Grace

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Tarion knew he was in trouble when his head started feeling light again. He fiddled with the autoinjector, hoping that its secondary dose would be sufficient to get him back to Grace. He could've sworn that it was closer. The brown skies above him occasionally let the harsh New Haven sun through to him, bathing the world in an infernal red glow.

It was all his fault. He'd stepped out into a dust-storm without a mask, and he recognized that. It just felt so unfair to have stumbled onto the scavenger's dream stash and then die because of some fungus-analogue working its way into his bloodstream. His fingers would have shuddered, if their fiber optics didn't run his input through computers with jitter-reduction algorithms. The feedback he got was chilly, an unnatural cold impacted as much by the damage done to his nervous system as by the environment around him.

The needle found its way into his thigh, and a few seconds later a new burst of clarity came over him. The heat of the world returned, like life flowing in past the dirt and grime of exile.

Seventeen working hunter-killer drones, four drop marine kits, and a buggy that, unfortunately, was buried about ten feet too far below the surface to be of use. When he'd rappelled into the vault he'd thought he might have died for joy, knowing how much the haul was worth. Now he just thought he'd die.

The dust wasn't just bad to inhale, it made navigation difficult. If he'd been able to connect to the Federal networks, he'd be able to use their nodes to find a way home, but they didn't have Grace on the official maps—and he didn't feel like facing down a ilius spore infection and a marshall's squad at the same time. A sticky cough forced its way up his throat, and for a moment he almost removed the mask to spit out the bile on reflex. A gust of wind reminded him of his situation.

His luck turned even as the dust-storm howled, trying to claim his life for its own. The tunnel entrance was exactly where he expected it. The hatch released itself as soon as he pulled the lever, the ancient systems of the maintenance tunnels still functioning despite the war and despite the fact that their builders had retired to their graves hundreds of years ago.

He briefly weighed the thought that an overland journey would be quicker as he dropped into the cool darkness. He reminded himself that if he had gotten lost in the dust he'd be dead for sure.

Down here he just had to count on the quality of his blood filters, and Stavros installed only the best. The thought of the doctor gave him a moment's pause. How many people would wonder what happened to him? If he was lucky, they'd send out a search party for his body. If not, he guessed that people use the maintenance tunnels enough that it'd be found eventually. And, because lawmen didn't come to the tunnels, he could be pretty confident that it would be another wanderer who found him.

If the storm cleared and he walked right into a Federal patrol, they wouldn't offer him a dose of antidote until after they booked him into custody. The law moves slowly when a delay kills two birds with one stone, and while he didn't technically have any illegal augmentations the Federation liked to pretend that anyone who wasn't happy with natural human flesh was a criminal by default.

The revolver on his hip weighed heavier than usual, instinct reminding him that he was not the only denizen of the tunnel. Although he couldn't smell anything through the mask, he recognized grizal droppings when he saw them. An adult grizal was too large to maneuver quickly in the maintenance tunnels, but even a juvenile was a real threat. He'd make a nice morsel for one.

He popped his helmet off and the distinct smell of matted, unwashed fur suggested that there was one not too far away.  He activated his augmented vision, watching an overlay come over the world that replaced the one his helmet had projected. It brought the dim lighting up to a more tolerable grayish-blue, but even with amplification there wasn't enough light to really make out details. He activated the ultrasonic scanner on his belt, routing its data through a jack in his arm.

He drew, keeping the gun lowered but ready for action. The echo scans pinged back to him as he moved, reporting empty corridors and a false alarm. Then the pattern broke, a muffled spot in the tunnel.

A deft movement of his finger turned the underbarrel light on its highest intensity, and the creature in the shadows roared with surprise and anger. Flinging his off-hand to the rear of the gun, he fired, pulling the hammer back so quickly that the flashes of light seemed to blend together as the cylinder spun. The beast roared, and Tarion swore he could feel spittle on his face. The warm, wet breath of the monster may as well have been pure carrion for what it was worth, and he dodged as much to avoid the incoming stench as the retaliation that was sure to follow his assault.

Three of the shots he fired connected. The other three went astray as the beast sprung to action. If he hadn't scored at least one good hit, the mutant would have been right on top of him. Instead, it missed, not fully appreciating the impact of a leg wound and sputtering down the tunnel.

If he stuck around to reload, he'd have to be pretty confident that the beast was dead, so Tarion decided to run. He flicked the light switch, on the off-chance it would attract more unwanted attention, and ran. His boots landed harshly on the metal, their ceramic inserts causing reports that were barely audible over the ringing in his ears.

The echoing pings spread further out into the darkness, each step moving the bubble of perception further from him until the next ping brought up a new picture. Occasionally he'd see the bubble in his mind start to wobble—either the trains passing through their tunnels causing the world to shift or the fungus beginning to play with his brain again. The grizal had stopped, either dying or deciding to nurse its wounds and look for prey later. Tarion wasn't sure that he cared. It stopped mattering the moment the second wave of bile forced its way up, and he doubled over to retch.

He thought back to the casino tables. Cel'd been a nice lady, he supposed. He felt bad about leaving her like he had. 'Course, it wasn't like he was the father of her kid, but they'd had some good moments together. He wondered if she'd say they were married, if anyone asked her. It's not like they were about to apply for a license from the Federals, but she'd kept loyal to him and he to her.

She was a degene, one of the descendants of the replicants. Over the generations they'd begun to recover from some of the obsolescence protocols, but she still maintained some of the beta line's grace and, most dramatically, their skeletal modifications. It had taken him a while to get used to holding a hand with an extra thumb and a climbing pad on its palm.

Still, he remembered how he used to watch her dance, holding onto the warmth in the icy cold of the tunnels.

Tarion realized that he had slowed, the itching crawling through his skin and veins feeling more important than moving on. He had to force himself to keep from reaching down to his ankles and begin tearing at the skin. On his natural arm, he could see the blue fungal colonies beginning to creep across the skin, drawing patterns in the places where his immune system was able to stave off the infection for a dear interval.

At least he was in familiar territory now. Cel would have his body, if nothing else. He reloaded the revolver, trudging through the darkness with the ultrasonic reflections as his guide. He wondered if bats thought it was offensive that humanity had stolen their methods, even though he had only read about the Earth creatures in a book. He'd heard the Federals kept a zoo based on genestock from the original colony ship, but out on New Haven there were greater concerns.

A rumble in the distance reminded him of his purpose. Grace had never been designed with hiding in mind, and even after the Federals began looking for it its inhabitants had no desire to hide. It wasn't like the Federals were going to drop replicants or active hunter-killers on a world they controlled.

The noise of Grace always struck him as incredibly obvious. With the Federals looking for it, it was a miracle that they'd managed to stay hidden so long. The life support systems filtering out the toxins and keeping the air comfortable, the power plants sending steam out into the tunnels as they harnessed the power of the atom, the clattering and clashing of industrial machinery turning out guns and limbs and computer chips.

By the time Tarion arrived, he struggled to stand. The first cracks of light broke through as the door unsealed, and his eyes throbbed with the light. When the gates opened, all he could do was let his lips open in a grin as he fell to his knees. He didn't even mind that the light faded as he toppled, collapsing to the metal grating of the corridor.

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