Sam spent the busride home thinking on what had happened to him. Deep inside he had known that the forest, his metallic body, Orca and Alastor, all of these experiences had been real. He had simply spent two months convincing himself that it had just been a dream; a hallucination brought on by his sickness and the treatment that had saved him.
But there was no getting around it now. Some part of him, in the other end of the universe – perhaps in another universe entirely – was a deadly, dangerous and murderous robot.
As the scenery passed by, and the bus exited the academic district through the arms that held all of Flotsam together, Sam found that he currently had two options: he could either begin to fear falling asleep, dreading to be called up and be forced to kill again; or he could take control of his other half.
The first option would be the easier choice. He could probably just get the sentinel to do the work for him, and then attempt to ignore the horrible images that this choice would force him to watch. The other choice would be harder, more time consuming, and he might fail.
I might die, he suddenly realized, What happens to my mind if I die as a robot?
He had not thought about it before, since it was only now he knew he was part of two worlds. What would the damage be to his mind, if his robotic body was destroyed while he was in session? Were there any protective measures in place that would send him back before irreparable harm was done?
He stepped off the bus near his home in the residential district, a good distance away from the inner city and the massive pylon that held all of Flotsam’s government. The short walk was refreshing to his muddled mind, consumed as it was by thoughts of death, destruction, and a slight exhilaration at the idea of experiencing another world.
He could not deny the temptation, even as he feared the worst.
The house his parents had bought – back when Flotsam was considered a dangerous project, forecast to be a disaster by all experts – was a lovely little spheroid surrounded by a small patch of garden. Even though it was expensive to keep the soil in good condition in the residential area, Sam’s mother insisted on maintaining it. It was a small lawn of soft grass, neatly cut and trimmed weekly, flanked by flowerbeds in a variety of colors.
Sam passed the well-kempt garden and entered the house through the automatic door. A soft ‘woosh’ invited him inside, and he called out, “I’m home!”
He didn’t expect an answer, but, as he was taking off his shoes and freeing his neck from the tight grip of his tie, a voice called out a response. “Sammy, dear, is that you?” His mother, oven mitts in hand and a waft of freshly baked bread following her, flowed into the entranceway and gave Sam a huge hug.
“W-what are you doing at home, mom?” Asked Sam, slightly smothered by her embrace.
“Why we wanted to be here when you got home, didn’t we dear?” That last bit she called over her shoulder, where Sam’s father had appeared as well. “You first day of school is important, you know. So, how did it go?”
“Let him get a breath of air first, Sarah,” said his dead, while stealthily sneaking into the hug as well. Sam didn’t object, but accepted the embrace of both his parents – until it became too much and he had to clear his throat to make them stop.
“School was good,” said Sam when he finally untangled himself from the overprotective hold, “There’s a lot of stuff I need to read up on, though. I guess I hadn’t quite gotten the point of what they’re about.”
“Of course, of course! You can’t be expected to just be able to do everything, not right after getting back.” His mother laughed, stepping back as she took the mittens off. She was a handsome woman in her mid-forties, with shoulder length, blonde hair and a perpetual smile on her face.
It had taken a lot of strain on her part to keep the smile on during the worst of Sam’s sickness – and she had cried a lot during that time. Now that he was home again, though, the smile had taken on a new degree of motherly pride. Her baby boy was back where he belonged.
“You’ll get it done, Sam,” said his father, stepping in and placing a burly hand on Sam’s thin shoulders. “You’re a bright lad.”
When Sam looked into his father’s eyes, he saw the exact color that he and Liz had inherited, although set in a more mature face. Of his parents, Sam resembled his father the most. They both had the same thick brown hair, the same set of the mouth that made them look serious, or downright grim at times. The only major difference was the slight stubble that his father wore with stoic defiance.
Every day, for as long as he could remember, Sam had heard his mother complain about that stubble in the morning. Yet, many a evening, Sam had seen them sit side by side; his mother scratching at his father’s cheek while entoning how much she loved the feel of it.
“Are you hungry, Sammy?” His mother asked, dragging him by the arm as if he had already answered in the affirmative, “I’ve just taken your father’s hand-made bread out of the oven – the best in the city!”
It was nowhere near the best bread in the city, but Sam’s father was hobbyist in the field, and his mother liked to be encouraging. Sam allowed her to drag him into the living room, seat him by the table, and watched as she brought out way-too-much accompaniments for simple bread.
Careful not to knock over any of the jars, boxes and glasses that his mother had placed before him, Sam made a selection and arranged a small meal for himself. The freshly baked bread was steaming slightly, and the butter melted on its surface when he gave it a liberal smear of the stuff.
One perk of being skinny was that you got to put on as much of the good stuff as you wanted.
While his mother flitted about, halfway cleaning the living room and the kitchen at the same time, Sam’s father sat down next to him, but did not touch any of the foodstuffs on the table. Sam chewed down his bread and readied another, but halfway through he stopped to ask, “Why aren’t you at council, dad?”
His father father gave a slight smile, his serious expression melting slightly with the warmth. “Everything is fine, Sam. The Home Council is not going to fall apart just because one representative isn’t attending. This is important, too.”
“More important than good government practice?”
His father looked at him with those serious, steel-blue eyes that had made him into a prime candidate for Flotsam’s Home Council from the moment he took the chance that the floating city was offering. He was not flamboyant, outspoken, or prone to dramatics; he was controlled, thoughtful, and – most importantly – he was truthful.
“Yes, Sam. This is more important.”
There was no response to that. Sam gulped down his bread and nodded; the warmth of the bread mixing with the warmth of familial love that he was encased in.
“You’ve got it, son,” said his father and stood up, patting Sam on the shoulder on his way out, “But with that said, I actually do need to get down to Central and make a statement.”
As if choreographed, Sam’s mother danced into the living room and gave her husband a kiss on the cheek, a box that presumably held a bit of bread, and a single round of waltz. Once the dance had brought them to the entranceway, the two separated again, and Sam’s dad gave one last wave before he put on his coat and stepped outside.
Finished with his bread, Sam sat and looked out the window for a while, through which he could just barely spot Central – the great pylon at the centre of Flotsam.
There had been no security when his parents chose to move here. They had sold their belongings and brought only their three children and themselves in search for a better life. There had been no promise of success, when his mom began her gardening enterprise – which now kept more than a fifth of the flowerbeds around Flotsam, including her own little patch outside. There absolutely had been no promise of stable and constructive government in an enterprise that was a built on, and necessitated by, international cooperation.
“A penny for your thoughts.” His mom was at his side, giving him a hug from behind as she pressed her cheek against his.
“Mom… When you and dad decided to go to Flotsam… Weren’t you afraid?”
“Afraid? Of what, dear?”
Sam managed to wriggle out of the hug and look his mother dead in the eyes, saying, “Of failing. That the whole city would fall apart. You could have died if the initial plans had been flawed!”
“Oh Sammy,” she laughed, and swatted away his arguments with her hand, “Just living is a risk; accidents can happen anywhere. God forbid that it should be so, but you might be hit by lightning tomorrow, or a street car might short-circuit and run you down. The important thing is not to avoid risk, but to accept it as a part of life and an indication of something else.”
“An indication? Of what?”
With a mischievous smile she put her thumb to her index- and middle finger, rubbing them together like a grubby old miser. “Why; opportunity, of course.”
Sam couldn’t help but laugh.
Excusing himself, Sam went upstairs to his own room. The bread had made up for the lunch he had neglected to eat and the breakfast he had lost during the scuffle with Lorson and the other boys. Now exhausted after his first full day back in real life, Sam fell down on his bed without managing much else than remove his socks.
Though he was exhausted, there was still a pang of uncertainty within him. If he fell asleep, would he return to that place?
Now that he knew it was a possibility, it was hard to let go of the fear that followed the realization. Should he try and stay awake? Maybe he could talk to someone, but who? Who would believe that he travelled the distance between stars in his dreams, awaking to a mechanical body and a binary solar system?
That fear clashed with the exhilaration and excitement at the prospect; him, in a different world, with different rules, with different powers! If he wanted to pioneer Mars, was this not exactly the kind of adventure he should be relishing?
Then there were the ones who had been speaking while he had been there. At least five people, none of which sounded like Behmet. If he wasn’t in the lizardman’s – or drakkas’, or whatever’s – hands, could he be so lucky that these were people that he could trust? His short experience with Elhané and its people told him that there was an overweight of danger in that place – not that he’d had a very representative sample in that forest.
She wanted a construct, he thought, thinking back on that last message he had received from the female, Seila, trying to initiate this ‘lifelink’. The other voice that had talked to him, the excitable one – Izzy, if he remembered correctly – her words had felt much more friendly, as if she simply wanted to fix him.
There was kindness in that world as well, Sam was sure of it. If he returned and allowed this lifelink, might he be able to find it?
The contract that the system had provided him with, stipulated that he was a free agent, and that he would be able to release himself from the contract if he chose to. If this Seila character thought he was just going to bend a knee and be hers, she would have another thing coming.
Pacing down this avenue of thought, Sam realized he had already made his decision.
If you want me – come get me.
Edging this tenant deep into his sense of self, Sam closed his eyes and drifted off. With the knowledge that he was connected to another body, finding the part of him that led elsewhere came strangely natural to him. On a primal level he knew how follow that part down the rabbit hole.
Sweet, sweet darkness. His eternal friend and fortress of solitude. Who would dare impose upon him here?
User, Samuel Welbourne, has engaged a session
Warning: unit energy reserves are too low to initiate bootup
“Something’s happening! Master Baek, what’s going on?”
Current standby mode is unsustainable
More energy is required
“I’ve got no bloody clue, Spane! This thing isn’t even plugged in! Izzy, get ye’re damned legs going – we need soldiers, lots of soldiers!”
“And warn Lord Mingdale!” The first voice, Spane, yelled after the staccato footsteps that were quickly fading away from Sam’s sense of hearing.
Unit modification detected: lifeforce has been made available as a fuel source
Searching for available stores of energy…
Source found: user has excess lifeforce stores available
Be advised: lifeforce stores cannot sustain free movement without lifelink support
Expend lifeforce stores to initiate bootup?
Oh hell yeah. Let’s see what you’ve got!
“It’s doing something… Old Ones, Baek, it’s coming alive!”
“It’s not alive, it’s a machine, ye… Old Ones… How is it doing that?”
expending lifeforce… complete
Booting up unit… complete
Welcome back, Ares
Once more, he was Ares.