A face emergedlike the Cheshire cat appearing from darkness. N1T3 was Alice. In place of glowing bulb-eyes were others much more keen and calculating. The scruff-jawed face, aged as N1T3’s, held a wisdom many years beyond even the eldest of those N1T3 knew.
One, fluid motion, propelled $trydr forward. A fist collided with N1T3’s jaw, as the opposite pulled him into a hug. N1T3 recovered immediately, finding himself led forward as if nothing had happened.
He rubbed his left jaw, “Could’ve warned me, Riter.”
They passed into a stairwell, ascending toward the station-proper. “I was glad to hear you weren’t dead,” $trydr said, leading him past a formerbunk-room and toilets,now altered in purpose.
“Never would’ve expected to hear that,” N1T3 admitted. “Appreciate it though.”
N1T3 rubbernecked; the station was largely unchanged since youth.In a way, so wholly different it could never be anything near the same. Mostly, it was missing the people. The ones that made it okay to be a burnout, so long as you contributed.
Usually, that’d meant keeping the place from the scrap heap. Other times, it was stockingit with food and other essentials. He and Riter were gophers then. Kids taught right and wrong from sweat on their browand goodness in their hearts. Not arbitrary rules, to be bent with the right social status.
Riter’s father was an old man even before he was born; he’dremarried late,during a 20-year career firefighting. After Riter, hewent on to be Chief another 20 years– well-past normal retirement.But Riter’s old man had done few things right. He gambled and owed money, fought, occasionally drank too much, and often ended up riding the station’s couch from it.
All the same, none would’ve spoken ill of him. He knew right and wrong, if only because he toed and crossed that line too often himself.
When he finally died, Riter was forced to leave the station– the place he’d spent his whole life. That is, until he’d somehow occupied and fortified it. If $trydr was stayinghere, as he was beginning to suspect, N1T3 knew where he’d set up. Knew it… like he knew he’d find him here.
Fact was, it only made sense for a former Chief’s son to buy his father’s old station-house after it was salable. Only a fool wouldn’t have seen its value. So long as one could afford it, why not? Like N1T3, Riter had plenty stashed in assets and currencies. In the end, the how made sense but thewhy perplexed him.
$trydr glanced over his shoulder as he ascended a pair of steps.He hesitated with a warm nod, then ushered N1T3 into the office. A memory of the dispatch desks, half-empty, superimposed onto their new reality of total-occupation of tech.
The windows were low-lit, covered by cloth to let just enough light in to show day, but not betray a light or two being on low at night. At that, the room was low-lit. The glow of monitors supplementing cool light from a few dozen clusters here and there; in corners, along walls, and scattered about a central section of former desk-consoles.
Servers. Cheap. But liquid cooled. Silent. Powerful. Riter shut the door behind N1T3 and began to lead him around. Each cluster was running open software– and given Riter’s paranoia, secured by nonsensical alpha-numerics and heavy encryption.Perfect.
“I still don’t understand what you’re doing here.”
“Waiting for you.”
N1T3 hesitated, eying a monitor, “All this…. it’s legitimate?“
If N1T3 was surprised before, he was utterly stupefied now.
He suddenly understood; like Ket, Riter had been waiting for him. Over the decade since Martin Black’s demise, his former comrades had been building a shrine to his ideals. Not to him per-se, nor even his words, but his ideals nonetheless.The same ones he’d helped spread in the time-before, was helping to secure the future of now.
Except, they weren’t his ideals. Not really. He knew that now. They never had been, for that matter. He simply knew and spoke of them first, before the masses caught on. When the others were still struggling to find their words. Not from malice, but immaturity.
Martin Black had been forced to live lifetimes before his time. In that, he gained a wisdom that made N1T3 the force he was. The problem was, that blinded him to certain, other aspects of himself that were immature. Again, not from malice, but simple lack of contextual maturation.
Because of that, too, N1T3 had learned how indelible the ink of life was. Was determined to find a way to make the most his, by ensuring no-one ever had to fear nor experience that indelibility early.
He began to nod, “You want me to link them.”
$trydr smiled, “Still sharp. Good. You’ll need it.”
N1T3 stopped at a server running an open file-browser. He knew $trydr’d left it open for him, like he knew everything else. He knew too what he’d find in it. He didn’t really care to look, but did for the sake of respect. The effort Riter would’ve gone through to collect the data was worthy of gratitude, if nothing else.
N1T3 began sifting the open directory. Thousands of image files appeared as just-discdernible thumbnails. With them came thousands, then millions of moments. They hit N1T3 in the gut harder than Riter had in the face. He doubled over, having preferred a repeat of that instead.
A series of pained moments. Flashes of light. Darkness. Shadows moving.
He found himself on his hands and knees, the weight of Riter’s hands on him. A third-person’s presence; slender-boned fingers at his neck. Dru1d. Of all things, N1T3 never expected to find $trydr’s wife tending to him.
N1T3 was braced on the floor, hands holding him up. The gut punch had winded, staggered, and rattled him. If he’d been in a boxing ring, it would’ve been a two-hit, one-round fight. A disappointment, in a way.
His viscera returned as she lilted, “… normal for something like this.”
“One triggers the other.”
Her voice rubbed his ears like silken woodwinds. His rumbled like a floor-tom. N1T3’s world focused. “I’m fine now.” He rose slowly. “Better anyhow.” They spotted him upward. “What the hell happened?”
“Memory recall,” she said firmly, already on-guard. “It’s painful.”
“That was intense.”
“You repressed a lot, Martin,” $trydr said. “It’s going to take time for it to decompress.”
“But it will. Soon,” she warned, about-facing to storm out. “I’d suggest you have something for his head then.”
N1T3 supported himself on a nearby console while $trydr brought chairs, “Angrier than you now.”
“You blame ‘er?”
N1T3 remained silent, waiting for Riter to stop and sit himself, and deeply considering the question. Close as the three had once been, Martin Black’s wounding carelessness affected healers worst of all. At that, N1T3 was certain Dru was. Not a false healer either, but a true healer; one whose essence aligned with her polarity.
Not only had she been directly wounded by Martin, she’d spent the better part of the time between tending to wounds he’d had a hand in creating. From her perspective, how was he not to blame?
N1T3 finally sighed, “Not in the least, Riter. Never.”
He managed a small smile, a wise-glint conveying a depth of gratitude. “Then in time, she’ll heal. That’s what she does.”
He thought to inquire further, but knew her time would come. Even if it was only a parting word, she would have her say. He only hoped she’d be gracious enough to allow him an apology– maybe one day, forgiveness.
He hoped, then remembered he might not live long enough to see it.
With all the weight of the world crushing into him, N1T3’s reality manifested on his features. In that moment, time ceased to exist for $trydr. He saw his old friend now as pale, shadowy husk of his former self. Worse, he saw now the madness that had begun in earnest. Not only N1T3’s, but his own part in it.
As N1T3’s part in Ket’s play.
$trydr had always known he had a part to play, how to prepare for it. Only until the play was in motion would they know if he’d done enough. Now, he understood and saw N1T3’s reality better than any before, and it was bleak. Bleaker than even his own reality, by virtue of their differing statuses.
In that moment too, N1T3 saw the look he’d had himself when he’d seen the vision of the future. Not through supernatural or precognizant power, but logical deduction. That moment of lip-parted terror-eyed recognition.
The one that ended in seemingly one, credible way: with N1T3 as martyr.