Rains of la Strange

by 

Robert N Stephenson

2011 Aurealis Award Recipient



 

 

Tyson fast dropped from the underside of the tower city. With ears popping with pressure changes and his communication’s shell crackling he knew if he didn’t get down fast, he would be killed. This was his punishment for a mistake. Tyson was to bring back his affection partner and the thought she had stolen from the thought vault of la Strange. No one stole in la Strange, it wasn’t even a concept in tune with the society; they were above such pettiness. The clouds rushed up at him, the drop line sang with tension.

Tyson had trusted Shana but she had fled the tower city of la Strange to the city beneath the clouds. He simple betrayal could end in his death. He’d wanted to drop faster but the winch operator said the stop would snap his back. Once into the under-damp he had to recover the thought and bring Shana back for adjustment, or termination if that failed. From sunlight he fell to the clouds, a blanket over the land and a cushion between the races; a soft barrier between the biological-machine-people of la Strange and the Thoughtless below. Humans also existed under the clouds but they only ever came out when it was time to trade. Most of the conflict, though restricted to the tidal prone city, was between the uber-intelligent la Strange and the lowly Thoughtless who existed in a primitive, almost technological society.

Above him loomed the shadowed underside of the tower city, the winch handler now too small to see. It had been a year since he’d been under the civilized world and seen the massive tower that held it above the clouds. Even though he couldn’t see the base he knew it stretched out for fifteen kilometres below; he should touch land five kilometres from the barriers that protected the tower base.

“Station.” He touched the interact stud on his throat.

“Report.”

“Dropping through clouds, any indications on target’s location?” He hoped the news was better than the last report.

“Tracking system disabled. Last known location will show on your map. Proceed with caution. It is vital full retrieval be achieved.”

“Tyson out.”

Great. They didn’t know where she was and he had a city of at least a hundred thousand to search. With that many low lifes and their penchant for killing those from la Strange, it wasn’t going to be an easy visit.

Why Shana had stolen the thought didn’t make much sense. Wasn’t she happy with the life they had and shared? Couldn’t she have asked for a change in the dendrite? She didn’t have to steal; you could easily apply for thought adjustments. The behaviour was no better than the Thoughtless.

His system running auto mood stabilizers, pushed back the negativity he was thinking towards the woman his programming had paired him with. Did she have a serotonin deficit, he should have picked it up? That could have been fixed, it only took a small tweak to increase receptor sites; he’d done it himself on occasion. Her fleeing troubled him and once again he tried to boost release from the presynaptic cells. He felt a little better. Tyson pulled the thought he’d been trying run from the reader at the base of his skull, now wasn’t the time to be messing about. He let the thick layer of skin flap closed over the reader and then put the disk in his pocket. He would hit the dark clouds soon and be subjected to the inclement weather; he needed everything sealed. To those in the under-damp he would be little more than a human looking machine to be broken up and sold as parts. Know a Strang-er by the

green of their eyes; something that always gave them away, much like the muddy brown of the Thoughtless gaze said no one home. He really didn't want to die. He had trading currency which would buy some time, but how much time did he have? Would it keep him alive?

 

Once through the thick, stormy clouds and into the damp air the scene cleared from cloud-grey opaqueness to the shifting shadows of rain. Tyson continued the long fall and hoped no one looked up. He could see the watery city of ‘Deep Sea’ its cylindrical structures glowing with porthole lights and tower lights dotted the wide expanse. One of his kind couldn’t hide amongst the great unclean for long. Shana would need help and what could she offer the Thoughtless that they couldn't just take? Currency wouldn’t last long, and she’d been missing for over a week.

“Fifty metres,” he said into the mike. The fall slowed rapidly, the strain ached in his back, made his head light. “Ten. Hand winch slow.”

He sank to his calves in the swampy ground, the tidal plain that surrounded the tower. He wasn’t travelling much at all when he touched down, such was the experience of the handler.

Somehow this boggy land supported the lives of the Thoughtless but humans never lived here, they only came to trade for biological cargo, they took younger Thoughtless, from reports, and paid in cured animal meats. The humans of the under-damp were unfathomable.

 Tyson unclipped the buckle and stepped from the harness then watched as it disappeared into the clouds. To return he would have to walk to the base. He struggled through the seaweed stink and thick muddy- black sand to a raised road of stone. This road led to the trading station used between la Strange and the Thoughtless. In his mind the map of the land rotated, the roads highlighted in green. If he kept his pace quick he should make the city before the tide flooded the streets. A blue ‘x’ marked Shana’s last known location.

The Thoughtless, what he believed to be the rejects of human design, lived there with their troubled, violent ways. They were an anomaly to la Strange, they coexisted in a way, accepted some unwritten law of unity, yet were quick to kill if antagonized. The humans also defied general explanation; they were the trading people from whom la Strange got its genetic material for life production, their full role in the great scheme of things well above his classification. In return they also took member of the population; volunteers they were called, for what purpose was never spoken about, if at all known. He had seen many film records of the humans, though the historians were thin on details. Some called them the great creators; others suggested they were the death bringers. The Thoughtless traded fish for medicines with la Strange, to fight the water disease and vitamins to control nutrient deficiencies in their diet. Knowing some of these details would help, but trade matters where not his concern, surviving in the under-damp was. He lowered the demister lenses over his eyes and started for the city.

It always rained beneath la Strange. ‘Deep Sea’ was a wet place, a hazy place, a land inundated by the sea at night and wallowing in muddy muck during the oppressive days. All the training and information did little to lighten his mood, and down moods were not logical; a neurotransmitter adjustment, a quick blip of the axon, had things looking a bit brighter. Everywhere stank, his leather clothes were damp and the stone road stressed his ankles. Tyson pulled his coat tighter about his shoulders to fight off the cold; leather was useless against cold. Every breath became wet in his mouth and his part-machine body, the mechanisms that drove his lungs and heart were sluggishness under the elements. Even with his carbon fibre skeletal system he felt heavy, the world beneath the clouds weighed upon him.

The closer he got to the town the more the air stank of fish, seaweed and corroding metal. It would be safer to enter the town via the docks, the last known location for Shana. Tyson left the road and waded to the nearest structure. About twenty anchored boats stuck out of the mud, the returning tide sloshing about their crusty hulls. Green and black-slimed water lapped at age-browned pylons and the rusty red wall of a submerged building; all sound was muffled under the drum of rain on metal roofs, metal walkways and long wooden jetties. In the haze he saw a body wearing la Strange uniform tied to a pylon, its eyes cut out, gaping wounds about its head and chest. This was what he was meant to find, Shana’s last location alright. After the Thoughtless had taken what they wanted they would leave the rest as fish food. The body was a mess, already it had been through a few feedings. Shana was dead. Something dropped over him, a thought, a connection with the body but he was quick to push it aside. He searched what was left of the uniform - the body was female, he could work out that much - there was nothing; absolutely all technology has been stripped from her. He rearranged priorities to exclude his and her interactive relationship; it helped distract him from the water's nauseating putridity. He considered Shana's and his mutual affections program, a brief flicker in his mind, it would have to wait for proper removal later; he had a job to complete first. He paused, the transition to logic wasn’t smooth, a stutter in his programming. The weather was interfering in his processes, he had to move faster.

The thought was now somewhere in the city. How do you track a thought in an unenhanced population?

“I found her,” he said into his throat stud, the bronze device bobbing on his Adam's apple, the copper strap cutting into his reddening neck. “The target is dead.”

“The Thought?” the reply through his ear shell.

“Not here.”

“Find it.”

“Understood.” Water seeped past his collar and down his back. “What is the nature of the missing thought?” Shana could have taken anything; he’d given her the access codes to the thought vault; it was part of the affection/share commitment after all. He trusted her, supported her views on life, the research she had been doing on future emotional development in the population. Had she just been using him? He wasn’t sure how he felt about the concept.

The interact hissed with white noise, the world crackled with the sound of precipitation on overhead power lines; a dull song of greyness. Grey light and camera towers looked down like dead eyes on a world they no longer cared for; a sign of times forgotten.

“Repeat. What is the nature of the thought?”

Tyson climbed the gangway to the top of the docks, the tide was rising and he needed a safe place to wait out the night. Low, cylindrical buildings, pressure chambers, many centuries old, pressed up against each other, intersected by laneways and platforms that led down to the docks. In the diminishing daylight soft yellow glows could be seen in some of the buildings’ porthole windows.

Once free of the rising tide for a time he walked the cobbled lanes looking for an inn, somewhere safe. Still there was only noise in his ear shell. Though he saw no one Tyson knew eyes watched his every move.

The ear shell sparked back into life. “You must find... “ Pause, “... forbidden...”

“Repeat?” Tyson didn't like the sound of the relayer's voice. It sounded different . He sheltered in a hatchway. How did she manage to get a forbidden thought? His code only allowed access to common thoughts for her studies. “Who is speaking?” He knew most of the relayers.

“Find her.”

“I told you I have found her. Who are you and what is this forbidden thought?” Couldn't the relayer hear him?

“Find her.” The connection dropped out.

#

A dead fish lay on the walk outside the closed hatch for Swampy’s Inn. The silver skin sparkled against the greys and seaweed greens of the buildings. Tyson tried the hatch, the locking ring was dogged. No lights glowed in the street, no candles burned in the portals; algae stained the glass. Tyson thumped on the hatch. The hatch was thick, his fist cold. He had to get indoors, out of the rain, out of the dulling light. The tide was rising and soon the city would be underwater.

He pressed a handful of batteries against a porthole and tapped the glass. The lithium power cells should buy him food, drink and at least two nights' bed. The Thoughtless couldn’t resist batteries, they were one of the key sources of trade between la Strange and the Thoughtless.  They had many battery operated machines; lights, mixers and still warmers and some basic communications gear for trade discussions. While humans traded in living people for genetic material, La Strange was less callous. Candlelight drifted across the green, a flicker, a shadow; a haggard face against the glass.

“Strange – er!” it cried.

“Let me in.” Tyson tapped the batteries again. They were better than coin and would guarantee safety of a kind. Strange-ers might have been hated and hunted out side of visitation times but throw in a handful of power cells and the Thoughtless would become your long lost brother.

A clang of steel rang into the fading light as the locking wheel spun. The hatch opened outwards.

“Alkaline?” the white, haggard face said, thick eyebrows covering his eyes.

“Lithium.”

“In, in, my friend.” The man stepped aside. “Get out of the cold, I’ve got a broth on, if yer hungry?” His dirty, long shirt barely covered his thick waist; a wide dark stain spread out from the neckline.

“I need a bed as well.” Tyson stepped past the man and into the steamy warmth from a smoky fire. He turned to see the spars of the star lock grind home as the innkeeper secured the door. A chipped, red metal bar dropped across the wheel locking it in place.

In a move faster than Tyson expected, the old man had him pressed against the curved wall with a knife at his throat. He struggled but the blade nicked his skin, the man’s breath hot and foul in his face.

“The batts.”

Tyson reached into his pocket.

“Slow, lad. Be slow.” The pressure from the knife lessoned a little. Tyson lifted the bag free and handed it to the man. He snatched it away and moved back, releasing Tyson.

“You didn’t need to do that.” He rubbed at his throat, felt the stickiness of blood. It wasn’t bad and he knew it could have been worse. “I would have paid you well.”

“Paid now, lad. By the fire, Stange-er. Warm yerself. You have luck with you, I'd have slit yer throat for Alks. Lettin' yer lives might bring more of these fancy ones my way.” He eyed Tyson carefully. “What you say, you bring me more?” his voice a whisper of steel shavings. He took two of the batteries and pushed them into the back of a crusty copper torch, the light flickered on. He nodded approval then returned the torch to his pocket.

“Yes, I can get all you need.”

“Good, good. Now I hope yer like water-weed, no good fish till the morning.” His hands wrung together. “Can guarantee a night... after that, yer on yer own.” He winked. The batteries had bought his life for one night.

Tyson dragged a worn stool from beneath one of the five large tables in the room and sat close to the fire. Grey smoke clung to the ceiling, the roof’s rivets hidden by its thickness. The old man ladled stringy broth into a tin cup and handed it over, he had calmed once he had the batteries. Tyson couldn’t trust him. You couldn’t trust the Thoughtless, they might not be technically advanced, or even high in intelligence but they were keen hunters of what they wanted, which made them dangerous and difficult to negotiate with. If they had the thought just how was he supposed to get it back?

“Drink, lad,” he said. “Tastes like shit but it’s good fer yer.”

“I’m looking for something.” He sipped the broth, the old man was true to his word.

“Yer kind always are.” The old man ladled himself a cup. “Yer see the body under the dock?” Tyson nodded. “She was looking for somethin’. Didn’t have the right batteries though. Yer got what we need, lad, for now at least”

“And if I didn’t have Lithiums?”

“Yer did, no point yer worrying about ifs, is there? Now drink up, it tastes worse when it’s cold.”

Struggling with the overwhelming stench of the soup, the bedraggled old man and the smoke, Tyson fought back the assault on his senses. An adjustment to his nutrient levels in his gut had the hunger dissipate. The soup was too putrid to stomach, the stinging in his eyes and nose didn’t help. What he needed was a pleasant thought; a place to rest and a pleasant thought. The corroded steel walls, riveted and welded, only offered an inevitability of failure; the sheet iron tables, the bar of roughly bolted together iron all spoke of necessity over style. How do you live in a world without perfection? Did the Thoughtless dream? Did they have art? Above the clouds there were galleries of fractal designs and he had access to any dream he wanted, without advancement what did the Thoughtless have other than fish and their rot? A clicking started overhead, something mechanical lost in the smoke haze. He looked up.

“Be the filter, lad.” The old man motioned to the cup. “We suffocate in the smoke when the tide’s in. Yer kind made them for us, long ago. Long, long ago.”

Tyson pushed the cup away.

“It’s all yer get till the boats are back,” the old man said, sculling his cup. He shuddered then laughed. “I’d even eat a Strange-er right now.” His laughter, big and gurgling, echoed in the room, vibrating Tyson’s nerves.

He sat staring into the smouldering fire, the small licks of yellow–red flames as they tried to burn the too-damp wood. They didn’t often have open fires in la Strange, their heating coming from steam and the sun, their cooking gas came from deep wells beneath the tower. He liked the way the fire moved, how its colours flowed over the blackened wood, seeking out fuel to keep it alive. The timber came from the forest that edged the swamp-like land of the under-damp. It was sent to the dry kiln, a smoke billowing construction just within the forest proper then onto ‘Deep Sea’. Sometimes, when trade was poor and the fishing catch light, the Thoughtless would offer dry fire wood; only the wealthy ever used this basic commodity.

The old man sat silently watching, scratching his large belly and occasionally belching up an odorous stench. He counted the batteries again before putting the sack on the bar behind him. How much safety did they really buy him? This was Tyson’s first trip into ‘Deep Sea’ itself. His usual encounters were at the trading post. No one from la Strange ventured this far without pre-arranged protection and advanced purchased deals.

“You come fer yer dead?” the old man asked. “The woman?”

“Do you know what happened?”

“She dead, tha’s all. Yer come for her?”

“In a way.” Tyson supposed someone would eventually come down for the body.

“She shouldna’ been here. I warn her, I did.”

“You spoke with her?”

“She come sellin’, sellin’ some sky tricks. I tell her to go back before someone not as friendly takes her. She had Alks – no protection.” The old man sounded angry. Even in the dull light, Tyson could see his eyes were the colour of the swamp; dark and suspicious.

“What was she trying to sell?” Tyson, warmed by the fire, now felt urged on in his task. It was dangerous to trust a Thoughtless but he needed information.

“Stay sittin’, lad, stay sittin’.” The old man rubbed his wrinkled face. He was perhaps the oldest person Tyson had ever seen, at least in his forties. “You do nuttin’ till mornin’.”

There wasn’t really a morning as far as Tyson understood. The world of the under-damp was just shades of grey, the brighter the grey the more the Thoughtless moved about. Above the clouds where nothing got in the way of life the sun shone bright and the nights were clear. An orderly system for la Strange's perfectly maintained lifestyle. The old man pulled a dented, shiny flask from within his shirt, popped the lid and took a swig. “Be drinkin’ some a this, then be sleepin’.”

“What is it?” Tyson took the flask.

“Better you not know, just be knowin’ this stuff ain’t what I sell to the regulars; this is refined, smooth. Good five tides old.”

Tyson took a swig and almost vomited. Fire burned in his mouth, in his chest. For a moment he couldn’t breathe.

The old man laughed and slapped him on the back. “That be fixin’ the chills.” He snatched back the flask. “Yer batts will give yer a night, no more. Come, I’ll show yer the cot.”

Tyson felt his mind drifting, an unauthorized chemical reaction, the effects of the drink, a numbing in his lips, skin, a deadening of his senses. “What was the woman trying to sell?” he managed, following the old man through a brown curtained doorway. “I need to know.”

“One of yer dreams, I think, but it ain’t me yer need to be talkin’ to, lad, it be Eyeless.” The old man stopped by a stack of broken crates and stinking bedclothes. “Here yer sleep.”

He couldn’t argue; it was this or out in the flooded streets. As Tyson slid off his wet coat he stared at the old man and wondered if he would be able to sleep knowing he could be could have his throat slit? Greed also shone wild in that haggard face. Tyson turned to a porthole, water lapped at the slimed glass. The tide was already flooding the city. He thought he’d be safe enough till it went out again.

“You will take me to this Eyeless?” he asked, feeling the tiredness spreading through his limbs. “I can pay you.”

“Pay? With what?” He laughed and walked back up the narrow passage to the curtained doorway. “Yer best sleep well, yer on yer own come mornin’.” He stepped through the curtain.

“How will I find this Eyeless?” he called. No reply. What were his options? Flee and leave without the thought or stay and have his eyes plucked from his face? He needed the thought, and this person was his only lead. He would find this Eyeless and get what he needed back; a Thoughtless couldn’t outsmart him.

Feeling on edge, he set up a repeller field near his bed, pulling the tiny antennas out until the device looked like a spiked ball on one of the crates. Nothing could get through without setting off an alarm, shocking the intruder and waking him. He lay down on the cot, the reek of body odour and fish thick in the blankets.

Tyson closed his eyes and thought of Shana and her research on emotions, a completeness of thought she had suggested. His programming had put them together, though he didn’t share her tactile necessity when it came to emotional interactions. She tried to reduce receptors in her mind so she could get more from the touch responses during their sexing but the system always countered the action. When she adjusted his the experience was prolonged. He didn’t like it and had to argue with her until she readjusted him. Only five nights ago he’d given her a quick hormonal check under protest. Levels of progesterone and oestrogen were normal with slight testosterone traces; enzymatic influences were minimal. He couldn’t understand what made them so different. As he lay in the distilling odour he tried to picture her face, move away from the chemical interruptions in his head but all he could see was her blood-stained uniform. He wondered if he should run a grief system’s check. He needed to realign his axon delivery, so he slipped in a pleasant thought and let its vision of flowers lead him into dreams.

#

 

Brighter light shone through the curtain, the place looked less threatening than it had at half light. Tyson crawled from the bed. He no longer noticed the smell as he tidied his shirt then dragged on his coat; the air was cool and smoky.

“Station,” he said into the throat device. He switched off the repeller and stored it back in his coat.

“What have you found?” the voice asked. Why didn’t the relayer address him by name?

“Shana came to sell the thought. I think I know who has it.” He didn’t really know but he didn't trust this relayer, something felt wrong. “I will be making contact soon.”

“Get it back!” the relayer demanded. “Kill if you have to.”

“Repeat?”

“Kill anyone who stands in your way.”

“Just how dangerous is it?” Killing people wasn’t something he expected. Yes he was trained, but actually doing it?

“ Secure it. Dispose of the threat.”

“What is it?”

“Classified.”

“I understand.” If Shana had been with him she would have questioned and pushed for an explanation, would have refused to do anything without all the information. She was dead. Where did that kind of recalcitrant behaviour get her? But still. Did he really have to kill to get what was wanted? It was an unusual request; rarely did the inhabitants of la Strange have to lower themselves to the level of animals. “Who is giving this order?”

“You do not have the right to question.”

“I do not recognize your voice, so who are you to relay this order? I need to know for my internal report after the mission.” He felt a disturbance. Relayers always followed the protocols.

Tyson cupped his hand over his ear shell, a vibrating hum had started up in the inn and it was getting harder to hear. The operator’s voice kept cutting in and out of the interact with small clicks. Someone was tapping the line.

“We are being overheard,” he said.

“Get the thought...”

“Repeat.”

“Stay…” Hissing “…death …” The interact dropped to white noise.

“Station?” Tyson’s ear shell now a hash of sound. “Station? Station?”

“Can’t hear you, lad.” The old man stood behind him, a long knife in his hand. “Seems to me maybe yer been found. Give me the talker and hearer.” The old man slashed at him in warning.

Tyson unclipped his gear and handed it over. He wished he’d kept the repeller on until after he’d contacted la Strange. He studied the old man’s face as he stuffed the gear into his pockets. The Thoughtless couldn’t generally use the devices, their minds couldn’t deal with the signals they put out; this was for trade.

“Yer weapon.”

“I don’t have one.” He never carried one; never needed one before. To fight in a physical sense was to diminish the reason and logic of his race.

“Yer stupid as well as pretty.” The old man pushed the knife closer to Tyson’s face. “Eyeless don’t care if yer pretty.”

“You said I was safe until morning.”

“It’s morning and the deal is over. Eyeless pays well.”

“I’ll get more Lithiums?”

The old man shook his head. “Eyeless is ‘ere fer yer. Deal settled.” The old man waved him towards and through the curtain. “Yer better not lie to her, lad. She’s not like the rest of us down ere’, she bring fear with her sight; kills fast.”

Stepping from the light of the hallway and into the inn’s brilliant electric light tubes took a few moments for Tyson's eyes to adjust. Why the bright light? He moved to the centre of the room, in the space between the two rows of tables – the inn appeared empty. Stools both sides of the tables were worn smooth, shiny, but the table tops, beaten metal sheets, were scarred with graffiti. The fire crackled in the hearth but there was no other sound.

He turned back to the old man. He hadn’t come through the curtain with him. Tyson looked to the fire.

“I’m here,” a female voice said, the sound as soft as a breeze across his cheek.

Tyson spun about. A strong hand grabbed him by the jaw, the strength inescapable; the sharpness of long nails pressed into his flesh, painful. A single thrust sent him sprawling across a table. The metal scrape of legs over the steel-grated floor a scream in the silence.

“I am Eyeless and I understand you have lost something.”

Tyson still hadn’t seen her but knew that his life hung in the balance. “The old man has taken…”

“Not your gear, Strange-er,” she said. “You have lost a thought.”

He couldn’t confirm this to her, the Thoughtless knew nothing of such matters and wouldn’t even understand the meaning of a la Strange thought. He slid from the table to a crouch. A drop of blood spattered on his leather trouser leg. Tyson touched his cheek. A shadow moved by the fire, a blur of motion. This Eyeless moved fast, faster than any Thoughtless he’d heard of. She appeared a few metres in front of him. Dark. Menacing.

“As you see, Strange-er, I am not like these dim-witted fools who know nothing but fish, fighting and rain.” Eyeless sat on the table opposite. She shifted smoothly in her black leather coat and jumpsuit; she had a grace about her. She moved like the clouds that scudded beneath la Strange. “I don’t like the water much.”

Tyson could see his reflection in her polished, slag metal goggles. They seemed to drip from her brow. It reminded him of glossy candle wax. She smiled. Perfect, white teeth between narrow lips; it was a smile he did not expect, the perfection startled him. She wasn’t a Thoughtless. A human, perhaps? They never showed violence, only ever passive silence.

“You fear me? So you should, Strange-er.” She caressed a pocket on her breast and two eyeballs fell out on the floor between them.

Tyson jumped back and rolled over a table top.

“They were useless of course.” The woman sounded disappointed. Tyson had a table between him and the eyes, between him and her. “Do you think I would be well served trying yours?” She lifted her glasses to reveal two holes where eyes should have been. Coloured wires ran into the red pulpy mess. She lowered the glasses and waited.

Shana’s killer! I’m going to die. Tyson looked toward the hatchway that led outside; could he escape?

The shadows moved and the woman stood by the door. The smile was now gone but her face, smooth beneath long black hair, didn’t look angry. “Relax, Strange-er,” she said. Again the whisper. “I’m not going to kill you, yet.”

“You killed Shana.” He was trapped. “Why? Did she ask too much in trade? Didn’t she want to trade her eyes?”

“I killed no one. That is the Thoughtless way.” The woman cocked her head to one side, listening to something. “You are popular; I hear them, you know.”

“What will you do to me?” he asked, sitting on the table. He had nothing to trade. “Will you trade me?”

“You will explain what you have lost and then I will decide.” The smoothness of her voice carried deeper menace than he’d first thought.

la Strange had its secrets and he could not divulge them under any circumstances. If he had to die then he would take those secrets with him.

Eyeless sprang forward. Finger nails bit into his chest. “Tell me!” Her voice pounded inside his head. “Now!” The nails dug deeper. Pain erupted in his muscles; reached into his back. He tried to pull away but the nails penetrated deeper, it felt like she was ripping his lungs out. “What is it!? What is it!?”

“A thought,” he cried, giving in to the fire in his chest. “A dangerous thought from the forbidden vault.”

She released him. Tyson slumped forward, sliding to a stool. Dark stains appeared on his shirt. He looked up at her and knew if his superiors ever found out he’d never be able to go back up the tower. He dropped his head into his hands, fighting for breath, fighting back tears of pain. His thoughts began to reorder but still he could not understand how easily he had broken his vow; he was as good as dead to them, now. To show weakness under threat was to be on equal terms to the lesser lives of those in the under-damp; he had shown animal behaviour.

“I know,” she said, moving to the smouldering fire. “I want to know why it is dangerous? Why was it important to the dead girl?” She focused on him. “Was the girl important to you?”

“Shana was my affection partner.” He boosted his uptake. “I let her have access to the thought vault.”

“So you knew her well?” He nodded. “You don’t seem too upset about it.” She sat on a stool by the fire. “I can’t hear emotion in your voice, and I need to know if I should help you.”

“She’s dead. What more is there?” Shana often said she wanted to know what true emotions were. He shrugged and wondered what she meant; mood control and reason served them well enough; the free and uncontrolled emotional responses clouded judgement, why allow this when it was easily managed.

“Did you love her?” The woman had her back turned.

Tyson wondered at the word. “I felt attached… we had the affection programme...”

“Yes, yes,“ Eyeless said, “I know how it works up there. But you did say affection partner. La Strange does not allow easy which makes you unique. So, did you love her?”

“Why did you have to kill her?”

“I didn’t kill her. I’ve already told you,” Eyeless said with annoyance. “I don’t have the thought, either.”

“Why did you cut her eyes out?” Even if emotion wasn't la Strange's way, the violation still required explanation.

“As you said, she was dead.” Eyeless turned on him, her face attractive in the light; skin pale, chin square and lips slightly parted. She didn’t look like a Thoughtless and she didn’t speak like one. “Maybe it was the humans.”

“But why?” Tyson couldn’t move. Again a heightened state possessed him. Did he have a fault in his level management processes? “They aren’t known for it, then why mutilate her like that?”

Eyeless’ expression seemed to change, her features softened, shoulders relaxed. “I am a Strange-er, you know?” she said. “I escaped the tower a long time ago, probably back when you were still only a blob of flesh in your growth-vat.” She looked to the floor. “I thought maybe her eyes could patch into my connectors; they did of course, only all the nerves were dead. Your girlfriend had been dead too long.”

Girlfriend? He knew the concept, but why did it tug at him now? Why wasn’t his uptake working like he should?

Tyson sat, breathing slow and deep, for some reason the under-damp was interfering with him programs. There was no point looking for the thought now. He'd been caught and divulged his mission, he couldn’t go back, to register an animal response to threat automatically removed his citizenship, his mission report would show the infringement and he would be terminated. He didn’t have the thief of thought to help negotiate a reinstatement; Shana was dead. He watched the odd woman, the bright lights making her goggles sparkle. How could she have come from above the clouds? Why would anyone from la Strange choose to live with the Thoughtless? Unless she too showed an animal response. He felt his chest and the wounds; a headache began behind his eyes, the room pressed in, squeezed at his mind. The glare of the tubes showed the place as the shambles it really was. Black mould hugged every corner where rust hadn’t taken hold, the crusted grid floor had more bent cross bars than straight and beneath them he could see the shimmer of liquid.

“I’ll help you find it,” Eyeless said, standing.

“What’s the point?” Tyson had lost the impetus, a duldrum of moods had settled across his systems, a malfunction probably brought on by his slip from perfection. What he needed was to run an empowering thought to help bolster flagging serotonin uptake, but if he couldn’t return to the tower... “I can’t go back. You might as well kill me and be done with it.”

“Self pity, good. Shows there might be some hope for you. You doing all that chemical adjusting shit in your head?” He stared at her. “After a time you’ll give it up, let stuff run naturally.” She pulled back her long hair and showed an ear shell, a copper device with wires running into her neck. “I can’t see what this thought is doing but already there have been deaths amongst the Thoughtless that I think are connected.

“If they are dying why use it?”

“I’m not a Thoughtless and couldn’t even begin to understand why; maybe because they think it is a path to a better life. Suicide is popular down here.”

Tyson  felt weary. “How could it kill them.” He looked up at her. “It’s only a thought.”

“They can't process information like we can, they don’t have the neural networks in place to hold the data streams, I am guessing the data shock is killing them – So, I don’t know why they want, or would even want to try and see this thought. They already experience live emotions now, all be it out of control most times, but at least real and their own. What I do know is that we have to get it back. We have to locate it and let what I call fate, shape what is to come.” She let her hair drop across her face.

“Why the change of heart?” Tyson wiped his face. Had he been crying? Had Shana meant more than rostered attachment to him? “Why are you going to let me live?”

“What change of heart?” Eyeless approached him, pulling her coat closed. “I’m working to my own agenda here Strange-er. I knew you’d come and I need things to fall together in my favour. I like you so far, so don’t go disappointing me.”

The lights faltered then blinked out. The fire’s light yellowed the dark. She touched her ear shell, brow creased above the glasses.

“Thoughtless!” Eyeless said. “Got here faster than I expected. Some can use the communications devices you know.”

Loud clanking rang through the inn. Someone was trying to force the hatch. In a moment she was beside him, yanking him to his feet. The old man ran into the room.

“They be out back, s’well.” He held a knife. “Yer goin’ to have to use the roof.”

Tyson allowed Eyeless to drag him through the curtained doorway, up a ladder through a small hatch and into a tunnel; dull luminescence led into the dankness .

“What’s happening?” Tyson gasped, trying to catch his breath.

“I’m not the only one needing you.” The woman pushed him ahead. “There’s a hatch at the end, leads across the roof to the power cables. Quick, before the tide sweeps over the top.”

Tyson ran. At the hatch he spun the wheel, relieved to see the spars disengage. He pushed the hatch but it didn’t budge; jammed.

“Get out the way,” Eyeless cried. How did she know what had happened? She leant into the hatch and it swung out into torrential rain, the sound deafening. “Across to the cable guides,” she yelled, shoving him into the downpour.

The heaviness of the sky and the thickness of the precipitation made it hard to see anything, but he didn’t wait to be told again. He started running, hoping something that looked like cables would come into view. In moments his leather coat was heavy with water and his shoes felt like thick wadding around his feet; he still couldn’t see any cables.

“Keep running!” came Eyeless’ scream. “To your right, about twenty strides.”

Twenty strides? Running or walking? Tyson stopped at ten and tried to see through the wall of rain. In the grey haze he made out thick cabling attached to a short A-frame tower. The cables reached out over a darker patch of grey and into what could only be called low cloud.

“Here.” Eyeless stopped beside him. How did she manage to see? She thrust a heavy wheeled contraption into his hands. “Put the grooved wheel over the cable.”

He tried to look up at her but water flooded his eyes.

“It’s a zip line.” Eyeless advanced on the tower. She showed how her hand fit into the ring grips either side of the wheel. “Follow me, Strange-er, or end up stripped to the bone by a Thoughtless’ blade.” She hooked the wheel over the cable then threw herself out into the expanse. To Tyson it sounded like she was cheering.

“Thar! Thar!” he heard from behind. They could see him.

He climbed up on the edge of the building, feet slipping on the slimed metal, and hooked the wheel over the cable. He thrust his hands through the rings and held the short grips as tightly as cold, wet hands could. He closed his eyes and let gravity do the work. With a grunt from the weight of his body hanging from his arms he flew into the abyss. Cracks, like lightning, joined the solid thrum of the rain. The Thoughtless were shooting at him.

“Let go,” Eyeless screamed over the noise. “Let go, now!”

Tyson held on a little longer before releasing his grip and fell. He held his breath and stopped. He lay stunned in a pool, his body crumpled against the wall. The slickness of blood flooded over his lips as he fell backwards on the roof. Eyeless knelt beside him.

“I said let go.” The rain fell heavier; it had become hard to see at all.

“Tell me,” he asked, struggling to stand. “How in all sunlight are you able to sense where I am…where anything is?” If he was going to die he at least wanted to know that much.

She helped him to his feet. “When we get inside.” She dragged him after her. They ran across the roofs, jumping over narrow gaps between buildings or using the cables.

Tyson was struggling, he couldn't run any more. Eyeless slid to a stop by another short A-frame tower with broken wires whipping out from its sides. She pushed on the tower and it shifted aside on a flat square of metal – it was a hatch.

“Down!”

He didn’t need to be told a second time as he descended the ladder into a suffuse green light. Eyeless’ boots clanged down the rungs after him, the rain shut out by the closing of the hatch. The chamber had a few centimetres of water on the floor.

“Left,” she said coming down beside him. She started down the greenish lit passageway. The light came from a patchy fluorescence on the walls. Tyson followed, his mind unable to keep pace with events. Eyeless wasn't rushing now, it seemed they were in a safe place.

“In here.” Eyeless disappeared through an opened hatch. The light was whiter, brighter and he could smell damp clothing beyond what clung to his skin. Once inside the warmish room she closed the hatch and spun the wheel, dropping a lock bar across once the wheel stopped spinning.

“Put your coat in there.” She pointed to an opened cabinet with rust streaked doors. “It’s a dryer.” She shucked off her black coat and threw it at him. “Mine first.”

The room sparkled with data screens, flat cables and copper wires. Oxidised brass framed readers occupied one wall, dials showing red, others looking dead. For a “Deep Sea” place it had a lot of tech stuff; gear way beyond the under-damp’s inhabitants’ comprehension. Tyson hung both coats in the drier while Eyeless stripped off her clothes to stand naked by a low burning fire. Despite the shining goggles she was attractive in a slim kind of way; a well toned woman whose skin was as white as cloud.

“Never seen a naked woman before?” She made no attempt to cover up.

“Ah… no…I mean…yes…ah…”

“Your responses are getting better. If you don’t want to fall sick I suggest you get those wet clothes off as well.” She faced him, arms up, hands pulling her long, wet hair back into a ponytail. “I’ve got some clothes you can put on, not much but at least they’ll be dry.”

Tyson tried not to stare but he was drawn to her nakedness, troubled by the way it didn’t bother her. Slowly he stripped off his clothes, feeling a chill deepening as he went. He didn’t like feeling exposed. Eyeless opened a well worn storage box and pulled out a pair of grey pants, a brown, heavy shirt and a thick pullover.

“They’ll be a little big on you,” she said, taking some clothes out for herself. “The guy who owned them won’t need them anymore.” He didn’t ask why. She hung their wet leathers in with the coats.

Eyeless did something to the fire and the flames increased, though she didn’t add extra wood. She indicated a red stop valve on the wall above the place. Gas. She had gas. The Thoughtless weren’t allowed gas. Tyson wondered about this Eyeless. She had la Strange technology and piped gas from the tower, the Thoughtless would accidently blow themselves up if they had the energy source. Where were they?

“This place is one of our old monitoring stations from the days when we thought we could help them with implants,” she said.

“I don’t understand.” He couldn’t see la Strange helping the more animal natured Thoughtless.

“There are many things you don’t understand Strang-er but if you help me get the thought back I’ll explain some of it to you.

“How long ago. I mean how old is this place?”

“The humans kept them running long after our kind abandoned them, so I guess maybe three hundred years give or take twenty. You’d like them, the humans I mean, well, I hope you will.”

“You know the humans?” The dry clothes were scratchy against his skin, the irritation annoying.

“We trade. We have a deal in place.”

Once dressed she stared at him for a time, lips curling up with some kind of pleasure; Tyson wondered what she saw when she looked at him; how did she see? He let the warmth of the fire soften his mood while Eyeless, now in an open black shirt and dry leather trousers, sat on a stool fiddling with an ear shell in her lap.

“Before you ask, again,” she said, not looking up, “I can’t see you, I can’t see anything.”

“But…”

“Shut up, Strange-er, let me finish.” She looked at him. “I have a sensor array in the goggles. The stuff gives me shapes and colours, movement but no real detail.” She pulled her hair back from above her ear and showed where the goggles were jacked into her head. “I read your colour signature, electrical signature, motion and sound waves; it all meshes together in my mind as a rough image.” She fixed the listening shell back over her ear. “Strange-ers are blue.” She held her hand in front of her face. “The Thoughtless are yellow and the humans are shades of red, all on a background of deeper red. The humans are hard to make out sometimes but I manage. It’s not like they are around much anyway.”

“The bright lights at the inn?” Feeling suitably warmed he sat on the only other stool in the place; a beaten steel contraption with three, uneven legs.

“They created a blaze of dark red, showing you as bright blue. Easy to find.”

“So, without the goggles…”

She smiled. “I’m just like you.”

“What?”

“Blind, my dear Strange-er, totally blind to what is going on.”

Eyeless stood and moved to the other side of the room and a wooden desk. How had she got such a large thing down through the tunnel? There didn’t seem to be any other way in or out of the room. It was a large space filled with flickering screens, their once gleaming brass frames now blackened with age. Copper meshed cables, linked to a bank of corroded steel system terminals, swept over every surface like sea snakes. Where did she get all this stuff? More importantly, what did she trade to get her hands on working la Strange technology?

“You can use all this stuff?” he asked. “Why hadn’t there been reports about this by la Strange’s security office? They monitor everything in the under-damp.”

“The tower doesn’t know much about what happens down here, not since they abandoned all the camera towers and monitoring stations.” She sat on the edge of the desk. “In a way they helped create this way of life. It was originally an underwater city and from what I have learned, the tide shifted so now it spends part of the day above water. Before the great tower of la Strange this was where we lived.”

“We lived here, in the under-damp?” He knew many of the old histories of the city and this was not one of them, not even in speculated times.

“We built the tower and left the city for the new inhabitants, the ones who didn’t usually get a chance at life.” She shook her head. “That’s it for now. When I think you can handle a little more I will tell you.”

“I don’t believe you. We have always lived above the clouds, we have never been animals like these.”

 “What I know isn’t for you accept or deny at this stage, and you better start hoping there is a next stage.”

“Meaning?”

“Just follow my lead, is all I’m willing to offer.”

Tyson examined the equipment, the greening copper tubing of the power supply, the blackened brass boxes of the current generators – all old stuff, yet clearly la Strange equipment – but what use of it down here in the wet? Eyeless sat on her stool at one of the screens, a cable now hung down the back of her neck; fingers hovered over a dirty glass key panel.

“So, just what am I allowed to know?”

“The Thoughtless have the thought,” she said. She touched the panel softly. “We can track its effects.” In a moment the screen sparkled with live data feeds from the towers. “I think we can get it back easily enough.” She turned to him. “But there is a price to pay.”

“Then you will trade it to la Strange?” Somehow he didn’t think that was what she was planning.

“You could say trade is what I am up to.”

He thought of Shana, her slit throat, her vacant eye sockets. Why remember her? That part of him was over – ordered and stored. Wasn’t it?

Eyeless pulled up a schematic of the under-damp, ‘Deep Sea’. The town was more or less a grid pattern; buildings connected together by waterways, gangways and narrow, stoned paths.

“Here!” Eyeless said pointing at the screen. “They have used the thought in this section, about ten kilometres from here.” An area showed black smudges scattered about like discarded batteries. “All dead. I’m guessing a suicide pact.”

“You can see that?”

She touched the cable jacked into her neck but said nothing. The screen showed a winding and twisting overview of the city; obvious overlays from the light tower’s cameras – she was watching the world – a white patch, lit up by several towers almost glowed amongst the great expanse of grey.

“This light covers about one square kilometre.” Eyeless pulled the jack free and spun about in her chair. She flipped up her goggles. Her eyelids had been removed. She jiggled the wires that ran into the holes. “I don’t necessarily disagree with what is happening,” she said. “A few less Thoughtless would be a good thing, saving them isn’t part of the human’s plan.”

“What plan?”

“That’s what you and I are about to go and find out.” She flipped the goggles down.

Tyson tightened the rope belt that held his trousers up; he didn’t know what was happening. “Why are they killing themselves?” he asked, stepping slightly away from the warmth of the fire.

“Don’t you feel it.” Eyeless turned to him. “Don’t you feel their sadness?”

“No, only occasional chemical disruptions and thought spikes, but I purge these with the logical order of things.”

“Purge? You mean flush your brain with serotonin? Make everything eternally happy?”

“You make it sound like that is a bad thing?”

“In a way it is.” She leant back against the desk. “Why do you think Strange-ers don’t feel strong emotion? Actually why do you think you are having difficulty keeping check of emotions?”

“What’s this got to do with the thought?”

“Maybe nothing...”

“What is it?”

“Not now, I don’t know enough and I hate guessing. And speaking of guessing, what is your name?”

“Don’t you know everything?”

“Now isn’t the time to be standing up for yourself. Your name, please?”

“Tyson, I’m a Tyson 732.”

“Well Tyson 732, I’m a Helena 219 but of course you can call me Eyeless.”

She stood, got some blankets out of the box she’d taken the clothes from and gave them to Tyson.

“Get some sleep, tomorrow things will happen and I might need you alert.” It was time to lay low for a while.

With the blanket wrapped about him he settled on the floor near the fire. Eyeless knew far, far more than she was telling and it made Tyson nervous, he felt frightened, an unusual feeling. Racing heart, sweating and his mind running scenarios of him getting his eyes cut out, his data casing ripped from the back of his skull. He didn’t like the feeling and he didn’t like how they were becoming more the norm over the last few hours. Had water gotten into his system? He pulled a disk

from his wallet,  and slipped it into the reader in his neck. The blue sky of la Strange filled his mind, the gardens, the low white and yellow buildings, the glass towers that reached to the stars and the people, all the people in their blue uniforms, or green worker jumpsuits going about their day in unison.

He could see the steam vents, the massive copper tubes that ringed the outer rim of the sky city; they belched white, clean steam from the massive boilers beneath the pavement. Flywheels as big as buildings created electricity to power the world and support life above the clouds. A great silver-grey battery factory covered ten square kilometres, made power cells to run the devices that made life easier and made currency the under-damp could understand. This was what Tyson needed to see, to remember his home, the place away from the smells, the water and filth. He looked to the unbroken blue above, sighed and felt release. A shadow moved across his sight. A black cloud blotted the sun.

Tyson opened his eyes. What was wrong?

#

“I don't understand.” Tyson sat with his back near the fire, his shoulder ached from the hard floor, his eyes stung with tiredness.

“The Thoughtless seem to be flocking to the thought, it could ruin everything.” Eyeless was blur  of agitation. “How do you feel about it? How does this make you feel?”

“It’s just a thought.” Tyson felt unease.

She shrugged. “Well it isn’t just a thought, is it? There is a reason for it to be down here.” She stopped pacing a shifted like a flash of light to stand over him. “Don’t you feel anything because of the deaths?”

“I think I feel sad.” He didn’t know for sure. “My inducers aren’t overriding the gloom I feel like they should. I don’t feel happy that these Thoughtless are killing themselves.”

“Good, good, just what I was hoping to hear.” Dragging on her now-dry coat she smiled. “How about we see if we can stop them killing themselves and get the thought back?”

“That would make me feel better than I do at the moment.”

She turned the fire down, warm air quickly fled, the smell of damp clothing and mould soon seeped back into the room; he hadn’t realised how much of the mustiness warm air hid.

Eyeless grabbed a handful of weapons from a square steel chest in the corner. She passed him a hand gun.  A small weapon with a short barrel.

 

“The Thoughtless aren’t far from here.” Eyeless selected two chromed hand guns, sporting thick and lengthy magazines. In moments she had the holster across her shoulders. “You and I might have to fight for the thought. You ready for that?”

“What are we going to do?”

“Something you will have difficulty with, but I think you of all la Strang-ers are ready for it.” She picked up a browned cylinder about the size of her little finger nail from the mess on her desk. “This is a neurotransmitter inducer, my inducer. Without it I can do what is necessary. You, on the other hand, will have to manually adjust yours if you want to stay alive. There isn’t time for me to cut it out.”

She looked menacing with the white grips of the guns sticking out of her shoulder holsters. “Do what I do and don't get killed, you are too valuable.” She stepped out of the room. “The Thoughtless aren’t smart but when they do work something out and find it has value they can be pretty tenacious.”She stood in the green luminescence of the corridor, rubbing her hand over the wall's surface, causing the light to glow brighter. “You can either help me, Strange-er...” She drew one of the guns, “or I shoot you.”

She had a point. The idea of dying didn’t appeal to him. He found he actually wanted to live, felt like he had to stay alive.

They moved swiftly down the corridor to the hatch. Eyeless went first, one gun in her hand. The hatch opened and rain rushed in. In moments they were gleaming with the sheen of water. Tyson pulled his own weapon and climbed out into the downpour. Eyeless slid the tower back in place and pointed to the edge of the building. A rail and the question mark of a ladder could just be seen through the grey.

“See the light?” she yelled over the drumming.

In the distance he could see the white glow of tower lights. The tightness in his gut told him that was where they were going. Eyeless ducked into the greyer shadows and emerged with two hand grips. They were going to use the cables again. Tyson tucked his weapon into his inside coat pocket, took the guide wheel and followed Eyeless to the edge of the building and the myriad of overhead wires – all sparking under the constant downpour.

He couldn’t even see the other buildings.

Like before, he stepped off into the gloom. This time when he heard her yell, he let go.

Eyeless ran through puddles across the wide expanse of the second roof; she was silhouetted by the light spraying from the towers above. Grey shadows turned to black pits.

“Stay here,” she yelled, diving over the side of the building. Tyson froze. She’d flung herself into the brightness. He stood alone on the roof top.

The sound of gun fire cried out, a popping over the thrumming of rain on metal. Then came the loud crack, as if someone had smashed two panes of glass together. Eyeless’ guns. He drew his weapon and ran to the edge looking down into a pool of whiteness. The ground was only a single storey down, brown and moss coloured. Thoughtless darted about, seeking shelter in hatchways, hand held torches blinked abouyt the shadows. Two men lay prone in the alleyway. He couldn’t see Eyeless.

He thought about climbing down the ladder and joining her but he couldn’t. He was afraid. It didn't make sense. Why was he afraid? He felt something hard press into his neck. A gun? A hand reached past him and removed the weapon from his grip. The pressure on his neck released.

“Stand.” The voice was barely audible over the rain. “Hands up.”

He stood, arms raised. Slowly he turned to face who had captured him.

“Tyson.”

“Shana?”

She stood before him in brown sodden clothing, looking more like an old seafarer than the woman he remembered. Her fair hair was dark and plastered over her face; eyes, bright green even in the gloom, stared at him. He lowered his arms and she the gun.

“I saw your body,” he yelled over the noise.

“I’m sorry Tyson, it had to be done. You had to think I was dead.” Shana stepped closer, put her left hand on his chest and gazed up into his face, water causing her to blink rapidly. “How do you feel?”

There was still shooting below, still the occasional scream of someone dying. He didn’t know how he felt, or didn’t want to know how he felt. Why was she asking? He shook his head, it wasn’t logical, it wasn’t right.

Shana handed him a disk and stepped back. He could see something in her face, he didn’t understand. He looked at the disk, a small promise on his finger tip, she wanted him to see it; he wanted to see what was killing the Thoughtless. Struggling against the water falling over him he slid the disk into the reader. There was a crackle in his mind as the drive sizzled off the moisture on the disk.

“Oh no, no, no,” he cried dropping to his knees. “No. It can’t be. It can’t be.” He could almost hear the chemicals in his brain struggling with the vision in his mind. Darkness; pure darkness.

Shana knelt in the puddle in front of him, putting her hands either side of his face. “This is what I found.”

“Strange-er,” came Eyeless’ voice over the rain. “Tyson!”

Shana nodded, but he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t think. Didn’t want to think. His heart ached with despair at what could have been, what he thought had happened to her.

“He’s here!” Shana yelled.

“Has he used it.” Eyeless sounded short of breath. Her voice loud over the rain.

“Yes, he has seen it.” The sound of her voice the only thing holding him back from the gaping, black abyss before him.

Silence.

“I’ll be there shortly. Stay where you are.”

Tyson studied Shana’s face and saw, truly saw what she was seeing. The absolute darkness of loss. He felt it, the emptiness crashed through his mind as a hot wind. It soaked up his will like a cloth soaks up moisture. He held on tight to Shana, felt her strength as his slid away. How far could he fall into this dark well? His inducer was overwhelmed; he could almost hear the dendrite dying. He couldn’t look at her any longer, he closed his eyes and let the rain, the ever present rain pound him as he tried to block cellular activity. It didn’t work, nothing in his systems worked. What had she done to him?

“What do you feel?” Shana whispered in his ear. “Tyson, tell me. What do you feel?”

“Pain!” he cried out. “Pain and emptiness.”

“Open your eyes, Tyson. Look at me.”

The world was a blur, a vision through tears, a vision drowning. Again she cupped his face, pressed her lips against his, a kiss, but a kiss like he had never felt before. He felt it, truly felt it.

“It’s not pain, it’s not the end, my sweet Tyson. It is love.” She kissed him again, her arms tight about him, protecting yet freeing him at the same time.

Tyson tried to search the feeling, search the thoughts, the darkness they brought. The thought of losing Shana to death, the thoughts of her murder and what was done to her, rushed at him, threatened to swallow him. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe. He couldn’t breathe... couldn’t breathe

#

 

Eyeless sat at her desk, a drink in hand and an expression of contentment. Tyson rested with his back against the wall, a blanket wrapped about him and a cup of stinking broth clenched in his fingers. The thought had been removed but the effects remained – he had been changed. He couldn’t order his mind, purge the darkness or the sense of loss, nor could he suppress the overwhelming elation of being with Shana, and knowing he wanted to be with no one else. If this was the effect of love then he understood why the emotion, the thought of darkness had been locked away. Was this the programming equivalent of having his neurotransmitters over-ridden?

Shana paced the room. Her great coat lay on the floor in front of the fire, steam rising, her boots squelched as she walked.

“You recovered?” Eyeless asked.

“I don’t think I’m ever going to recover.” He gulped down a mouthful of broth, thankful for its salty distraction.

“I can see the feelings you have for each other. Shana was right to choose you.”

Shana turned on Eyeless. “What happens now?”

“More of your research.” Eyeless laughed. “But you can’t go back to the tower.”

“You know each other?” Tyson shivered, the cold holding tight to his bones. “On the roof...”

“I’m sorry Tyson, I had to get you here. You were the only one I found.” Shana hugged herself.

“Only one what? What do you mean brought me down here? You planned all this?” His shout rang around the walls.

“You have natural emotional abilities, not quite what humans have but with time you will develop.” Shana squatted before him, one hand on his knee. “I was researching la Strange, looking for someone who had developed outside of the protocols.”

“But you’re...”

“I’m part human, Tyson. I infiltrated la Strange two years ago.”

“The thought. What about the thought?” He felt ill.

“I tried to introduce it into the data lines but the security measures in place made it impossible, so I faked a though theft after setting up the unity with you. I knew they would send you, a punishment for letting me get inside the vault.” Shana’s eyes softened and her grip on his knee firmed. “It was the only way to get you down here safely.”

“The who was giving the orders to find you?” He looked to Eyeless who tapped her ear shell and smiled.

“And I wouldn’t be claiming safety just yet. I picked something up when I nabbed him from the tavern.” Eyeless placed her hand against the listening device and turned away from them for a moment. He fingers of the right hand played over the key pad. Screens flickered.

 “Why me, Shana, why all this for me?”

“I felt you could override the chemical inducers but Eyeless wanted to see if it was possible to make sure we weren’t just getting false responses. The last test was to see if you could take the thought and unlock the strongest of human emotions, love.” She looked back at Eyeless. “Unfortunately to stay alive long enough here I set up a cult for suicide and enlightenment, that is why the Thoughtless wanted to try the thought.” She lowered her eyes to the decking. “I knew they couldn’t take the data stream, it was either let them try or die.”

“They could have just killed you and taken it.” Anger was now finding its way through the cold. “I don’t believe you, either of you.” .

 “They knew Eyeless watched over me, it kept me safe to a point.”

Eyeless raised one of her gleaming guns, her intention obvious. Shana moved slowly to Tyson, they both stood before the woman He couldn’t rush her, couldn’t break for the hatch, it was closed. Eyeless moved to the drying cabinet and took out his leather clothes, signalling him to put them on. While Shana turned her back, Eyeless watched, her face set hard, lips thin with determination.

“This has to be the way, I’m afraid.” Eyeless’ voice was low. “I’m sorry but my future depends on this and there isn’t time for convincing you of anything.”

“Are you going to kill me, us?” Shana took his hand, squeezed and let out a short sigh of resignation. Eyeless shook her head.

Tyson jumped, startled by a pounding on the hatch.

“Open the hatch.”

Tyson didn’t move. He wasn’t going to be the one to let in his own captors. She pointed her gun at Tyson. Shana obeyed and spun the wheel. The door opened and in stepped two humans, their clean look undeniable, their perfect shaped green eyes. Tyson looked to Eyeless who offered no response. Shana gasped. The two men wore tight-fitting grey suits that shimmered yet didn’t appear wet.

“Why?” Tyson stared at the men, their faces smooth. “What use am I to you?”

“You cannot interrupt the balance.” One man stepped forward. “You must come with us.”

Tyson hadn’t ever heard humans speak before. The sound was not unlike his own voice. Both men looked strong and moved with calculated efficiency, something they had never displayed in any of the trading missions recorded by la Strange’s security. He looked to Eyeless, hoping to see some kind of reaction, some key that would explain things. Nothing.

“Submarine?” Eyeless said.

“Yes, a vessel for the five of us.” The other man offered.

Shana glanced at Tyson and back to Eyeless. The woman had holstered her weapon but remained fixed on the two humans who seemed to be examining the room in amusement; both had the faintest hint of a smile.

 “Please, we are docked at the end of the corridor, it is time to go.” The first man stared at Eyeless. “The thought is secured I take it?” Eyeless held up the disk. “No copies?” A shake of the head.

Tyson wanted to fight, only he knew Eyeless would shoot him dead before he even had a chance to raise a fist. He felt deep desire for Shana but it was tainted with the seeping of distrust and betrayal. His chest tightened, breathing shortened and he felt like sinking to his knees and sobbing for all the loss that was dropping around him.

“Just tell me what is going on.”

Both humans exchanged glances before the second one spoke. “You were in possession of something you shouldn’t have been...”

“Enough,” Eyeless said moving between the humans and Tyson. “Let’s go.”

“The Thoughtless are la Strange’s rejects,” Shana said, “though the humans might have different names for them. The humans created the tower city; they made the organic and machine beings, they made you, Tyson.”

Why didn’t she say us? Tyson looked at the men, Eyeless, the demeanour of Shana. He could feel tension in the room, see the strain around Shana’s human eyes, for she was part human after all.

“You are a misaligned clone with failing technological additions.” The first man seemed unimpressed. “Now, please, we really must go.”

“The thought?” Tyson asked. “What of the thought?”

“We have it now. All will be as it should be.”

“So everything just stays the same?” Shana leaned into Tyson. “That’s right, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Eyeless started shutting down equipment. “I’ll get new eyes out of this, and the chance to make a difference, and you get something you didn’t expect.”

“We have what we came for.” The second man started pushing them forward, out of the hatchway and into the corridor. “Eyeless, you will be rewarded.”

Tyson looked to Shana. Eyeless laughed. The second man kept pushing them towards the hatch at the end of the corridor. They entered a small airlock of a submarine; the brass, copper and black piping throughout the small vessel dripped and hissed.

“So the thought is all you really need?” Tyson put his arm about Shana as the hatch closed. The first man then closed the inner hatch and disengaged the docking system, flooding the corridor and rooms before releasing the sub. The first man pushed forward one of the three control arms set in the floor and the vessel moved. Eyeless watched as the two men manipulated the controls. Tyson took Shana and they stood out of the way. This was it. “Eyeless, I hope you know what is happening?”

Eyeless leant up against the bulkhead, her glasses reflecting the brass surfaces like a rainbow. “I do.”

Shana gripped on to Tyson and he knew the fear she was feeling because he felt it himself; the tightness of the gut, the rapid thinking and the urge to scream out.

With deliberation and ease Eyeless pulled one of her guns and shot both men in the head, the sound causing Tyson and Shana to cover their ears and cower. Shana screamed. Tyson pulled her close expecting to be shot as well. Eyeless pushed the bodies away from the controls, moved several levers and checked gauges set into the hull.

“Strang-ers.” She turned to him and Shana. “The humans only have blue eyes and this isn’t a human sub.”

Tyson felt something was wrong the moment the men walked into the room. Eyeless and Shana said nothing, they played along, but why? Eyeless could have killed them then and there, she had already proved resourceful so the delay didn’t add up.

“Why kill them here?” Tyson sat Shana on the deck. She was shivering.

“I didn’t want to have to carry the bodies. This is a cleverly designed pair, the humans will be happy with them for research.” The sub rocked as Eyeless move two levers forwards. “I also didn’t want the self destructing.” She stepped over to the bodies and unzipped their suits. She rolled the first man over and with a small knife pulled from her boot she cut a slit in the man’s shoulder. After a little digging and tugging she pulled out shiny sphere. “All Strang-ers have one. You detonate when you fear being captured or killed by the Thoughtless.” She stood. “Your right shoulder feel stiff?” It was sore, he nodded. “I cut yours out while you slept in front of the fire. Your drink was drugged. Had to kill these two before they decided blowing us up was better.”

“Besides, the bonus DNA should ensure she gets new eyes.” Shana rubbed her face.

“And what happens to me?” He didn’t know hwther to be angry or thankful Eyeless had cut the device out. Would he have exploded?

“You and I will be required to undergo testing for a time. Remember I’m also a unique entity, the first of my kind to be tested in the field. They might even want to see if they can reproduce you.”

“So you’re taking me to the humans?” At least he wasn’t about to be pulled apart, and he would be with Shana.

“Should be there in about five or so hours,” Eyeless said. “Will probably start to smell a bit ripe in here by then, but at least it won’t be rotting fish and seaweed.”

Tyson settled, the sight of the two bodies should have troubled him, and if he hadn’t have experienced the loss that love brought and the joy it promised he might have cared for his fellow Strang-ers. It started making sense now, the communications Eyeless heard were these two coming to get him and the thought, a thought they didn’t even know existed. In a way he was glad he went through the ordeal and was satisfied most of the truth had been kept from him; if he’d known anything in advance he would have had a mind wipe and reprogram done. Shana looked down on him and he saw life in her smile and the shine in her eyes was clear enough.

“I was the target all along,” he said looking at the dead men.

“Yes.” Shana also looked at them.

“Did la Strange know?”

“They sent operatives down to get you didn’t they?” Eyeless set the controls and faced him. “I picked up the chatter after I sent a signal to the humans to pick us up. The Strang-ers did a good disguise job but their eyes and the fact they were still after the thought gave them away. That and the fact the humans said they’d send a fishing boat next low tide, not a sub.”

“What now?” Tyson tried to convey the same emotion he saw in Shana. He knew she betrayed him, but at the same time she had saved him, given him something he never wanted to let go of.

“After some studies the humans have said we can be together, if that’s what you want?” He could see tears welling in her eyes. “I understand if you...”

“I want to be with you,” he cut her off knowing it was true. “I don’t ever want to be without you again.”

“If they manage to reproduce the same conditions that gave you the ability to experience true emotional thoughts then the whole face of la Strange will change.” Eyeless knelt before him. “You are quite unique, Tyson and I hope whatever is working for you will one day work me too. I can feel some emotions but nothing like you, so in a way you are my hope.”

“I’ll be alone in the human population.” Shana sat beside him and put her arms about his chest. “I don’t know if I want to be a freak.” Tyson returned the embrace.

“In a way all three of us will, but it is a new beginning for the Thoughtless and the tower of la Strange.” Shana sounded confident.

“Well, that’s it then.” Eyeless stood. “One thing we will know for sure. At least we won’t be strangers.”

Something inside made Tyson smile at that, a feeling he quite liked. He didn’t know what the future was going to be like, but Eyeless was right, they knew each other and for the first time in his life that really mattered.

 

 

 

END