Friday, October 4, 2019

Lifesphere Inc: Acqusition - Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty
There Will Be Blood

The beast-meka overlaid Eli's vision, making the world warped and unreal as what Phyre could see, and what he could see fought for dominance. He didn't have another hour to fumble around in the dark. He had minutes. Maybe less.

He took off at a run, half blind, but more desperate than he had ever been in his life. He knew now what he hadn't known in her first battle, when he had saved her from Gremlin. Her life was his life. Even without the bond between meka and handler, she had given his existence meaning and without her he would be worthless again. Empty. Alone.

History was repeating itself, but this time he was going to fail her. Fail both of them. His cheeks were wet, his heart pounding. All this effort, meeting Squall, training, getting his own apartment, fighting Aquillis. Getting close enough to his dream to see it on the horizon. And now it was going to end like this. Him running through the darkness alone, watching her die through her own eyes.

"Eli!" The voice was so familiar and so unexpected, he tripped. As he clambered painfully to his feet again, Dirge and Squall immerged from a darkened alleyway.

"How did you get here?" he demanded, wiping the back of his hand across his cheeks. Were they really here, or had he gone mad and started hallucinating?

"Dirge picked up Phyre's trail," she said.

Details would need to come later. "Squall, we're out of time. Phyre's in an arena with a monster meka. She's going to die."

"Come on then."

Dirge led the way with his nose at a gallop, picking the path Phyre's captors must have taken through the Undercity.

They were almost on top of Phyre, but there was no sign of the huge building she was in. The ceiling was low overhead, the street seemed to cramp in tighter and tighter rather than opening up. But Eli could hear her high-pitched screams of terror—not in his head, in real life. They reached a dead end—two large barn style doors. On the other side, Phyre's shrieks were echoing.

"She's in there," Eli whispered as he crouched down, trying to peer through the tiny crack between the doors.

"How many people are inside?" Squall asked.

"About a dozen workers, Kalex and a woman in red. And the monster meka."

"Who's Kalex?"

"Long story. I'll tell you later." His palms were sweating, his belly churning. It was hard to focus with Phyre's panic smashing over him like waves.

"Do we have a plan?" Squall asked.

"Bust in, let Dirge scare everyone long enough that I can get the cage open. Then we get out."

"That's a terrible plan."

Phyre's squeals changed in pitch and Eli rose to his feet. There was no more time for talking.

"Eli!" Squall protested. "That's a terrible plan!"

He yanked on the handle and the door scraped open a few feet. It was heavy, but he forced it open far enough that Squall and the meka could make a hasty escape. Inside, the workers turned to look at him. They were armed with tools, he realized. And he hadn't thought to grab a weapon of his own.

In the arena, Phyre was still hanging from the sphere apex, her shrieks echoing off the walls. Below her a huge grey mass of liquid flesh was oozing up the cage wall, long jelly arms forming as it trying to drag Phyre down into a gaping, black, toothless maw.

In a white and black blur, Dirge leapt over Eli, landing hard on the warehouse floor and giving a wall-rattling roar. Attention shifted from Eli to Dirge, and the workers raised their power tools and wrenches.

Eli ran for the cage. The lock was thick, too heavy for a meka to break, let alone a frantic thirteen-year-old boy. He veered away, sprinting past two surprised workers toward one of the cranes.

"Hang on, Phyre," he yelled.

::Hurry!:: she snapped back. ::This thing is going to eat me!::

He yanked open the door to the crane, then froze. There were hundreds of buttons and levers. Some were labeled, but he couldn't read.

"No you don't," a voice snarled and someone grabbed him and yanked him back. Eli landed hard on his back, his breath whooshing out of him.

Kalex was standing over him, sneering, stinking and vicious. "Remember me, you dirt-scab?" he demanded. "'Cause I remember you punching me in the face with a rock."

His boot slammed into Eli's ribs, lighting up the bruises and beating he had taken when Phyre was kidnapped. He had no air to cry out in pain, there was nothing but a soft wheeze that did nothing to express the agony ripping through him.

"Bet you wish you'd just lost that first fight," Kalex punctuated his sentences with a kick. "Would have been easier. Quicker. Time to give up, you know? Time to lie down and die."

"No," Eli croaked. Didn't he see? Whatever Kalex intended, giving Phyre to Eli had given him something to live for. Maybe once, he would have given up. But not now. Not while she was still alive.

He kicked up with all his strength, catching Kalex between the legs. It was a terrible kick, but it did the job and Kalex dropped to his knees, his keen of pain lost in the echoing shrieks of Phyre's panic.

Eli rolled onto his hands and knees. Every rib felt broken. Every breath felt like a fresh kick. He dragged himself back into the crane. How was he supposed to work this thing?

He jabbed a button and the engine roared to life.

Kalex crashed into him, his fist clipping the side of Eli's head. White fireworks exploded in his vision, and he was knocked across the controls.

The jaws of the crane swung away from the cage, everything shuddering, the crane tilting horribly off balance. Kalex grabbed Eli's shoulders, trying to haul him out to the ground and Eli scrabbled at the controls, yanking the levers he had fallen across.

The arm of the crane slammed into the scaffolding of the arena. The metal screamed and snapped, one of the arena's sides crumbling from the force. Phyre threw herself at the weakened corner, and her weight—along with the sagging, grinding metal—shifted the sphere. The bolts holding it in place gave loud pings as they snapped. Cascades of blue sparks rained down on the meka as the electric wires attached to the cameras tore and began to flail, alive and writhing on the warehouse floor.

"Cut the power!" someone was screaming. "Cut the rusting-"

The sphere lolled sideways, slamming into the crane. It lurched sideways, toppling over with Eli and Kalex inside. Eli was thrown hard against the windscreen. Kalex's feet against his chest, his knee in Eli's face.

There was a grinding, crunching vibration as the sphere rolled across the warehouse like a giant hamster ball, Phyre screaming blue-murder inside and the grey meka flailing his limbs wildly.

Eli watched it roll past through the shattered windscreen, then Kalex kicked him in the head as he hoisted himself out of the open door overhead, crouching on top of the crane, the scrambling down and out of sight.

Eli couldn't see Squall, but Dirge galloped past, avoiding the rolling arena's path of destruction. The torn electrical wires were still whipping back and forth, turning the warehouse floor into a deadly sea of static.

Whimpering, Eli twisted around, kicking the windscreen until it folded in on itself, flopping onto the ground. Eli fell out, dizzy, half blinded by the red and white spots dancing in his vision.

He looked up into the black lens of a camera. The woman in red was only a few feet away, a camera in her hand. She was filming him.

"Enjoying the show?" he spat at her.

She gave him a thumbs up.

In that instant, he wanted nothing more than to kick her in the same place he had kicked Kalex.

The arena, still containing Phyre and Scylla, crunched against the far wall with a sound like an explosion and the joints holding it together snapped, cracking it open like an egg.

Phyre leapt for the gap with a surge of hope, but a tentacle-like grey limb snatched her from the air. Scylla dragged her back into the cage, Phyre's claws sparked on the metal as she tried to struggle free. Under the grey mire, Scylla's mouth was forming. Monstrous and gaping. Large enough to swallow Phyre whole.

 "Phyre!" Eli lunged across the open expanse of the warehouse floor, heedless of the sparking wires. He struggled to find his feet. Struggled to run, on limbs that didn't even want to hold him upright.

From somewhere behind him, Squall screamed.

Eli pivoted, heart surging. Her wheelchair was overturned. Kalex had her around the neck, dragging her across the floor. He seemed to be trying to take her hostage, but she was putting up a hell of a fight. Clawing and biting him, punching him in the face, three times, four. As her nailed dug his face for his eyes, he gave up, letting her fall and running for the door without her.

In an instant, she was up on her elbows, trying to drag herself to safety, but the live wires were whipping back and forth, only inches from her paralyzed legs. She was going to be fried alive.

Across the room, Scylla's mouth was closing on Phyre's hind quarters. Her screams were desperate, terrified and wild.

Eli froze. Squall or Phyre?


Aquillis Pike stood in the warehouse doorway. Beside him, Sin shimmered glorious white in the flickering warehouse lights.

They couldn't be real. It was too ridiculous. Too insane.

I am going to find those damn cowards and drag them back here. They're going to face me and they're going to lose. That was what he had said. Had he really come down to the Undercity to find them for a stupid fight?

"I'll handle the meka!" Aquillis called.

There was no time to question.

Eli leapt over the nearest wire which snapped up at his feet like a snake.  He crouched down beside Squall and she grabbed him around the neck. "Go! Go!"

There was no way to get her wheelchair too. He held on to her legs, pressed his own back to the wall and started making his way toward the barn doors, Squall screaming for Dirge in his ear.

Directly across from them, Eli saw the woman in red. Far from being afraid, or even alarmed, she still had a hand-held camera was panning the chaos. Even as the people she'd had hired risked their lives trying to stop the building from going up in a huge electrical fire, she was recording the fight.

On the other side of the warehouse, Dirge leapt onto the side of the spherical arena. Four of his paws were gripping the wire, the other two stretched into the opening, clawing at the grey meka's multitude of eyes.

Aquillis stood assessing the scene, arms folded, blonde hair illuminated by the flickering lights as if this was a movie set, and he was the star. He looked infuriatingly calm, like this was any other arena, and he was fighting any other battle. Then, like a floating white ghost, Sin bounded into the fray.

She leapt like a deer, dropping neatly through the gaping hole in the wire as she faced off with Scylla, who was still sucking Phyre into his mouth like a noodle. Through her, Eli could feel his wet mouth, and something like a hundred thrashing tongues, scouring her hind legs and tail.

Sin reared, slashing at Scylla with razor sharp cloven hooves. As he swayed backward to escape her, Dirge caught a dozen of his eyes in one vicious sweep of his claws. They popped with spurts of blue meka blood and Scylla loosened his grip on Phyre to scream in silent agony.

"Draw him out into the open!" Aquillis urged the meka, like he intended to face Scylla himself. Eli and Squall were almost at the door. Almost safe. He just had to get Squall outside, then he could go back.

Dirge kept clawing at Scylla as Phyre hauled herself out of the arena. She took to the air with a scream of rage. She circled the rafters, clinging to the support beams, shrieking like a demon. Her fury was giving Eli a pounding headache. He was afraid, but she was an inferno of hatred.

Sin bounded out of the cage too, but a grey limb shot out, snagging one hoof and dragging her off her feet. She thrashed, kicking viciously, but Scylla held her tight. Then, with fluid ease, he began to clamber out after her.

"Do meka really eat other meka?" Eli asked Squall.

Her gaze was locked on the struggle. "I'd say no, but I think this one is going to be the exception that proves the rule. We have to help them!"

They were almost at the door, Eli pushed on, teeth gritted. "I'm getting you out."

"I can't leave Dirge! Aquillis can't handle this alone!"

Phyre's rage was boiling through him, raw and overwhelming. It was hard to speak, it was hard to even think, but amid the primal seethe of emotion, her intentions were clear.

 "We all have to run. Phyre is bringing the roof down. Aquillis!"

The blond glanced at them and blithely waved them on to safety. "I'm fine! Get out of here. I'll handle this."

Infuriating jerk-head.

Dirge leapt from the top of the cage onto the grey meka, using four of his dinner plate-sized paws to shred it now, tearing through Scylla's viscous hide and sending out sprays of blue. Sin was on her back, her mane and tail grappling with Scylla's rapidly forming limbs. The fight seemed to be going well, but Aquillis had not seen Phyre tearing at the metal rafters.

"Aquillis!" Squall yelled. "Look up! Up!"

Squall waved her hand wildly, almost elbowing Eli in the face and Aquillis finally looked, only just in time to leap sideways as the first metal beam fell. It crashed down only metres from where the three meka were fighting.

"Come on, idiot!" Eli yelled to Aquillis. "You can't fight gravity!"

The workers on the far side of the warehouse had noticed what Phyre was doing too and they were battering the far door to escape, but it was chained closed. Already Phyre had the next beam free.

"Can't you stop her?" Squall demanded.

Every part of Eli hurt. His head. His body. He could barely stand, holding Squall up was borrowing from strength he didn't have. In the face of Phyre's rage, he was small. Kalex had tried to kill her hours after she was born. All her life he had stalked her and Eli. He had threatened her. Hurt her. Tried to feed her to a monster. Taunted her with all the ways Eli would suffer when she was gone.

There was no reasoning with her rage.

"She won't listen."

Eli carried Squall outside. There was no sign of Kalex—the target of all Phyre's hatred was long gone. Already fled, like the coward he was. Aquillis ran out the doors, only a few feet behind them, arms over his head as the ceiling began to break away, sending chunks of concresteel smashing onto the floor. The woman in the red dress charged through the doorway with him, almost knocking Aquillis down as she ran, tossing the camera aside and vanishing into an alleyway.

The barn doors framed a horrifying tableau, Scylla was getting the upper hand on Sin. His maw was wide, and she was impossibly entangled within his limbs. Aquillis turned in a panic and lunged back toward the collapsing building. Squall almost crashed to the ground as Eli grabbed Aquillis by the shoulder, dragging him back.

"Sin!" Aquillis screamed, fighting Eli's grip.

"The roof is caving in; you can't go back!" Eli yelled at him.

He twisted to glare at Eli, but behind it was the same desperation Eli had felt when it was Phyre in danger. "She can't get loose!"

Dirge leapt to avoid another beam, the largest yet. It smashed into Scylla instead, crushing his side under a ton of twisted, rusting steel. He writhed in silent agony, blue blood gushing from his wounds like a flood.

Phyre dropped from the ceiling, dive-bombing the tentacle-like limbs still holding Sin. The ground started to shake and Eli, Aquillis and Squall were forced to their knees, Squall propped awkwardly against Eli's side. Dirge bolted to safety and Sin struggled free, leaping for the door with Phyre gliding only a foot behind her.

The ceiling gave in a rush, the roar drowned out everything else and a storm of dust and debris swallowed them. Eli cowered beside Squall, one arm still around her.

The street was going to cave in too; they were going to be buried alive. Maybe thousands above them would die too, as layer after layer of city sunk into the collapsing hole, like in the Rift.

Then, like the end of fireworks, the sounds stopped. The echoes faded away. Eli took his hands off his ears and looked around. Squall was still beside him, propped up on one elbow coughing. Aquillis was crouched down a little further away. Their three meka were standing. Bloody but alive. There was nothing left of the warehouse but a mound of rubble spilling out the doorway. They were caked yellow with dust, even their eyelashes. Aquillis blinked and rubbed a yellow hand across his face, smearing the mess.

"Is everyone okay?" Squall asked.

"I've been better," Eli muttered.

Squall turned to Aquillis. "What are you doing here?"

He looked surprised by the question. "You didn't show up for the fight. I came to find you."

"How could you possibly find us?" Eli demanded.

"My cousin has security clearance to access the Blueline video feed. The city the facial recognition system was able to track you and Squall until you left the Blueline, and Sin sniffed you out from there."

"You really cared enough to come looking for us?" Squall asked.

"Well," he said wryly. "It had more to do with having an arena filled with one hundred thousand fans demanding to know where you were. I thought you'd wussed out."

"Please," Eli said. "I was going to enjoy kicking your butt even more the second time around."

Squall glared. "Do we have to do this now? What was that place?"

"Nightshop," Aquillis said darkly.

"No way. Nightshop isn't real," Squall said.

Aquillis pulled out his jabber.

"Who are you calling?" Eli asked.

"Some of those workers might still be alive. The ceiling might not have caved in on the other side of the warehouse. Someone needs to get down here and get them out."

Despite his protesting ribs, Eli scooped Squall up again, hoisting her onto Dirge's back. She gripped his fur with her hands.

"Can you balance there?" he asked.

"Not without a saddle, but you can hold my legs."

He smiled a little. "Good, I don't think I can carry you to the Blueline."

Aquillis was explaining their location on his jabber with a lot of big hand gestures, Sin peering over his shoulder. Phyre leaned on Dirge's other side, her head on Squall's chest, seeking comfort, or checking Squall was okay. For now, she was holding Squall steady.

Eli stepped away from them a moment, trying to catch his breath. Abandoned, a few feet away, was the camera the woman in red had dropped. He scooped it up, peering at the screen, then turning it over. The feed was still running. He cleaned the yellow dust off the lens and held it up.

"Did you get your money's worth?" he asked quietly. He wondered who was watching. Who had paid to see him suffer this time? "I hope you did. Because one day I'm going to find you. Each and every one of you. Phyre and I haven't finished pulling down buildings."

"Eli!" Squall called. He glanced up and saw she was swaying, almost slipping off Dirge's back. Aquillis was chuckling, catching her hand from the other side to keep her in place.

Eli dropped the camera, hurrying over to steady Squall.

"It's time to go home," Squall said.

Together they started the long trek back to the Blueline. Revenge, Kalex and the woman in red, could wait.

Squall grinned at Aquillis. "Does this mean we're friends now?"

"No," Eli and Aquillis said in unison.

# # #

They emerged from the Undercity into a flurry of chaos. The Blueline streets had been cleared, and hovers brought down, flown slow and dangerously low, to fit under the Blueline ceiling.

Militia officers were everywhere, swarming like insects. Some prepared medical supplies and excavation equipment to be taken down into the Undercity. Others set up barriers to keep out the gawking public.

Hundreds of slick, black camera lenses turned to the six of them as they stepped into view. Eli froze. The media seemed to have arrived at the same time the militia, and those with high level citizenship cards had access past the barricades. They swarmed closer, talking eagerly into their cameras.

Oblivious to the chaos, Squall's parents ran over, one on either side of Dirge, to hug her. Mrs. Owens was sobbing, alternatively kissing Squall's cheeks and burying her own face in a tissue. There was a man in his early twenties with them. Probably Squall's older brother, Conner. He patted Squall on the back while her parents fussed over her.

Aquillis' father, resplendent in an expensive suit and without a hair out of place, swept Aquillis up in a fierce hug despite the yellow dust coating him. Sin pranced beside them, shimmering in the neon Blueline lights. With his arm still around his son's shoulders, Mr. Pike led Aquillis toward the waiting media. Aquillis looked confident and calm, but the way his head tilted toward his father's shoulder betrayed a genuine affection.

There wasn't anyone waiting for Eli.

He stood there, still half in the doorway they had emerged from, holding his own elbows, hurting all over with his injuries and feeling horribly alone.

He wasn't ever going to have a family waiting for him. Even if he somehow became rich and famous, with thousands of people cheering his name, he was never going to have a mother or father. Friends weren't the same as family.

Phyre nudged his arm with her snout.

::We're family, aren't we?:: she asked.

He blinked, once, twice, three times, to clear away the tears that threatened to cloud his vision.

"Yeah. You and me. Let's go find a doctor. The reporters are here for Aquillis anyway."

Unnoticed by the media circus, Eli followed the shadow of the wall, slipping past the militia barrier and the medics, leaving Squall, Aquillis and their families behind him.

He didn't need them. He didn't need parents or brothers. He certainly didn't need the Red Hollows. He was Eli. He was perfectly okay alone.

He squeaked in surprise as a hand closed on his shoulder. He spun around to find Viscountess Aeryn Vayne the Eighth looking puzzled, Sugarball blinking owlishly on her shoulder.

"Didn't you see me?" she asked.

"No," Eli stammered. "What are you doing here?"

"Did you think I wouldn't come? Imagine if you'd escaped the Undercity and no one was here waiting for you. How depressing would that be?" She put her arm around his aching shoulders. Sugarball's pink tail curled around him too, soft, warm and tickly. She steered him back toward his friends, the lights and the chaos.

Squall spotted him and waved. "Eli, where did you go? Come over here! My brother wants to meet you."

Slowly, Eli smiled. Beside him, Phyre flapped her wings and cooed.

Maybe he was wrong. Maybe sometimes, when it mattered, friends were almost as good as family.


If you enjoyed reading this, please link a friend. The number of page reads sustains me.

And remember, if someone asks what you've been doing this week, you'll sound much more interesting if you tell them what you've been reading, not what you've been doing!


Lifesphere Inc: Acqusition - Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Nineteen
Wheelchair Accessible

The cage bars cut into Phyre's sides, her muscles hot and aching with the spreading bruises. Her neck was twisted, her head pressed back against her shoulder, her tail tucked under her belly, half crushed under one foot. She couldn't move. She could barely breathe. Panic filled her mouth with hot, wet saliva that dribbled onto her scales. Her fear was metallic in her mouth.

She had never been alone before.

The smell of dry meka blood and the moldy damp of the Undercity made the air thick. There was not much to see, just a small slice of the space. A large warehouse of some kind, the walls were brown and streaked with rust and filth. Filthy boots clomped into view, and the smell of sweat and tobacco washed over her, nauseating and stale. He leaned down to sneer at her, baring brown-stained teeth. He had a black eye, puffy and disfiguring. But she knew him. She had feared him and hated him in equal measure since the day she was born.

The man who had brought her into existence to watch her die. The man who would see Eli dead too, just for a couple of extra dollars in his pocket.


She had nightmares about him. In her dreams he was vast, dozens of times bigger than her, like he had been the day she had been born. It was a shock to realize she probably outweighed him now. He looked thin. Brittle. Fragile in the way humans were and meka were not.

His shift from towering monster to weak, pathetic thing was more jarring than being in the cage.

He sneered at her. "Time for payback. Your boy ruined my career, now I'll ruin his life. But this fight will make us even. Old Kalex is going to come away from this with heavy pockets and you, you are going to be eaten alive. Swallowed whole. Think you'll suffocate or be eaten by stomach acid first?"

Phyre snarled miserably in response, itching to smack him across the face with her claws. Itching to dismantle him, piece by piece, like a rat in the Rim, even though Eli said she could never do that to a human being. She strained against the bars, sending spasms of pain down her spine. When she got out of this cage, she was going to destroy him.

::Open the door, you weak greedy coward.:: She wished he could understand her.

He sneered. "You know what'll happen to him, don't you? You'll die and his light will go out. Miserable, pathetic handlers. So obsessed with their little pet animals. They stop eating. Washing. They all smell like filth. Hard to tell if they're dead or alive. Doesn't matter. They all die in the end."

Eli. Eli all alone. Eli all out of luck. Squall would try and help him, but there was nothing she could do. Squall and Dirge would watch him die. If Phyre didn't find a way out of here, that was how it would end.

Then the scent of something vast.

Kalex looked up and the taint of his rotten, polluted sweat grew sharp with fear. It was quickly drowned out by the alien musk of the shambling monster. It was a meka, but it was nothing like Phyre. It was perverted somehow, horrifically unnatural. Every instinct in her body told her so.

It shuffled across the gritty warehouse floor, not stepping but almost oozing. She struggled, trying to turn, to get a better look at it, but it was just a hulking grey silhouette in the corner of her vision. Hundreds of glowing yellow eyes winked like fairy-lights in a store window. She reached her mind for it, if they could talk, maybe it would see reason. Maybe it would help her escape…

But there was nothing.

Only a dark and empty mental space where its thoughts should be. She shied away, closed her eyes. This was worse than any nightmare. She had to try though.

::Hello?:: she said to it. ::I'm Phyre. I've been kidnapped. Please. Help me. They want to kill me. They want to kill my human. Please help me get away. I have to get back to Eli.::

Nothing. Emptiness. This meka was a void. Alive and not alive. No compassion. No reason. No hope of negotiation.

Her breath seized in her lungs. She screamed as loud and as far as she could. ::Eli! Help me! Come and find me! You have to be quick!::

# # #

Eli was sitting at Squall's kitchen table, face in his hands. The fight with Aquillis had been due to begin six minutes ago, but here they were, still in the Blueline with no idea where Phyre was, or if she was okay.

The TV still showed Aqullis, restless, angry. Surrounded by a crowd of thousands who were starting to boo and complain—the camera occasionally showing close ups of their unrest.

Phyre's consciousness slammed into Eli's mind like a hover crash and he reeled backward, stumbling to his feet and sending the chair skittering across the kitchen floor.

::Eli! Help me! Come and find me! You have to be quick!::

Her feelings and senses overwhelmed his. The kitchen, Dirge and Squall disappeared, and he was in the warehouse, burning with Phyre's pain, breathing the thick air. That looming, perverse monster meka was only a dozen feet away. So was Kalex.

Eli lurched for the door. How could he be so stupid?

"I know where she is! Come on!" he bolted for the street and Squall tried to follow.

"Wait! Eli, I can't go that fast!"

Eli didn't stop for her. Phyre didn't have time for him to wait. He pounded up the street, looking for any stairs that would take him down. He had to get lower. He had to get into the Undercity.

The vid screens above him flashed by, showing Aquillis much larger than life. Voices echoed out of speakers as Fish Green interviewed him.

"What are you going to do? It seems like your competitors have decided not to show. Is the fight off? Are tickets going to be refunded?" Fish asked.

"Tickets aren't anything to do with me," Aquillis snapped. "And I am going to find those damn cowards and drag them back here. They're going to face me and they're going to lose."

The last shot Eli saw was Aquillis stalking toward the door, Sin trotting along behind him. Eli snorted. Good luck to him. He was going to need it.

Eli reaching out for Phyre's consciousness again, but all he could sense was where she was in comparison to him. The mental scream must have taken all her energy, and now there was no trace of her thoughts and feelings.

::I'm coming,:: he promised, willing himself to cast his thoughts far enough that she could hear him. ::Hold on.::

The first staircase he found that led down into the Undercity was so badly crumbled, there was no way Squall would be able to use it, even if he had been with her to help. Perhaps she would find another way. Perhaps Dirge could pick up his trail in the Undercity.  More likely, he would have to rescue Phyre alone. But when wasn't he alone? All the times he had thought he had friends; it had been a lie. No one was there when it mattered.

He climbed down two stories, then there were no stairs left and he was forced to drop ten feet onto a sagging concresteel platform and wiggle through a crack in the wall into the abandoned Undercity street beyond. At least there was no monster meka chasing him this time.

It was dark, damp and fetid with rot. Fuzzy mold sloughed off something that cracked and oozed under the weight of his hand. He tried not to breathe too deeply, feeling his way out into the middle of a street on all fours and crawling toward a distant light.

Parts of the street had caved in, leaving wide fissures that opened to the streets below. He picked his way past them as carefully as he dared, praying for luck.

In the darkness, every sound was jarring; rats squeaking, trickling water. Though, ‘water' may have been a generous term. The air was thick with the pungent gasses from raw sewerage. He hoped it was draining away and he wasn't going to end up crawling through it.

Phyre was lower than he was. East and lower. He could sense her like another limb. That meant she was still alive, but for how long? And did Kalex know he was coming? Was making Eli watch Phyre die part of his revenge plot?

Finally, Eli drew close enough to flickering, broken streetlights and he clambered to his feet and started to jog. He tried to pay no heed to the occasional flash of movement in the deserted buildings he passed. He tried not to notice that he wasn't entirely alone.

He'd loped several miles, before he found another way down. A huge fissure in the road had left slabs of concresteel and bitumen lancing up from the street below like teeth. They looked steady enough to climb down on, but not without slicing his hands to ribbons. If he was injured now, he would be useless later. But there might not be another way down.

Sitting on the edge of the fissure, Eli tore the sleeves of his new shirt with his teeth, tying the cloth around his hands.

If Squall did come this way, she was never going to make it down. She might fall here. She might die. He froze. Was Squall okay? Where was she? What if she'd tipped out of her chair, or a wheel had become caught in a crack? She could be injured, and it would be his fault for not staying with her.

"Squall's smart," he whispered to himself. "Smarter than me. She won't get hurt."

And, if something did happen to her, he'd find her. He just had to save Phyre first.

He eased himself over the edge of the fissure with his hands, feet swinging until they found the first jagged tooth. He rested his weight on it and there was a loud grinding as the concresteel shifted. He held his breath, expecting it to fall away and leave him hanging, but it didn't. He could feel Phyre better now, their connection growing stronger as he got closer. Her fear, her pain, was radiating through him. He couldn't be too cautious; she was running out of time.

Carefully, he let go of the upper level, feeling his way across the new ceiling with his fingers until he could crouch on the top of the spike of bitumen. The sides sloped away under him, but if he could step across to its neighbor, he could ease himself down and scramble across the rubble to solid ground.

He tensed, jumped and hit the other slab awkwardly, the loose debris at the top of the spike score into his flesh, drawing blood. His feet kicked up a cloud of dust as they scraped across the vertical surface, scrambling to get purchase. He coughed, blinded and gasping and it burned like needles in his throat.

There was a sickening growl and the spike sagged to one side. Eli pitched back, flailing desperately, but with a howl of tearing metal, it fell. Eli threw himself away from it and sprawled across the uneven ground, only inches from being reduced to a red jelly. A cloud of dust smothered him. He clawed his way out, eyes stinging and hacking hard, his lungs on fire.

He needed to catch his breath, but then Phyre was with him again. Her feelings battered his own fatigue, blurring the line between them. Her fear was a drill in his brain, causing a physical, sickening pain. He tried to push it away, tried to calm her, but she didn't seem aware of him.

He should have brought a torch. The lower he got, the less often there were working lights. But he could do this, even if he had to feel his whole way there in the dark. He wouldn't leave Phyre to die like this.

Then her screams tore into him loud and clear.

He was too late.

# # #

Every time Phyre shifted her weight, another flush of pain would scream across her body, rolling down her spine in a wave. It seemed like she should get used to it, but as the hours wore on, it only got worse. She struggled anyway. Somehow, she'd turned herself enough to see the rest of the warehouse. The ceiling soared up thirty feet to rusting rafters. The vast, grimy expanse of the floor was almost large enough to house the Taramon arena.

There were a dozen people in stained overalls paying her no attention whatsoever. Using forklifts and a crane they brought in huge bundles of black scaffolding, and slabs of steel fencing, putting together a massive spherical cage.

In the corner of the warehouse, the huge, malformed meka hulked, shuddering and hissing, watching everything with hundreds of burning eyes. He didn't seem solid; instead he was viscous, a fluid. He had many limbs, like feelers, they formed and reformed, sucking in and out of his grey, dripping mass. He was blinking constantly, but none of his eyes synchronized, so it was a constant, shifting pattern of yellow winks.

There was nothing more terrifying in the world. His appearance. His smell. The way she couldn't sense his mind. He was still not speaking to her. He was not sharing his thoughts or feelings. He was not friendly or hostile. He was mindless. A zombie meka. A nightmare.

Two sets of legs stopped before her cage, foul sweat mingled with the soft, sweet smell of lilies. The filthy boots were Kalex, but the fine, stockinged legs with the ember-red dress, belonged to a stranger.

"This is the one?" she asked. Her voice was a husky purr.

"Beat Aquillis Pike's Sin," Kalex said. "Puts it at the top of the professional circuit, in my reckoning."

Her weight shifted. The heels of her sleek red pumps were very high, but she was balanced like a fighting meka. "And yet you were able to snatch it off the street."

Kalex scoffed. "Its handler is a Rim-brat. He don't know nothing about nothing. Small wonder the meka didn't just wander off on its own and take up eating people, you know?"

The silence turned frosty. "Easy money for you."

"It's what you asked for," Kalex said, defensive now. "Best of the professional circuit and here it is. You ain't going to short-change me because I caught a lucky break?"

"I am not some petty crook, Kalex," neither the implication, nor her repulsion, was disguised. "You'll get your money."

Behind them, the workers had finished building the cube-shaped frame, and were making quick progress, fitting together the slabs of fencing inside to make a wire sphere. It was an arena. It had to be. But it was like no arena Phyre had seen before. This was designed for a clear purpose: it was a cage meka couldn't flee from. An arena only one meka would emerge alive from.

As the last panel was fitted into place, a woman in harness scrambled over it, placing shock proof cameras at every angle.

There would be no audience cheering and stomping their feet here. There would just be rich men and women, watching from the comfort of their own living rooms. The idea of being trapped in a metal ball with that thing blinking at her from across the room was too terrifying for Phyre to contemplate.

She bucked and squirmed, until she could look up at Kalex and the woman.

::Please. Please. Not that. Let me go back to Eli. Let me go home!::

Her gaze flickered from the cold green eyes of the woman in red, to Kalex's craggy features. They paid her no heed, talking money and stats. Talking gambling. They couldn't hear her, couldn't understand her. And they had no meka of their own to translate for her.

"Is it even worth it in a fight like this?" Kalex asked, his attention finally shifting to Phyre. "Its not going to be like Bean."

 Her expression went sour. "Do not mention him again. Surely you think the best meka on the professional circuit has some chance against Scylla? Or are you vastly exaggerating its capabilities, Kalex?"

"Oh, no. It's just, you know, experience. It's only a month or two old at best. Scylla has been around... Well, eighty years is a long time for a meka."

Fear wafted off Kalex in wretched waves.

She looked disgusted. "I'm not sure why anyone is fool enough to do business with you, Kalex. Least of all me."

 "Boss?" One of the workmen joined them. "The cameras are online."

"Are the investors logged in?" she asked.

"Comms are sending out the call now."

She nodded. "Get the meka into position."

The worker bobbed his head, then motioning for a coworker to bring over a forklift. Kalex leaned down to look Phyre in the eye.

"Bye bye, little meka," he sing-songed. "If only there was a way for you to tell me. Suffocation or acid."

She hissed at him and he laughed. There was a jolt as the forklift hoisted her up into the air and trundling toward the spherical arena.

Her cage was secured to the side with bolts—all of it clanging and banging and vibrating. Then, without any warning, a hatch opened, spilling her out onto the mesh. Pain lanced through her as her cramped, aching muscles uncurled. She tried to scramble to her feet, but her legs refused to support her. Instead, she rolled down to the bottom of the sphere, panting. With aching, humiliating slowness, she braced herself and sat up.

Scylla meandered toward the arena, his body oozing in a rippling wave, like a slug foot. Phyre scuttled up the bars, tortured muscles protesting every inch, and hung upside down from the sphere's apex. She couldn't feel Eli. She didn't know where he was. He wouldn't be jumping into the arena to save her this time.

She was alone. She was completely alone.

The gate opened. Scylla oozed in, limbs forming and reforming as he moved. All of his hundred eyes focused on her. Unspeaking. Unthinking. Unfeeling.

Behind him, the hatch clanked closed with the resounding click of a lock.

# # #

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