Prime Civil Dawn

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Flea stood at the towering door to an underground realm. A single slab of cold metal, it stood in defiance of reason and scale. What was large enough to need this gateway fifty stories below ground? What important to merit such protection? It shuddered like a living thing under her cautious gaze, pulling up two or three feet, trembling with tension, then snapping shut again.

Normally, she would never stick her head under that million-pound guillotine. Normally, she would not reek like a septic tank leaking into a slaughterhouse. Things were not normal, and no other exits from the open sewer were apparent. Maybe they had been buried under the layers of trash long ago. There would surely be a phone in an emergency shelter though, and enough people still owed her favors to stage a retrieval. Seeing to normalcy would have to wait till after that. Flea backed up into the trash, tensed as the giant door thudded down, then ran forward as it struggled upwards again. She dove under, and the metal jaw closed behind her.

Easy. Everything was always easy for Flea. With one recent exception, of course. A prodigy. A genius. Well, the recent exception, and the past one too. A handful of exceptions at most. Regardless, things would work out. They always did, so she wasn't concerned about the intermittently flickering lights above the empty corridors. She wasn't concerned about the absence of obvious phones. She wasn't even concerned about the weak hiss of air purifiers and the thinness of her breath. A parade of bugs followed her through the clean hallways. Crawling centipedes, skittering roaches, and buzzing gnats, all seemingly appearing out of nowhere. As always.

Down. Down. Floor after floor of rooms stripped clean of anything useful. Floor after floor of only the basest remnants of human life. An empty water bottle here. A reflective wrapper there. So few for such an immense complex. Down further still. Down rough metal steps and gently sloping corridors. There was nothing on use on any floor, but she was undeterred. Things would work out. The lines of fate would bend themselves back into place. As almost always.

The air at the shelter's nadir smelled like salt water and old fish. It felt like standing at the gloomy shore bordering her family's estate. Like wading into the dark shallows. Like diving into the ocean depths. Flea gasped and rasped in the strange air, but there was nothing else to do but carry on. Her pod was out of power. Her food had long vanished. Fate and luck would bless her so long as she reached out to grasp its favors. Step by step, she approached the final door in the complex. Inch by inch, she wedged her fingers into the slight gap at one side. Grunt by grunt, she wrenched it open.

The room inside was fractured. Not in form, the floor was firm beneath her feet, but in every other way. A fractal of fractals filled the space, a kaleidoscope of possibilities. Through one facet, the same space was held by fine marble pillars and draped in luxurious clothes. Through another, seawater leaked in through a spiderweb of cracks. A shrived figure lay in a hospital bed. A laughing family ate a scant dinner. A fleshy form squirmed against impaled hooks. The array of fragmentary lenses spiraled inward, smaller and smaller in each ring until they vanished into a single point of light.

The inflection point, said a flat voice without source. Flea looked back and forth, the kaleidoscope of perspectives shifting maddeningly as she did. No one else was there. How could they be? A dog stood at her feet though, its fur the color of cornflowers. It looked up at her through foggy eyes and panted heavily. A hologram, but a good one.

"Who's there?" she asked the rest of the room.

The inflection point. Please. My master. The dog looked longingly toward the fractal array. Please.

"What do you want?"

Please. The dog lay down, muzzle pointed toward the glowing point at the center of the room. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please.

"Fine, fine, fine." Flea stepped through the dog, its form breaking and shimmering as she did. It panted without reservation. Approaching the tiny sun at its center, she could almost mistake it all for being real. "Now what?"

The inflection point. Please. It pushed one paw forward, and Flea sighed. Someone had entirely too much fun designing this. She would have to get a copy of the code for Grace to pick through later.

She reached out toward the tiny star of white light. It undulated as her hand neared, roiling and bubbling. It stretched and lengthened until it approximated a handle. The pointer pawed the hard floor. Flea pulled the handle. It was solid in her hand. Material. The fractal condensed in a brilliant instant. Facet folded into facet. Junction merged into junction. It compressed, constricted, and constrained itself, folding and merging into a single shining shape in her hand. A sword of sunlight that burst into a spray of cold sparks.

Then the sparks faded. The fractal was gone. The dog was gone. Everything darkened, and her eyes struggled to adjust.

"Alright, you happy? Can I use a phone now or what?" asked Flea. Nothing answered. Silence filled the room, even more so than the corridors outside. No machines hummed. No pipes rattled. No nothing.

Flea's eyes adjusted slowly in the near-complete darkness. Shapes returned bit by bit though, and she found herself alone in that tiny room with a desiccated corpse. It lay collapsed across a desk, its withered arms wrapped around a tiny group of snow globes. With how things had been, she half-expected it to rise and speak to her. She stood there. It lay there. The crushing silence persisted indifferently. Flea peered under the simple desk, looked through the empty bookshelves, and carefully examined every wall for secret panels. Nothing.

Things weren't supposed to be going like this. She was playing the game, but fate wasn't playing back. She endured its whims, so it should be carrying her back to the surface. At the least! Flea gasped in the thick, salty air. One deep breath. Two. Three. Each more ragged than the last. This was all wrong. She kicked the desk once. Twice. Each blow hurt more than the one before. She refused to let things end like this. She refused to let her mother's predictions be right. Huffing one last time, Flea swept the snow globes off the desk and stormed out the door. It opened easily from this side.

Up. Up as fast as she could. Up through the thin air and the tides of bugs that had swept through the shelter in her time below. Up even as roaches, centipedes, and worse all crunched under her boots. Up through the giant shuddering gateway. Up to stand at the shore of that defiled lake. From there, Flea saw the pinprick of neon twilight high above. Out of reach, even for a genius. She huffed again and gagged at the vile air.

What's wrong? Another unseen speaker. There was more character to the voice this time, a bold undertone to each word, like the possibility of a poorly chosen phrase was unthinkable. Flea had nothing to say to thoughtless holograms all the same. Really, what's the matter? Weren't you done crying?

"I wasn't crying!"

Good. My great-grandniece should be made of stronger stuff.

Flea blinked dumbly. The lake churned slowly in front of her. A bubble of sludge popped. An umbrella sank an inch. Something fell from high above and splashed loudly near the center. "What?"

The family tree is imprinted on your sigil superstructure. I've been left off it of course. What have they been teaching you?

"What!?"

Stop rushing things. You're being an ass. A new voice, calm and steady. You. What's your name?

"Flea." She sighed and looked around one more time. No one else could possibly be down here to play with her, but it left her few options. "If you're an AI, you're obligated to help me out of here. I'm gonna die otherwise. I know my rights and your laws."

Flea? Interesting. You know, Fulcanelli speculated that names extracausally influence aptitude beyond common social influences through–

Stay on topic! Flea, was it? Let's leave that aside. Flea, you need to get out on your own. We won't be much that help in that regard, her especially.

"What are you then?"

There's not enough time to discuss differentiation between states of existence.

Stop! Just show her.

Two birds alighted on Flea. One the color of dried blood on her right shoulder, one the color of fresh algae on her left. Their talons dug into her flesh without pain. Their feathers ruffled without sound. Each shifted to stare at her through a black eye. "Holograms?" she asked hopefully.

Hardly.

We can explain when there's time to spare.

"I've got time. I've got nothing but time! We can talk about nonsense all day! Let's just go over that for a few hours before I pass out. Maybe we'll work out a whole damn philosophical treatise before I bite it."

Don't whine. It's unbecoming. You already have the potential to escape. All you need is the knowledge to make use of it.

"I'm not whining, I just dunno how to get out. I've got more important things to deal with than starving down here, you know."

That's the spirit. Death should never be what you fear most. As for instruction…

We should secure an agreement first.

She's from my family. We can trust her.

You must be joking. Flea, the two of us have unfinished business in this world. Business that needs real hands. Now, I can understand you might be hesitant to make deals with strange things like us, but–

"It's fine. It's fine! Help me out of here and I'll help you. That's a fair deal. Just teach me what to do."

We hardly need classes for something so simple. Not when there's such raw materials to work with. Not when your wretched family blessed you with so much potential. Let us make use of your aptitude.

Each bird pecked her temples. First left, then right. Neither blow was painful, but both shook her. Like the air against chimes. Like a hammer against a bell. The trembling rushed down her spine toward her hand, then out to each fingers. They convulsed in an orderly fashion. Each movement was precise, each jolt measured. Her mind shook in equal measure, though not hard enough to disrupt her thoughts. No, not thoughts, just the one. The tripartite emblem, alternating from circle, to square, to circle. Stinging heat flashed in her palm, and the lake of sewage trembled.

An enormous form emerged from the tides of trash. A million scraps of metal and cloth formed its body, born aloft by a billion skittering legs of piping and cable. It pulled itself up from its fetid womb, segment after segment forming behind the head as it started up the wall. Flea hardly needed to be told what to do. She waded toward it, grabbing at one extruding chunk of rebar as it rose, securing her place with a foothold on another.

That the entire thing did not collapse as it climbed was a miracle. Flea's attempts at thaumaturgy had always failed spectacularly. Her grandmother said her mind was trying to jump too many steps ahead, an uncanny intuition working against her. Her mother said she had traded aptitude in the only thing their family valued for a plethora of things it could care less about. Well, look at what she had accomplished now! Fate had taken a long route this time, but it had righted itself again. How could this not help but work in her favor?

Flea jumped off her creation at a maintenance entrance on sublevel 10. The billipede shuddered and collapsed at her absence, piece after piece falling back below in a disgusting rain. The dark lenses of its artificial eyes stared longingly as it struggled to stay aloft, legs scrambling for purchase in the wall. She nodded firmly in its direction, and it dissolved in truth.

An excellent creation. We will have to work together on refining it. Raw talent can only produce so much, after all.

Focus! I know your mind rotted down there, but focus!

Not another word. None of this would be necessary at all without you!

Me? What about you!? Traitor.

Traitor!

The two birds flapped silently into the air and chased each other down the narrow tunnel. Flea followed silently, flexing her fingers in the same manner she had at the sewer's shore, urging her muscles to remember some tiny portion of it. She had done it once, surely she could do it again. The birds flew further and further ahead. She caught glimpses of each. A few flashes of color. A few fading feathers. Then they were gone entirely. Flea waited for ten minutes at a seven-way intersection of tunnels before moving on. The strange things could find her again if they wanted the favor returned.

Flea emerged from the undercity in a dim alleyway full of overflowing dumpsters. She reeked, but no more than the people who would cart the garbage away. She ached, but no more than anyone else in the Great Lakes Megagrid. With a heavy sigh, she walked out into the churning tide of humanity. Past the open grate she had fallen through. Past corporate security officers in their gray uniforms with white emblems. Past the entrance to the building she had been unceremoniously dropped from.

That small issue called for resolution before she got caught up in anything else.

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