Still alive, she lay there, partially out of her head with delirium. She felt something holding her, gently cradling her head and neck in a warm embrace. Being held in such a compromised position wasn’t something she was used to. There were few warm embraces in Shade Church. She felt a heart beating and soft flesh, smelt sweet scents. Lengths of braided hair danced over her face. Opening her eyes, she saw nothing but a blur.
“Kat? Can you hear me?” came a soft voice. “Kat?”
What was Kat?
The figure leaning over her spoke. “Drink this. It will restore your strength. Drink.” A vessel came to her lips, providing nourishing liquid. She felt a hand caress her cheek. She lay there and drank the liquid. The liquid was delicious, she had never tasted such a thing. She felt strength return to her.
A voice whispered into her ear. “We’ve watched over you. We’ve wept as you suffered at the hands of the Black Hats and prayed the Fates would grant you strength. But all that is over now; here your life, your true life, will begin. Be strong for a little longer. Be bold. Such things await you, I promise. Not far from here is a group of ruins. These ruins are your salvation. Seek them out. The habitations above ground are safe; however, there is danger, and you must listen. First, the Sisters might come if they detect your Shadow tech, and if they discover you, their judgment will be swift. You cannot stand against the Sisters, their power is much too great.”
The figure held up a pouch of soft material and shook it. Metallic objects clinked within. “In this pouch are three Sentrils. They will protect you from Shadow tech and will hide your presence from the Sisters’ gaze.”
She felt a hand come into hers. “You place one Sentril to your left, and the other to your right. The final you place before you. Stand between them and you shall have protection. Understand?”
She couldn’t respond.
“Secondly, do not under any circumstances go underground. There is great danger there. I don’t have time to explain why. Stay above ground and you shall be safe.”
The voice continued. “We have more gifts for you. The Autocons that have tormented you can be of some help when properly managed. You may capture one with this device, here.” A cold metallic capsule came into her hand. “Remove the lid and an Autocon will be captured within. The device has only room for one Autocon though; if you try to capture more than one, the second will be destroyed. Once captured, the Autocon will not be able to escape, and you will be able to compel it to provide the knowledge you will need. We have also left you with clothes, food, and other essentials.”
She received an odd, slightly wet touch on the cheek.
“You are not alone, Kat. You are loved. Never forget that.”
A thick mist fell over her. When the mist departed, she was alone at the foot of her open atmosphere suit, the figure gone. She wondered if she had merely dreamed the encounter; it must have been a dream. Yet she tasted the nourishment at her lips and held the metallic device given to her in her hand. She felt life flowing back into her.
Who had been there with her? Who fed and held her? Who was Kat? Was she Kat? Was that her name?
The angels, from her dreams! It must be them, it had to be! Her heart beat with excitement. Where were they? Why did they go? Was this place their home?
In her hand was a large silver device that was smooth and round. At her side was a pouch of soft, wondrous material. All gifts from the angels. The angel promised the device would capture an Autocon should one arrive, and the items in the pouch would protect her from Shadow tech and from the ‘Sisters’, whoever they were. She opened the pouch; inside were several bits of shiny metal formed into cubes. How many?
One … two … three. Three cubes.
She could see odd inscriptions scratched into the metal surface of the cubes. They clinked together in her palm.
How did they work? The angel had told her how to correctly place them. She oriented herself by the location of the scar on her back. Her hand nearest the scar was her ‘Scar hand’, while her other hand was the ‘Not Scar hand’. She placed a cube on the ground next to her Scar hand, and the other one near her Not Scar hand. The final one she placed in front of her.
Nothing happened. No lights, no noise, no smoke. She wondered what was supposed to take place. The other device the angel had given her was much larger and heavier than the cubes. Turning it about, it felt like a solid piece of metal, cold and smooth in her hand.
Not far away, she saw yet another object in the dark, larger still than the cubes and the metal device. More gifts from the angels! She was excited, she burned to know what it was. She stepped around the cubes and wobbled to the object to inspect it.
Her reverie was quickly broken. Raw agony blasted up from within as the vat of Shadow tech in her body violently thrashed about. She knew what it meant; the Autocon inside her was stirring, prodding at her insides with its claws, ready to crawl out. In terrible pain, she fell to her knees, her muscles tightened, her throat constricted. She heaved, vomiting gouts of Shadow tech that coalesced into shallow pools of choking black tar. It stank, it fumed. It thickened and rose up into a pillar of dense smoke. From the smoke, the Autocon took shape, twisting, gloating, its glittering eyes forming in the darkness.
“Get up!” it said in a wiry voice full of contempt. “Your mission is before you, two miles to the west, the abandoned Ruins of Clovis await. The information we require is there, underground. The missile is ten point two-four miles to the southwest. There is a return stage that is pre-programmed to bring you back to the Shade Church. Get the data and go to the missile. The return stage has room for only one. If you are not on it, you shall be left behind. The Sisters that rule over this place will soon detect your presence here and execute you. Obey us! Get up and get moving or I will wring the Shadow tech from your dying body and leave you here!”
Nude, she sat up, her skin blackened, her old scar from the hook aching. In the inky blackness of Shade Church, she had never before seen what an Autocon looked like—they were denizens of the dark, just the floating gleam of malevolent eyes and the hard feeling of clawed hands. But, here, she could see it plainly. It was a teetering column of black smoke bearing the tell-tale primal smell of Shadow tech. It had a slender body and a vaguely formed, mouthless head dotted with two points of cold light where eyes should be. It had a set of skinny, overly long arms, knobby elbows and wrists, and a pair of hands studded with smooth, curved claws. It had no legs, just a twisting wisp of curled smoke.
She was frightened, but the angel had promised she could capture the Autocon. She looked to the device in her hand, uncertain how to use it. She held it up and shook it, hoping something favorable would happen.
“I gave you an order!” The Autocon swiped at her, raking its claws across her shoulders and chest. “Obey me!” it cried.
The pain, the terrible withering pain! She fell to her knees. All the helplessness and smothering of Shade Church returned in full. She felt like a slave all over again.
“What is that in your hand? Give it to me!”
The angel’s device. She clutched it tightly. The angel said it would capture the Autocon, but it didn’t seem to be working. “This is mine …” she managed to stammer.
It lashed her across the face. “Nothing you have is yours. Everything belongs to us. You have no family, no identity, no standing, no possessions and no name. You don’t deserve a name. I said give the device to me!” It reached out with its claws.
She rebelled. For the first time ever, she acted against her Autocon tormentor, and, by extension, her Black Hat masters as well.
“I have a name! My name is Kat!” She darted past it, displaying a great deal of speed in the process, trying desperately to return to the cubes placed on the ground a short distance away.
“You will die for your disobedience!” it roared in pursuit. “Die! Die!”
She placed her entire trust in the angel. Either the cubes would work as promised, or the Autocon would kill her. She wanted to live! The angel promised her!
You are loved ... the angel had said.
What was love?
In a few desperate bounds, she was there within the perimeter of the cubes. Heart pounding, she waited for the Autocon to fall upon her.
The Autocon approached, roaring, claws raised. To her shock and relief, it no longer appeared to see her. It whirled around, swiping at nothing with its claws. Its claws passed into the cubes’ perimeter and collapsed into whirling smoke and a wave of cinders. It was enraged. “Come out of there! Obey me!”
The angel’s gift worked! Now to decipher how the other gift functioned and capture the Autocon. Moving it about in her hands, she found the device had a lid that she could grip and twist off. After several twists, it came away, revealing a sturdy and smooth hollow interior.
“What are you doing, you worthless slave?”
“I told you, my name is Kat! The angels gave it to me!” Moments later, the Autocon was caught in an ethereal wind, and pulled inside the device with relentless fury, filling it like a dense patch of evil smoke. It roared in helpless, shocked dismay.“I have standing, I have possessions, I have a name, and I am … ‘loved’!” she yelled as the Autocon swirled into the depths of the device.
From above, she heard a torrent of horrid noise, like the wailing of a demon coming to tear her soul out. She saw several balls of darkness shooting across the openness overhead, coming down fast directly toward her. In a storm of smoke and agonized curses, the muddled forms of ...one ... two ... three ...
... Autocons whirled about her, tumbling, tangled together, all being drawn into the device. Watching in horror, she realized these Autocons must have come from her sisters, all one, two, three of them. Her sisters must have survived to the ground and been released from their atmosphere suits just as she was. The angel’s device must have pulled their Autocons away from them even though they might be a great distance away, and now they jostled to enter.
Only one Autocon will fit in the device, the angel had said.
Strange light and horrid noises came from the device. The Autocons swirled in apparent agony, shedding Shadow tech in a sooty geyser.
...the rest will be destroyed, the angel had also said. She watched as the brutal process unfolded around her, the Autocons slowly being dashed into nothingness until, at last, they were gone, leaving her holding the device in blessed silence. Giving thanks to the angel for her deliverance, she placed the lid back on and cast the device aside. It clinked and rolled on the ground, the Autocons gone. Victorious, she reveled in the moment; the angel had given her the tools she needed to best her age-old tormentors. “Kat, Kat, Kat!” she cried, jumping up and down. “Named by the gods, freed by the gods, loved by the gods. I am KAT!”
Seething with excitement, she took in her surroundings. Before her was a great rolling land covered in material that was soft beneath her feet, marked at intervals by great mounds of stone rising up to a vast inviting veil of mist draped in blinking lights and a large roundness of greater light, like a floating, glowing stone that cast everything in a soft light. She had never seen such wonders. Her heart pounded. Alone, she took it all in, trying to understand what she was seeing.
She tested the device imprisoning the Autocon, to make certain it was sound and that it couldn’t get out. She carefully picked it up and shook it. The device was ominously quiet. She wondered if the Autocon within was dead—good riddance if it was. She gathered the cubes, held them in her hand and returned them to the pouch.
Now, to the angels’ remaining gift. She went to it, wondering what it was, eager to see what other things they had given her. The gift was made of fibrous, flexible components, meshed together to form a capsule of some sort. She picked it up; it was fairly light. She shook it; something rattled within, she could hear items moving about. “What is this?” she asked herself with wonder.
She received a reply. “That is a basket made of wicker, or some other type of dry, flexible wood.”
She dropped the basket. “Who spoke?”
“I spoke,” came a dry voice from the device imprisoning the Autocon. She went to it, picked it up; its metallic surface was slightly warm. Closely examining it in the light cast by the round stone overhead, it was a metal capsule about the same length as her hand to her elbow. It was smooth, composed of a glinting metal that reminded her of the lights from above. At either end it had some sort of intricate decoration cut into the metal with great workmanship. In the center was a window filled with swirling smoke, and, though dim, the shining eyes of the Autocon shone through.
“You are the Black Hats’ beast, created to torment me?” she asked.
“My mission is to train you to become a Black Hat. The training is hard by necessity. You have a duty to perform. Release me from this prison and I shall consider forgiving you this trespass.”
A lifetime of conditioning dictated her actions—she automatically made to obey, to open the lid and release the Autocon. A growing bit of resistance stayed her hand. “I will not. This device is now your home. Be thankful you aren’t one of the ones who came later and are now dead.”
“You are a Black Hat in the service of the Black Abbess. You will obey us.”
“I am not a Black Hat! I hate the Black Hats! I serve none but myself and my sisters, wherever they might be.”
“Release me, or we shall harvest your Shadow tech.”
“Then do it. Take it from me if you can. I await my punishment.”
She waited a few moments, wondering if the Autocon would make good on its threat and kill her, ripping the Shadow tech from her body.
Nothing happened. “Release me,” it said again, somewhat deflated. “This prison is a torment.”
“Then you know how I felt in the darkness of the Shade Church and the missile. I will consider destroying you—that shall be your release. First, I have questions. What is this?” She pointed at the basket the angel had left.
“As I said, it is a basket. A primitive contrivance for carrying light objects. I realize your exposure to simple items is limited. I can assist you, guide you, add to your knowledge if you promise to release me.”
She considered her response. “As I said, when I release you, I shall kill you. What do I do with this ‘basket’?”
“It is hollow. It has a lid you may open, or you may destroy it as you will.”
“I will not damage this gift. This is a gift from the gods.” She flopped to the ground and carefully manipulated the basket, having a bit of trouble with the lid. Soon, she found a latch and opened it. Inside was a trove of wonders. She sucked in her breath as she sorted through them. She pulled out a wondrous container sealed with a lid. She toyed with it, turning it over in her hands. She tried biting it, pulling on it with her teeth—nothing. Ah look, the container seemed to have a top similar to the device imprisoning the Autocon.
“That is a jar with a removable lid,” it said. She worked the lid until she managed to twist it off. She held the lid aloft in triumph—she had mastered its operation. Inside the ‘jar’ was a terrible-smelling substance. She got some of it on her fingers. It was cold and slippery. “What is this?” she asked with disgust, wiping her fingers clean.
“That is an alkaline surfactant of fatty acids scented with various perfumes and essential oils. It’s commonly known as ‘soap’.”
“The soap is vile-smelling,” she said.
“It’s meant to cleanse your filthy body. Had you not been such a knobby slag, had you the occasion to have been presented to a Warlord while in the Shade Church, you would have been thoroughly cleansed with a similar surfactant, minus the perfumes, of course.”
After some doing, she twisted the lid to the ‘soap’ back on, essentially reversing what she had done to get the lid off, proud of her mastery of twisting and untwisting things. “Then I shall keep it in trust for the gods and present it to them when they arrive.”
She put the jar back into the basket and pulled out a strange device. It was lightweight and hollow with a pair of curved stems. She turned it about in her hands. She had no idea what to make of it.
“That is a pair of goggles with a heavily tinted lens,” the Autocon said. “To protect your tender eyes.”
“From what?” Kat asked.
Sunlight? She had no idea what that was. Moving the ‘goggles’ about, she found they were contoured in such a way as to fit over her eyes, the stems going behind her ears and the main part of the goggles resting on her nose. With them on, she couldn’t see a thing. She took them off and returned them to the basket.
The next thing she came across was a set of neatly folded fine fabrics. She showed the fabrics to the Autocon.
“Those are clothes. That is a body suit of fine material. That is a tunic, a cloak and a pair of slippers for your feet.” Clothes! She was eager to put the clothes on, to cover her naked body, but then stopped herself.
“I am dirty from that horrid suit. I wish to be clean before putting these clothes on.”
“You stink of filth,” the Autocon said. “Use the soap, you are in great need of it.”
“Nonsense. I wish to be clean, to cleanse the filth of the Shade Church from my body, but I shall not use the soap. Where may I cleanse myself?”
“A fresh water stream is available 1.2 miles to the northeast.”
“Show me. I am now your master. You will guide me.”
Following the Autocon’s instructions, she returned the fabrics to the basket and moved fast from the smoking remains of her suit, running with great speed, reveling in the soft feeling of the loose ground beneath her feet. She carried the basket with both arms as she ran.
Every step she took yielded a new revelation. It was too much for her to take in. The course to the stream led her into a copse of what she thought at first might be giant people standing still with their arms lifted high into the air. There were a great number of these figures standing about, unmoving, and they had not just two arms but many, swaying slightly, chanting in an odd sound. Burning with curiosity, she approached one and found them not to be giant people as she first thought, but legless columns driven into the ground. They were much bigger than she was, and must be very powerful. She touched one; it wasn’t stone or flesh, it wasn’t fabric or Shadow tech; it was unlike anything she had ever experienced. It was knobby and slightly squashy. She thought it smelt good. “What is this?” she asked.
“That is a coniferous tree. A tree is a long-lived perennial plant. As in this case, where there are many trees grouped closely together, this is a forest.”
“I see. I see! A forest!” she said. She continued on into the forest until she reached a spillage of water moving along the ground with a steady rumbling noise.
“We have arrived. This is the stream. The water comes from the mountains and is quite cold.”
She set everything down and splashed in the water with abandon, reveling in the cold crispness of it. She cleansed herself with a smooth stone she found at the bottom of the stream, rubbing it against her skin, washing away the filth and pain of all she had endured—her confined life in Shade Church, the trip in the missile, all of it. Refreshed, she emerged from the stream and opened the basket, pulling the clothes out. Eagerly, she put them on, savoring the luxurious feel of the fabric on her damp skin, all except for the slippers, which she rejected. She liked the feeling of the ground beneath her feet. Drunk with excitement, feeling like a queen showered with gifts, she dug further into the basket. She found a container that smelled wondrous. The container had a lid similar to the device imprisoning the Autocon. She was now an expert at opening these lids—she proudly twisted it off. Inside, she found a cache of food. Food! Several chunks of flesh in thick liquid that fumed with delightful smells.
“That is some sort of baked fowl in an unknown culinary sauce,” the Autocon said. “I detect high levels of salt and fats and other components that will not furnish your body with useful calories. Do not eat this food. We have strived to regulate your intake of salts and fats.”
“We were starved.”
“You were given exactly the daily caloric amount you required. We were training your bodies to be optimally conditioned to encourage the growth of Shadow tech. Eating this food will hinder growth and fatten you in the process.”
Scowling, Kat smacked her lips, grabbed several pieces and devoured them. The food had such taste, she had no words for it; it was like being tickled on the inside. She had no idea food could taste like this. It felt delightful in her mouth, it felt amazing chewing it, swallowing it, feeling it settle into her belly where it continued to give her pleasure like a glowing ember. The whole experience of eating one’s fill was unknown to her. It sent her into rapture, for she had been given only tiny amounts of bland, tasteless, uninspiring food at Shade Church. Licking her fingers, barely controlling herself, she decided to save the rest for later. With supreme effort, she closed the container, once again proud of her newly acquired skills at opening and closing the lid. She belched with delight.
“Now that you have over-indulged in fats and salts, we should continue to the ruins to immediately commence your mission,” the Autocon said.
Kat belched again. Ignoring the Autocon gave her almost as much pleasure as eating the food. She banged the Autocon against a tree and tossed it aside. Digging through the basket, she found one final thing: an odd piece of parchment that shone in the dim light.
“What is this?” she asked the Autocon, holding the parchment up.
“Your mission is at hand. The Black Hats will not tolerate your insubordination.”
“Frag the mission, and the Black Hats, and you as well! There is no mission. What is this? Answer!”
“That is a photograph,” it replied with a sigh. “For capturing images.”
Capturing images? Was such a thing possible? She stared at the ‘photograph’, seeing the likeness of a person captured on it, but couldn’t see it clearly. Whoever’s image was captured on the photograph must be important, for the angel had given it to her. She placed the photograph carefully back into the basket. She would examine it later.
There was much to see, much to experience. She decided to climb a tall tree to see what was around—the angel had warned her of danger, and she was mindful of that. She tried climbing one to see what was about. She slipped and fell back down to the ground, trying and failing a few more times. She needed to dig into the tree to gain a secure purchase.
She thought a moment.
The Shadow tech within her, she had been told it could do many things. To use Shadow tech at Shade Church was forbidden, but here …
“Forbidden, what you are doing is forbidden. The Shadow tech does not belong to you,” the Autocon said.
She concentrated, feeling it moving within her, feeling it slowly condense on her hands in a warm sludge. She felt it near, following her will. She smelt it, like blood, like hot metal. It came according to her bidding, pooling in her hands. Now to shape it, to mold it into a useful form. She imagined she needed hooks of some sort to climb the tree, and the Shadow tech responded, flowing across her hands, forming at her fingertips into stout claws. Now, holding the Autocon in one hand, she climbed, her new claws digging in, supporting her weight with ease. The trees were jealous of her clothes and her Autocon; they picked at her clothes, catching the fabric, trying to take them from her. Her limber body scrabbled up the length of the tree until she reached the top. Nestled in the heights, she could see all around. Down below, past the edge of the forest, she saw the silent remains of her atmosphere suit, its panels open like a wilting flower, the cavity she had occupied impossibly small. In the other direction, basking beneath the great stone of light overhead, was a fold of land easily traversable. She had many questions for the Autocon.
“What are those stone mounds I see?”
“Mountains, specifically the Westron Mountains of the Great Vithland Range.”
She gazed at them in awe. “And above, those lights?”
“Enough! Your mission is at hand.”
“Answer the question!” She banged the device against the tree. “Answer!”
With considerable irritation, the Autocon answered. “That is the sky, the lights you see are stars, one of which you just now journeyed from. There are two moons out this evening: Solon and Elyria. Elyria is the larger and more reflective of the two. It will be daybreak in several hours. I suggest we proceed to the ruins immediately. The Sisters have no doubt detected the entry of the stealth missile into the atmosphere and will be investigating this area soon. We must have completed our mission and be gone before that happens.”
She saw a huddle of structures far off in the distance, the towering mountains looming over them—those structures were what she had been sent to investigate. She no longer cared much about the Black Hats’ mission, or the Shadow tech Goddess for that matter, but the angel had told her the structures, the ‘ruins’, were her salvation. Perhaps the gods were there waiting for her. She was eager to see them.
She saw movement. She saw a great many large creatures moving at great speed through the forest, creating a breathtaking amount of noise.
“What are those creatures?”
The Autocon sighed. “Those are Vithland Wapiti, otherwise known as Common Elk.”
Kat watched the elk depart, admiring their apparent speed and strength. “We will now go to the ruins,” she announced with authority, relishing her new-found power over the Autocon. Standing there in her gorgeous new clothes, with a full belly and the enslaved Autocon, she felt as if she ruled the world. She was Kat, beloved of the angels and the gods. Kat God-loved. She opened the lid to the basket and tossed the Autocon in, shutting it tight as it protested. As the Autocon once inhabited her body, now it would inhabit her basket.
She set off, running through the trees, her feet crunching through loose materials on the ground.
She quickly found herself in a bit of a dilemma; carrying the basket was tiresome and difficult, slowing her down. She needed a better method for carrying the basket and she needed to move faster. She had no thought of leaving the basket behind, for the angels had given it to her. She pulled the Autocon back out. “I require assistance, for I cannot carry the basket and cover the ground.”
The Autocon laughed at her. “Hehehehehe … You call yourself Kat. Kat, a worthless feline creature crawling about on four legs with a little tail. Frolic on the ground, little Kat, and wave your fluffy tail.”
Kat thought about it. Despite the Autocon’s chiding, running on the ground might give her more speed. She recalled the elk and how fast they were. She dropped to all fours, her limbs limber and stretchy. Stirring the Shadow tech within her, her use of it steadily improving, she decided to put it to further use. She coaxed it out of her body in waves of dense, foul-smelling mist, forming it into a sturdy framework of black linkages around her arms and legs, forcing her into a crouching position, augmenting her strength and agility. Using the Shadow tech framework, she could move with great speed along the ground, loping like an animal, covering vast distances in only a short time. Shadow tech was truly a wonder; with it at her command, what couldn’t she accomplish? Carrying the basket, though, was even more of an issue now that she was on all fours. It was impossible, actually.
A fluffy tail … the Autocon said. Struck with inspiration, she sprouted a tail of Shadow tech from the base of her spine. Far from being ‘fluffy’, the meaning of which she didn’t quite understand, her tail was hard and strong, flexible and dexterous like a third hand. The tail easily took the basket and held it over her head.
Proud of her ingenuity, she tore along the ground, loping along at amazing speed, the basket held securely by her tail.
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