to find a black space behind it leading further to the west. Unable to even pause for decision now, I gird flicker about myself and quell Mode's misgivings long enough to squeeze into the aperture.
A cold shock of breeze startles us, and Lockdown holds me until it has passed. The brief waver of flicker's field washes momentarily from the brick and circled walls of the oubliette, before I look up and raise my arms in benediction to the exit.
The manhole yields with technological reluctance, leaving me to raise my arms through the resulting hole and lever myself up through it onto a street corner with no one in sight.
There are cars here. Actual, undamaged albeit no doubt nonfunctional vehicles await long-past owners in silent ranks of dust and faded brightwork; clouded plastic and tarnished aluminium. I examine them in passing as I seek shelter, noting the open fuel doors and empty, gaping holes behind telling of harvesting. Gasoline. City sighs, almost, within me, feeling the slight whispering sigh of energy now gone, perhaps to no more noble purpose than fire. Technology, civilization, City screams silently in my head, waste, ruin, squander. Fire was, for millennia, without it; now, its fruits go to kindle a flame humans have forgotten how to raise without technology's helping hand. I keep silently silent, within myself, not trusting City's response if I mention that there is no reason to suppose it went for fire. The blands use vehicles, when there is need. City usually provides that need. I hear its electromagnetic voice receding as its attention goes elsewhere, and I quiver behind the bumper of a sleeping beast before looking carefully for evidence of observers. There is none; and I must make the hole into Wall. I move to it; I caress the concrete and tarmacadam around it, and I gently flutter Shell's fingers over the steel ring that rounds it, before Mode rouses itself and Shell rips the metal from the street in a rending screech and rumble of displaced stone and analog. Mode is in a rush, now, and I slide back to the curb, to grasp the sleeping automobile, and pull it after me to the hole before it can wake; to crush the front end and batter at the street with the engine compartment until there is a plume of dust and the pavement has crazed into thick squared-topped slabs, each with an iceberg of earth below it, and the sum have collapsed into the hole. The hole sighs and vanishes and leaves Wall. City knows, now, where the tunnel leads; and the denizens will follow me, will pull the walls of the tunnel in on itself in a small hailstorm of pebbles and soil and metal and concrete until there is naught left but the three-D shadow of a tunnel, a slight softness in the shape of a passage.
Look about; determine where, discover when. I am on the West Side, in the blands' neighborhoods. Humanhattan, they call it. Mode snorts savagely at the term. Looking back East, I see barricades between me and Park. There are no blands visible, but fires burn at several points. The sound of changing Hole to Wall was loud; will they come to see? I drop to crawl, comfortable closer to the stone and steel, and flicker washes greys and browns comfortingly over Shell. I turn and flow downtown, along the ruins of Broadway, hoping to find a hole, to flow down, and in, and vanish from the world.
Eighty-sixth street, rising in the distance; flowing towards me. South of it smoke rises, in many small pillars, from the unseen plains behind the barriers erected across the avenue. I quest about, flow lapsing some hundred meters from the intersection, and slip beneath another silent automotive protector. I cannot see- no. They are there. Shapes move along the top of the barrier, Proscription in their hands. I am north of Humanhattan. I am west of Park. The blands own Park. There are subway entrances on both sides of the avenue, forlorn cracked globes rising atop poles of ochred green that flank the once-past stairways down. There are great piles of steel and stone atop the stairways; blocked by humans, to deny us access to their levels.
Still. There are other ways into subway. Beneath a ruined bus, I find a grating that yields to my touch, Shell punching through the corroded steel with the shriek of collapsing metal and debris. There are shouts, then, from the barrier a block downtown. Mode considers lockdown, I can feel it; but they are too far away and do not loose the dangers that they carry. I drop
beneath the street, into dark, into City, into home.
Two levels down the tunnels wait. I stand, waiting, in the middle of the remnants of the track, listening for City. There should be, might be, relays left down here. Ears and eyes of City for
trains long dead. Nothing but silence on City's bands, however, nothing but blackness so still and deep that flicker doesn't even bother to wash the Shell but simply lets it sink to flat cold
black as I drop and flow downtown. I glance up, once, as I pass the platform at Eighty-Sixth; but all the exits are blocked by debris and barricade. I can hear blands shouting orders and
shifting positions, perhaps waiting for one such as I to rise above the platform's lip in order to Proscribe him.
I ignore them, continue downtown, searching for a hole.
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