Interlude #4

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The rock and dust stretched for hundreds of miles in all directions. There was still ocean on this planet but it was isolated in the southern hemisphere or locked up in the poles. Everywhere else was desert. Sometimes red rock, sometimes giving way to dunes of sand. Civilisation had never graced these lands.

A mesa thrust out of the canyon floor, a slender slice of vertically corrugated rock which shifted into a steep slope of sharp scree. From this vantage point it was possible to see twelve miles, with no interruptions from buildings or trees, but the view was uniformly empty of variation or life.

Above the hill the air contracted and puckered, then two figures tumbled into existence, falling a couple of feet onto the loose scree and proceeding to tumble down the side of the mesa. As they rolled and slipped an increasing river of stones and dust was dislodged and began to pursue them.

As he fell, Cal felt every collision with the surface, his broken arm and vaporised ankle repeatedly crushed down by his own weight and momentum. At first he tried to arrest his motion, grasping at rocks and apparent hand-holds but everything came loose, only adding to the torrent of debris. He forced himself to calm down, to push the pain and the disorientating movement from his immediate perception, even as his head was banging down onto the ground, the sky cartwheeling over and over and over.

Genoshifting required concentration. At first it had been entirely uncontrolled and he'd had to hide away from public areas in case a change was triggered. With each shift he started to learn control, like training a muscle or learning a skill. After a couple of years he began to be able to trigger the shift at will. Another six months later and he could dictate which form he would shift into - which in turn made him realise that he could only shift into forms with which he'd had physical contact. By the time he'd met Kay he was in charge of the genoshifts but it was still a slow process that required complete focus. Ever since he'd been to the Aviary he'd found his changes had become faster and more efficient, to the point where he could make a full shift in under a minute, or even a few seconds depending on the extent of the alteration.

Getting to the bottom of the hill wasn't the problem. Holt being there as well was the problem, along with the injuries Cal had already received.

He closed his eyes against the thudding of the descent. Genoshifting was an awkward process to trigger, as it was primarily reflex-based - maintaining his current form didn't require any kind of concentration, at least after those first few years. Changing form was like holding your breath - interrupting a natural process which is handled automatically and subconsciously the rest of the time.

The process may have got easier and faster after all the years but the pain had never abated and this shift was going to be a bad one. The axolots were a year group which shared a range of regenerative capabilities. As always, the year had a theme, with each day a subtle variant - or not so subtle, in some cases. Of course, Cal now knew that none of that was due to natural development on his planet - all of it was as directed by Wynton Simons and his cronies.

It made a lot more sense, really.

Both Cal and Holt were about halfway down the slope, which was also becoming less steep. He had to do this fast. Gritting his teeth as best he could, he triggered the shift. His perception of the multiverse immediately vanished, feeling like an entire sense being switched off, and his skin became thick, rubbery and moist, almost gelatinous, dark with patches of bright yellow and red. The pain from the missing foot dissipated and he could already feel the limb busily rebuilding itself. The structural morphing of his skeletal structure corrected the break in his arm as a bonus side effect, reconfiguring the joint and sealing the crack. An axolot's ability to regen was remarkable but it was what happened next that had caught Cal entirely by surprise the first time. He could already feel it beginning, deep within his chest.

The hill had turned into a slight incline and he began to try to slow his violent rolling, even as his body worked to heal itself. As he came to a stop, he could see Holt maybe twenty paces away, sprawled on the floor and struggling to stand. Cal pushed himself up, putting his weight on his good foot as the nub of his other one started to protrude and press against the cauterised skin. It was regenerating fast but not fast enough.

Holt was already up and charging. He'd pulled a nasty looking knife from somewhere and was wielding it like he knew what he was doing.

Cal stood his ground and winced as the last stage of the axolot transition kicked in. Internally he felt his ribs scraping against each other and his flesh, then there was an abrupt crack as they each flexed into position, angled outwards at 90 degrees. The skin of his chest pulled back and the pointed ends of the ribs pushed forwards, slicing through and emerging from his body. The raw, bloodied tips glinted in the desert sun's light. His new axolot body had already started producing toxin, which had coated the ribs as they'd passed through the outer membrane.

The skeletal change had given Cal a hulking, unnatural gait, shoulders arched forwards and spine stretched into a concave shape. It gave even Holt pause, who slowed his approach, choosing instead to circle around Cal at a safe distance.

"What's your play?" the scarred man asked, shifting the knife from one hand to another. "What do you actually hope to achieve?"

Cal stayed silent. He could kill the man, probably quite easily now he had disarmed him of his main weapon, and as long as he could keep some distance until his foot had healed. Anything that came at him he'd be able to counter with one genotype or another.

But there'd already been too much violence. That had never been his intent, with any of this. One sound kept ringing in his ears - the sound of the child crying in Simons' house. Maybe it was the change of context, or perhaps he'd hit his head falling down that scree slope, but what had made so much sense just an hour before now horrified him.

He could leave him here, and just jump away to a different world. Get back to help Kay. But then he'd continue to track them, and might find a way to return, via whatever means he used to get between Locque and his world.

Having seen the scale of the operation - the mock-Aviary, the turbine, the huge facility, and the indication that there might be more - it had become clear that fighting it wasn't going to be a simple task. It was an immovable object of history, stretching back hundreds of years. He didn't have a genotype for affecting complete cultural revolution.

"Right now?" Cal replied at last, hobbling backwards to maintain a healthy orbit around the man. "How about a conversation?"

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