Broken Horizons – Vol 13, Ch 1

Tessa was not built for running. Her burning lungs and screaming legs muscles were most emphatic about the fact that a decade of spending all of her time in front of a monitor had not prepared her for the vital task of fleeing for her life. 

Ahead of her Lisa leaped over a low cement wall, looking no more winded than Tessa would have been by a quick dash to the fridge.

The temptation to just collapse let exhaustion claim her was overpowering and Tessa stumbled with a shaky step several feet from the wall. Stumbling and collapsing was not an option though. Not with the lumbering mecha that was chasing down the street after them.

It’s being slowed down when it has to pass through physical barriers, Pillowcase said, her voice exactly as calm and analytical as Tessa’s wasn’t.

How can you tell? Tessa asked. She hadn’t dared risk a glance back towards the mecha once they started running for fear she’d trip and fall like the hapless horror movie character she seemed to be at the moment.

Also, she didn’t need to. 

The mecha had been silent at first, but when it engaged pursuit mode that changed drastically. Even if she wanted to communicate with the others, screaming over the thousand chainsaw roar from the death robot would have required a bullhorn or the telepathy they used to share.

Reflections, Pillowcase said. With the lights it’s shining, a lot of reflective surfaces are letting me see more of it than I really wanted to.

Does it look familiar at all? Any weak spots or off switches?

I haven’t seen anything with this morphology before, and the structure doesn’t make a lot sense.

The others were ahead of her in part because Tessa found she was still thinking like the party’s tank and in part because they were simply faster than she was. They’d all managed the concrete barrier without any trouble but Tessa knew that wouldn’t be the case for her.

You can’t jump that, can you? Pillowcase asked. It wasn’t really a question though. Pillowcase could feel that Tessa’s legs were offering as much support as uncooked bread dough.

I can fall over it I think, Tessa said, her breath feeling like razor blades made of fire in her throat.

If you do, you’re not going to get up on the other side, Pillowcase said. 

Which would mean that she would be eaten by the mecha.

True there would be a concrete wall in between her and it, but they’d already seen exactly how quickly it tore apart physical structures like that. Tessa was able to force herself onwards largely because she had no desire to learn how quickly it could tear her apart.

I’ll have to, she said, pushing her pain and exhaustion down a fraction of a millimeter.

Let me handle this, Pillowcase said.

You can’t. We’re not in the Fallen Kingdoms anymore, Tessa said, thinking of how glorious it would be to have Pillowcase’s Clothwork body to call on. 

Even as a level 1, just back from the dead, wreck of a Soul Knight, Pillowcase could have run for days without becoming the slightest bit winded. At her full, level capped power, Tessa was willing to bet decent odds that she could solo the monster than was chasing them.

Trust me, Pillowcase said.

And Tessa did. Oddly, serenely, she did.

She’d never learned to trust herself, mostly because she’d proven over and over just how bad she was at making good decisions. Failure upon failure had chipped away at the sense that she could rely on her instincts. Scorn, ridicule, and even well meaning jokes hadn’t done her self-worth any favors either. 

Tessa wasn’t sure how the other voice in her head was supposed to make up for legs that were spent, lungs that couldn’t drag in another breath of air, or a heart that beating fast enough to shatter her ribcage. Tessa didn’t see how she was going to overcome those.

But Pillowcase did.

So Tessa stepped back. It wasn’t the same as the change between bodies she’d figured out in the Fallen Kingdoms, but it wasn’t entirely disconnected either. Between one step and another, Tessa felt her weight shift and her legs drive forward with greater force.

She didn’t have any additional strength, and the pain didn’t lessen, Pillowcase was simply more used to being pushed to her limits and then beyond. It wasn’t about finding superhuman strength to draw on, it was about using the strength she had. It wasn’t about the pain vanishing, it was about accepting it and the damage it was alerting her too.

In Pillowcase’s memories, Tessa knew she was going to pay for the exertion she was making, but that would be later, and surviving until later was worth what it would cost.

With a smooth leap, Pillowcase hurdled over the barrier and helped a faltering Jamal back to a steady run. 

Tessa observed that she wasn’t supposed to know Jamal or Rose’s real names yet but, back in their Earthly bodies, they’d reverted to calling each other by their Earthly names. She didn’t begrudge either of them the gazelle like running they were capable of, nor Lisa or Hailey the marathoner’s pace they seemed to be able to set. Claire/Lady Midnight though was both older and heavier than Tessa and yet she was somehow keeping up with the faster runners with ease.

And then there was Pete and Starchild. Tessa had no idea what to make of them. Why they’d gotten two bodies when she and Pillowcase were stuck in one was a mystery for a later date. What was important at the moment was that Starchild was clearly their best runner, while Pete was competing with Tessa for the last spot. 

She watched his foot catch on the edge of the sidewalk as Starchild led the whole group down an alley. Pete flailed his arms and was heading for a faceplant into the sidewalk when Pillowcase grabbed him and got him up and running.

“Thanks!” Pete gasped.

Pillowcase nodded but conserved her breath. Tessa’s system was critically short on oxygen as it was and with no stamina potions in sight, it didn’t seem like there was a viable method topping of herself off.

Behind them, Tessa heard the mecha tearing through the buildings on either side of the alley.

You’d said the mecha’s structure didn’t make a lot of sense, why is that? Tessa asked.

Its too solid, Pillowcase said. She was feeling all of the fatigue and pain Tessa was but her voice was still crisp and professional. We’re seeing it as a single unit, a vaguely humaniform robot. But it’s not. According to Pete, it’s a nanoswarm.

Tessa saw the problem as soon as Pillowcase thought the words.

There was no reason for the mecha to plow through the buildings on either side of the alley. Doing so was slowing it down as it had to grind through the brick and steel and wood, not to mention all the detritus that fell on it and was obliterated.

As a swarm, the nanomachines that made up the robot should have been able to turn into a cloud or a crawling slime. The construct should have been able to fire pieces of itself out to consume its targets at a distance. It was a curious mix of impossibly advanced technology and incredibly unthinking design.

Even the speed it moved at was difficult to understand. It was slower than humans running on foot? What kind of automated death machine couldn’t outpace weak human legs?

The kind that wasn’t designed to.

The kind that was intended to give a human enemy a chance.

The kind Pete had been able to recognize on sight.

Tessa wanted dearly to ask which game the monster behind them had come from. That wasn’t a rational conclusion to leap to, but being chased by a robot made out of building destroying nanotech was not a rational situation.

Plus it was starting to fit into a hypothesis she was putting together.

If I told you that thing was from another world, would that be ridiculous? Tessa didn’t want to distract Pillowcase but with the calm from putting Pillowcase in the driver’s seat, she knew they needed an answer other than running sooner than immediately.

I would say it would be ridiculous to assume it wasn’t.

Yeah, my Earth has never had the tech to do anything like that. Tessa wasn’t sure if she liked where her idea was leading her. It could be the answer, but if so it meant horrors from the darkest of imaginations awaited them. 

Your Earth? Pillowcase asked. She fought for another dozen steps, widening the gap between them and the nanobot. They needed a thousand times that number to even approach safety, but Tessa was willing to take anything she could get.

We know that people from my Earth have vanished away to worlds other than the Fallen Kingdoms, Tessa said, a thread in her mind spinning out in search of the worst extent her hypothesis might lead to. This thing isn’t from my Earth, but I’m pretty sure it’s from an Earth that someone dreamed up. Or maybe ‘connected to’ is more accurate. 

You think the nanoswarm is from another world like the Fallen Kingdoms?

Pete recognized it. And, it’s limited just like a video game enemy would be. It’s unstoppable and was immediately hostile, it’s far too dangerous for us to attack or ignore, and yet it hasn’t caught us yet, and its just missing things all kinds of things.

I was trying to conceive of the enemy a design like the one it possesses would be intended to fight, Pillowcase said. I hadn’t considered that the designer might want the enemy to be able to win.

Win or at least survive, Tessa said. Sometimes game enemies aren’t things you can fight, they’re a mechanical challenge to avoid or deal with by some other method.

We could use one of those ‘other methods’ about now, Pillowcase said.

Ahead of them, the alley ended in a concrete wall where they should have had to turn right or left. Starchild apparently had other ideas though, as a quartet of vines shattered a hole in the wall, allowing her to race inside followed by the others. 

That’s good, breaking line of sight may buy us extra time, Pillowcase said. Assuming the bot’s sensor package can’t scan through concrete.

Hope for the best, I guess? Tessa thought and jumped through the hole right after Pete.

The problem with hoping for the best was the crushing disappointment that followed when the worst happened instead.

On losing sight of the its prey, the nanoswarm entered a new pursuit mode – one which included flushing out the human with missiles.

Between one step and the next, Tessa went from racing around the side of a deli storage shelf to finding herself inexplicably resting in the remains of a freezer on the far side of the room.

There was blood.

A lot of blood.

And smoke.

Probably a dangerous amount of smoke. 

Also, she couldn’t hear anything except an incredible ringing.

Pillowcase got her up.

Moving with injuries was dangerous and bad.

Being eaten by a nanoswarm was worse.

The rest of the group was in similar or worse shape. Some were stirring. Some where unmoving. 

Tessa’s head swam.

Things were not right inside her.

Definitely time to get to a Heart Fire.

Except that didn’t sound right.

Heart Fire.

Why didn’t it have a reverb to it?

No time for that. She didn’t shake her head. Couldn’t risk doing more damage. She did get up though and moved to the nearest figure in the smoke.

Lisa. They’d been close together, Lisa holding back her pace to stay with her. If it had meant she’d been hurt…

Tessa closed down that line of thought. Lisa was getting up. That was a good sign.

And then the nanoswarm bot appeared in the hole in the wall and they were dead.

It was too close.

They couldn’t have run even if Tessa was back in top form. 

So why was some guy laughing?

Tessa saw the weapons pod on the nanoswarm begin to glow as it powered up. She didn’t know why it had decided to blow them up with it’s weapons rather than just running through them like it did the buildings, but the end result wasn’t going to be all that different.

“Yeah, I’ve got a better idea.” They were words without sound. Words that sprang fully formed into her beaten and bedraggled head. Words in Pete’s voice?

Tessa peered through the smoke and saw Pete standing up. Around him a nimbus of light began to glow.

“Sorry I can’t go with you any farther,” he said. “I think I need to deal with this though.”

Motes of light began to rise from his body as he stepped forward, placing himself square in the nanoswarm’s path.

“Pete?” Tessa said, silently, voicelessly since her breath was gone and her throat too choked with dust.

“Can’t let the tank have all the fun, sometimes the dps has got to step up too!” he said and reached out to touch the nanoswarm.

Tessa expected to see him torn apart, just like the building had been, but instead there was only light as both Pete and the mecha vanished together.

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