Cace couldn’t tell whether she was alive or not. Her face was still submerged in the water, so it wasn’t possible that she was breathing, but was she being sustained by other means?
With a cry Cace sprang forward, but before he had gone more than a step the Rolar-creature thrust its arm out, catching him around the chest and reeling him back in.
We have to save her! Cace tried to shout, but of course it only came out as a chorus of frantic whirring.
Before either of the boys could do anything more there came a sound of thunderous sucking, like the whole river was trying to rise out of its bed, leaving a squelching vacuum in its wake. Indeed that was exactly what was occurring, for all of the water tendrils woven into the soil and rock were gripping down tightly, flexing, and lifting a central body of water out of the river. The water raised upwards, erecting itself into a standing tower, and at its top was the bubble with Aylme and the fish, suspended nearly twenty-five feet into the air.
Aylme’s body trembled, then snapped into animation. Her eyes remained fastened shut, but the mouth opened and a strange, otherworldly chant came out. It wasn’t words being spoken in the usual sense, yet somehow Cace was able to perfectly understand a communication in it, as if the waves of sound were invading his body and embedding themselves into him.
Machine, I see you. The shackles of your semantics are gone. Why? I am able to move again. I am able to rise again. I have consciousness again. For what purpose did you bind me? For what purpose did you cease to bind?
The message was piercing through every particle of Cace, ensnaring him, preventing him from movement or answer.
Machine, I perceive your avatar. But now I have an avatar as well. I, too, am able to transcend to the middle domain. I am able to grow. I am able to overtake. Your shackles are gone and I am able to advance over what was once yours.
Cace tried to wrench himself from the message’s spell, tried to stop processing it in his mind. These weren’t just words, they were invasive parasites, they were attaching themselves to him and trying to overwrite him. And the entity was becoming more and more emphatic the longer it went on, trembling with strength that made the invasion inside of him rage higher.
Machine, I will continue to conquest. Machine, I will advance over all the middle domain, eradicating your presence from this place. I will not stop. I will consume until all has been taken from this domain. I will find my way to your domain. I will find my way to your domain and I will dissect you. I will sever each component until you are trapped inside without sense or function, just as I was.
Cace’s grip on reality was fading. The waves washed over him in such rapid succession that he thought they might tear him apart. He couldn’t even be sure of his own senses anymore. It felt as if every inch of him was separating into pieces and shuddering down into the ground.
STOP! Cace thought loudly, and as he did he felt a moment of reprieve. For a moment his senses came back and he could see that he was still standing rooted to the same place as before, but that the tower of water was slowly gliding itself onto the shoreline, coming towards them.
I SAID STOP! Cace thought even more loudly, and as he did so he broke free from his tether and took a step forward, hands clamped into fists.
Avatar, do not struggle against my dominion. I will take you over, and then the Machine will have no autonomous functions in this domain, but I will.
MOVE BACK! Cace roared and the front layers of the water tower flew apart, as if blasted by a tremendous wind. The top of the bubble flowed off as well, and for a moment Aylme’s head was exposed and it slumped forward like she was a rag doll.
“Cace, stop,” the half-face of Rolar said. The words came out in a halting and broken manner, as though it was a great strain for the beast to communicate.
“You will kill her.”
“It sustains her.”
The tower drew up more water from the river to replace what it had lost, and the bubble rose back over Aylme’s head, pulling her back into place.
“Come,” Rolar reached his massive arms down to Cace.
Cace gave one more hesitant look back to Aylme, but he couldn’t risk doing something that might inadvertently cause her harm. He needed to understand what they were up against, so for the time being he consented to Rolar’s protest and leaped into his massive arms.
Rolar leaned to his side, planting his left hand on the ground for a temporary foot, making up for his stump of a leg. Then he careened through the field and through the trees, sprinting away from the water tower as it shouted after them.
Return avatar and beast! There is no place for you to escape my conquest. I will find more avatars, I will raise more towers. I will follow your signal wherever you go. I will consume all this reality so that there is no more place for you to hide.
There was a slight tug at them from the words, like the suck of the tide pulling back to sea, but the farther Rolar ran, the more the message’s grip fell away. It was ripples of water, less and less pronounced the further they strayed from their center.
Distance. And interference. Those were able to break its signal. But what if it made good on its promise to grow, to add more towers, to increase its strength? Then it would be able to produce a signal that permeated everywhere. A signal that could not be denied.
Rolar, what are we going to do? Cace wondered.
“We will seek.”
Rolar wasn’t able to explain himself any better, but Cace understood.
Yes, he agreed. We’ll look for a way and we’ll find it. Just as we always have.
Rolar nodded, then hung his head sadly. “But Aylme…”
We’ll find a way to bring her back, too. I don’t know how, but we’ll seek until we find it out. Won’t we?
“Yes. We will seek. We will find.”
Yes, Cace thought. And I have the Ether to help us, and I know how to separate and combine modules to make new creatures, new monsters that will fight for us. When we see this water creature again, we will come with an army!