Sambal opened his eyes and glanced around the compound. It was a reflexive space, with almost an absence of presence. Like the vacuum-facing bay of one of those lifters he’d been stuck on. Couldn’t have been more than a year, but it felt like a life-time, hauling aluminium from surface to surface.
Matter hung in the air like a chandelier; dense, sticky, sharp. He knew he should run from this place, but the reversal was an indication otherwise. He was in a field, a non-space, and running would be like a panicked dream. As fast as your legs can move you are rooted to the spot. Who was here?
Triggers flew back and picked at the scar: how many clues had he had that this had not been the real? Was it a look in Herb’s eye? Was it the ease of the extraction? Was it the fact that the beer here tasted of blood and artificial sweat? This was self-abuse: he refused to accept it was all fake.
“I’m so tired and cold”: a voice from the undergrowth, and a hint of colour drifting in on the breeze. Her voice seemed so distant, but so close. The rind of the melon hit the floor as time came back, like the sensation to his fingertips. He picked up the ice cold beer, and drank it in one long draught.
Mexico had not fooled them; that was always the chance with a gam like this. You takes your money; you makes your choice. He never understood the logic of the phrase; only its truth. She cooed it to him late one night, back at the start of his trading relationship with the powers that made him be.
He had always been careful to never take their money, so he thought he had been left with a choice in what to do next. “I mean,” he thought “If I’m not robbing them, they have no reason to kill me.”
Herb would disagree with that: while the powers had not been fooled, he had been. His capacity was that much less than theirs, but it was a slave in their orbit: he knew what they let him know, and that still resided very much in the “Kill Sambal” camp. Not long before a mission would be forthcoming.
Stark relief in the light of the afternoon fading. A hand in a hand, and tranquillity shared. He knew it was over from the moment she had shared her secrets. Her spiral was perennially downwards.
As he drifted through the light he caught sight of her dressing again. She had switched off the point in his mind which would question his descent. But that was not a firmware issue; that was just her.
Starfish paralysis in a wash-through of a lysergic drip; he could feel it kicking in, and he did not like it one iota. This was not his usual dosage; this was not his usual level of control. He could smell the heat of the air, and knew that he had not gone far. Chrome replaced magnesium replaced all hope.
A blur of speed amongst a taste of copper; axiomatic automata spin an orthogonal geometry on to the plane of a wing. Now was not the time to start bleeding. Now was not the time to start bleeding.
Sambal caught himself before freefall could kick in. The fresh cool air could be a misunderstanding, or it could be indicative of a shift of location. The trip she had sent him on may have been meant as a distraction, but it may also have been meant as a distraction. They were two different things: he had to work out which was which, but first he had to work out how to stand up and walk again.
If she had jacked him back in, he was more than likely still in a projection of some sort, and so he was vulnerable; If she had not jacked him in, then he had been moved: time was a mess in a mental state like that, and he could have been dosed for a week for all he knew it. It was time to move.
Herb walked through the plaster casement as if it were a beaded curtain: it parted ways around his greasy face and hung for a moment in the entrance. “Fuck” said Sambal in the same beat as Herb.
Within the space of a heartbeat Sambal was hoisted up in to the arms of a slobbering giant, and they were running down a gravel path, surrounded by the blossom of cherry trees in full bloom. It was not what Sambal had expected from their reunion, but it was far from the world he had escaped.
Herb ran like a dog carrying a prized stick, his happy cheeks wobbling in the breeze he was causing. He twisted and he turned through an endless warren of streets, getting deeper and deeper in to a territory of unexplained domesticity. Sambal could only hold on, and dimly remember her face.
Herb was here; that was strange: it meant that he wasn’t jacked in. Herb couldn’t jack in. Not at all.
Herb was happy; that was strange: Sambal was not aware that Herb was capable of not being angry.
Herb was helping; that was strange: Herb was a loyal lap-dog to the powers that ruled them both.
Sambal was confused; that was not strange: there were far too many weird things going on right now.
A lightbulb shattered overhead; gas hung around the broken stem. Sambal was expecting it this time. He patted Herb on the knee and waited for the light to come on behind his eyes. It was still a shock to the system to see this once hideous puppet to the gods behaving like a fully-fledged human being. Albeit one wearing the grimly stained, badly pressed, suit of a malevolent killing machine.
Sambal tipped the observer and his colleague grinned as he pushed open the greasy green door and allowed the light to flood in. The code may have changed; the mood may have changed; the state of the world beyond may have changed: the path of causality and the route of fate never will do.
She was waiting outside for them. She was always going to be waiting outside for them. She was not subject to the fickle winds of the notifications which kept Herb and his cohorts fixed on the firmly straight and the rigidly narrow. She did not carry visible weapons; they were a product of a different era: too embarrassing in this day and age. In an instant she was gone; not even her smile remained.