Monday, February 19, 2007

44 - A Synopsis

44 is set largely in the City, an incredibly dense, 3-dimensional, urban space filling a potato-shaped globule of normal space accidentally sucked into the swirling energies and possible universes of the Continuum. The City has random contact with other worlds via rifts that open up, briefly linking the City to other possibilities. A highly secret, parasitic bureaucracy infects the City, as it does many other worlds. It has no official name, but is known in the City as Company 44.

44’s principle characters are:

· Idiom Zero (Id) – Migraine-racked and addicted to painkillers, Id is able to predict the course and nature of the explosive rifts that open up around the City. He has far greater gifts though, which soon bring him to the attention of Company 44.

· Torch Singer – An almost psychopathic executive within Company 44. His speech is punctuated by pauses and soft ‘ahs’ as he searches for the right word.

· Registered Chrysanthemum (Reg) – An Arrant (the remnants of an elite group of soldiers bred by one of Company 44’s ancient foes, the Stillwatch) trapped by Singer in the City and forced to train recruits to the Company. At first glance he seems as casually amoral as Singer, but he has hidden complexities.

· Councillor Abacus Briar (Abe) – A City Councillor blackmailed by Company 44 over his mysterious and very private indiscretions at his club, the Business End.

· Councillor Clover Lebanon – A City Councillor who is in fact an ancient creature that moves between bodies, living for many years in the host before moving on. She is trying to discover what Councillor Briar gets up to at the Business End in order to stop him siphoning public monies from the City.

· Anathema Glue (Ana) – A detective in the City’s Security Corps. She first meets Id and Reg over a murdered body at the Business End, and is suspicious of their glib lies from then on.

· Halogen Agaric (Hal) – An Arrant Elder who has stumbled across the location of the Stillwatch’s sealed possibilities. He has become trapped in the City and is desperate to escape before Company 44 can torture him for the information he carries.

Part I - The City. Id is forcibly recruited into Company 44 because he has a genetic abnormality that allows him to see objects, known as pivot-points or fulcrums, that allow one to flip between possible universes. Id is trained and introduced to his partner, Registered Chrysanthemum. Torch Singer assigns them to discover who, besides Company 44, is performing surveillance on Councillor Abacus Briar.
They witness a bizarre murder at the Business End. Their investigation then leads them to various locations around the City, and through a chain of suspects to Councillor Lebanon - Briar’s blackmailer. Parallel to these events they pursue the mysterious killer from the Business End, who seems sometimes connected to, sometimes separate from, their blackmail investigation. They are hampered by Ana Glue, who is suspicious of their claimed affiliation to State Security, and by Id’s mental health. Id has seizures, most likely a product, says Reg, of the Company’s training regime, their attempts to make Id more amoral, and the cortical implants they have given him to allow him to escape his rift-induced migraines.
While trying to finalise a deal with Lebanon, Id and Reg briefly meet the killer from the Business End - Reg’s fellow Arrant, Halogen Agaric - before being arrested. Released, they travel through the City to meet Lebanon once more, this time knowing that she holds the key to their escape from the City, via the mysterious Fibonacci Transit. Agaric has beaten them to Lebanon, but he and Reg collaborate, detonate an electromagnetic bomb, and escape from the surveillance net with which Company 44 has been observing them, though Id is left behind.
Torch Singer springs his trap at the Fibonacci Transit, killing Hal, and learning the location of the Stillwatch’s sealed possibilities - his goal all along. Id spoils his plans though, sacrificing himself to kill Singer and help Reg escape the City.

Part II - The Chase. Reg flees through a series of parallel worlds, including a desert that has buried an ancient city; a virtual-reality paradise; a petrified forest; and a hellish possibility where the Earth has become tidally locked to the now red-giant sized Sun, leaving a narrow hospitable band that separates giant day-side storms hot enough to rain potassium, and a cold night-side dominated by plains of frozen argon. He is pursued by a ‘revived’ Id, a cloned and ‘reminded’ Torch Singer, a Company employee, and a ‘Misanthropic Entity’ – a bastardised clone of Reg inhabited by a beast from another world whose sole purpose is to hunt Reg to the death.
At the last world on the route, on which lies the door to the Stillwatch’s sealed possibilities, Reg, Id, Torch, the Misanthropic Entity, and the Company employee, Quinine Tinsel, play a deadly game of cat and mouse among a forest of ancient standing stones. In the end, only Id remains, Reg dying in his arms. Together, they pass into the sealed possibilities to discover something inexplicable.

Id wakes from a nightmare, and takes the first steps on the path leading to his corruption and death.

Still dark. My room is a velvet well, the night deepening where it pools on the floor, around the bed, and over me.
The com’s alarm sounds but I ignore it, still half submerged in a dream of panicked, drowning animals. Jilted, it begins to scream and whoop, forcing me out of bed with its cacophony.
In the wash-box, squinting and blinking, chrome nozzles wash and dry me while I piss into the grate. The com blinks malevolently as I dress; vibrates in my hand when I grab it and leave. Message waiting. Message waiting.
Pressure builds in the base of my skull.

Id emerges into the black hall chewing a half-handful of bitter tablets to try and dodge his approaching migraine. A line of fluorescents on the ceiling shudder to life as he steps forward, revealing the blistered linoleum floor and grimy blue walls. He reads the message on his com as he climbs the stairs; passes through the foyer - the old woman lying unconscious at her desk - and into the station. It is quiet so early: only a few pin-eyed commuters and a cleaner mar the white tile surfaces. The pill from the Lafcadio Centre has not arrived.
He exchanges a retinal scan for a number 4 ‘Cereal & Milk’ at the station’s vending-hole. The machine rejects him several times, failing to recognise his eye, heavy and red after days of sleep and painkillers. When it finally coughs up the food he stands on the crimson line that separates platform from tube, idly watching the forbidden space, eating slowly.
The wind of the approaching pill is on his face and in his hair when he spots a ball of tinfoil on the floor of the tube rolling slightly against the growing tide of air.
And suddenly a man is crouching in the tube, holding the scrunched foil as if he has bent to pick it up. Id cries out at this sudden, inexplicable appearance and drops the remains of his breakfast.
The man is old and strange, clothes cobbled and ripped, his head surmounted by a tangle of lank grey dreadlocks. He is sweating and his breath is loud and ragged. Apparently unsurprised at appearing from dead air like some demented magic trick, he looks up and sees the pill rushing down the tube toward him, electromagnetic forces casting a blue light beneath its body as it decelerates.
The old man remains calm. Looking up, he fixes his gaze on Id and runs over, extending a hand. Id hauls him from the tube, feeling the dry strength in the stranger’s arm. The man gains the platform, but accidentally drops the foil from which he seems to have sprung. It falls in front of the arriving pill, and is flattened.
“Fuck,” says the man, seemingly more in annoyance over the loss of his piece of rubbish than anything else. Id says nothing.
“Is this the City?” he asks, looking around. Id nods, but the stranger is still looking abstractedly about him, and misses the movement. When he receives no answer the man turns his gaze back on Id, black and hard. Id nods again, vigorously.
“Fuck,” says the man, this time with more feeling.
His gaze intensifies, and Id feels as if it will gobble him whole. “Have you been saved?”
The old man laughs. “Good answer!” He slaps Id on the shoulder in an instant camaraderie. Id begins to smile, unsure what else to do, when the man’s good humour drains away, replaced by a haggard, hunted look. “They’re coming,” he says, leaning too close. “They’re after me, and you’ll hang too, unless you’re careful.”
Then he turns and slips from the station, head down. Id starts after him, but stops, remembering why he is out of bed.

Recruited by Company 44, Id undergoes training.

Id remembers his training as a blurred sequence of incidents; a disjointed hallucination:
Waking from a daze of information to realise he is in a desert, the sand painfully hot on his bare feet. Squinting at the distant horizon he surveys the impossible amount of space surrounding him, an inversion of the City’s density, almost an affront.
A blur of feet and hands, knocking him down again and again. The mechanical helps him up, explains his mistake, and bashes him to the ground again. He is the mech’s friend but does not know why.
A long white room, tiled, with metal drains in the floor. A doctor approaches, smiling, reaching to shake his hand. The doctor’s touch stings, and when Id moves his arm it leaves trails in the air, a tiny sphere of blood on his palm leaving its own blurred arc of red in the haze that is his hand.
Hours of meditation with the motionless mechanical. Returning again and again to breath and to posture, till the intervals between returning grow, and so his attention, awareness, concentration, his presence in the moment, all deepen. The machine tells him how with practice he may embrace a sensation - tiredness, pain, sadness, happiness - and draw it to him, passing through into a clarity where the sensation no longer rules him.
Scared and stunned stupid by the unfamiliar things all around, things he has never known: endless heat, night, strong wind, sky. Of course he has experienced all these in simulations, but now, real, they contain a totality he had never suspected.
His need for painkillers reaching a horrific intensity in which his every thought is structured around the absolute, desperate necessity of them. The days as this gradually abates: shaken, screamed and sweated from him. The weeks afterwards, during which they trouble his mind with less and less frequency, though still sometimes with a surprising, painful grip.
Climbing a sheer cliff. The desert is spread beneath him, a sheet of light. Hot, aching, and frightened by his precarious position he is nevertheless pleased by the climb, his body capable of the tasks he sets it.
Lying on his back, unable to sleep. He feels like tearing himself open, ripping into his stomach, clawing into his nasal cavity and wrenching his skull apart. He wills himself to run, to escape the mechanical and allow the desert to shred him, but he cannot move.
Intimations of surgery. Bruising. Pain in bands around his head that fades over time, leaving a wonderful sense of lightness. Days, and then weeks, without a headache or migraine, till he can almost forget them.
The mechanical patiently teaching him. It lets him practice his new skills in a simulator set under the canyon wall. It gives him lessons on nanotechnology, biotechnology, on the strange tricks of passive and aggressive communication. He learns to use the Company’s AI - which, more advanced than the City Computer, holds the simpler machine hostage through viral threats, routinely invading and secretly raping it.
Seeing a gap in the mechanical’s defence he spins and delivers a sweeping kick to its head, knocking it over. It shows pleasure at his progress and they fight again, though now its speed is doubled. He looks on, appalled, as it kicks away his legs and cracks him in the side of the head, then helps him stand, patiently explaining his error.
Endless presentations on the details of the worlds he may encounter: common environments, typical lifeforms, frequently encountered social minutiae, local economies, the role of Company 44 in a world’s power matrix. He scrapes the surface of facts without end.
Waking terrified each morning, barely escaping the following abyss. He goes to shout, but lapses into forgetfulness before he even sits up.
The mechanical correcting his every movement. It teaches fluidity, how to move silently, how to pass from shadow to shadow. It wakes him every night to walk a dry creek bed filled with loose pebbles till he is near silent, and even the big spindle legged insects who come out after dusk miss his approach.
Learning to speak semiotic, so he may be understood in all languages. This is the hardest skill the mechanical teaches, one he cannot master in his short time with it - one that he could not master even if he were to pass 20 years in the desert. After the allotted 14 months he can bypass the signifiers for a number of common words and begin to pronounce the signified.
Through all this - the obscured memories, the fighting, the learning, the punishing training in the desert’s stunning heat - he feels a persistent wound in his head. Mostly he is whole, oblivious to any change. Sometimes though, late at night and unable to sleep, early in the morning, or in an unlooked for instant of clarity, he perceives a sprain, a break. An old self and a new self. The old self is half remembered - stunted by pain and drugs, disagreeable, socially inept, irritatingly concerned with adhering to a vaguely conceived and imperfectly reasoned world-view, of which he can now see only a dim and senseless silhouette. These shards of clarity provoke a nostalgia that leaves him sick at the change that has been wrought in him, and his ignorance of it. He tries to clasp his past to him, to return to the older mind-set, but it falls through his fingers. Hands empty, he looks around him at a place where the past ceases to matter, and is forgotten. Gripped by this new self the change in him seems a progression, an evolution ... but when his thoughts open to the fading past he suspects the wound in his head is chemical. His stay at the clinic with the white tiles seems part of some assault by the Company, an assault that required his agreement to commence, and that is now restructuring him from within.

Id and Reg confront a rogue politician, but discover she is more than they were expecting.

The painkillers were unpredictable; sometimes they would smother my REM time, sometimes not - though I suppose sleeping 20 hours a day was bound to leave some sort of window for dreams to enter.
My most frequent dream, the one I dreamt now, was of running down a hill. My steps grew longer, and I ran faster as I descended, till it was like gravity barely had hold of me at all. I leapt high into the air, scared, occasionally exulted, and soared in a long arc, landing at phenomenal speed and bouncing again into the air, my stomach a dead weight behind me. I would run like this over forests, plains, towns - all of which I had never seen outside a VR suite - for long distances, eventually landing in a sickening collapse that would jolt me awake.


Id wakes, breathing hard, to an odd ringtone. He fumbles through his bag for Lebanon’s com. When he answers a crisp, female voice says ‘Albino Park, 30 minutes,’ and hangs up. Realising they will struggle to be there on time he asks the AI to wake Reg and tell him to meet in the Well’s pill depot as quickly as he can. Rubbing his face, he runs along the echoing catwalk for the elevator.
They leave the Well at once, hurrying to make the rendezvous in the allotted time. Now the City speeds by in a haze of light as Reg weaves the pill through the upper 3 express lanes of the arterial tube. Approaching their exit he decelerates hard, jostling down into a slower stream of pills, turns into the exit-tube, then merges upwards onto a suburban street. They pass the Anterior Bell, a mysterious artefact from the Old City that rings every half hour, despite attempts to locate its clapper and stop its noise. Reg turns into a wide, well-lit avenue that leads to the dark mass of Albino Park. Here, the City’s grainy light is turned off, providing a pleasantly night-like park. It is filled with pale trees, and the various water features that hold the wan reflections of their naked limbs.
They park the pill and follow one of the winding paths into the darkness, spiralling towards the centre, watching for the Councillor among the spectral white trunks which scratch at the blackness. The air is cool, and the City nothing more than a series of noises in the distance. There is no one around.
Deep inside they come on a circular lake, its radius and centre point delineated with a wooden causeway and small rotunda. The 2 men glance at each other, then walk silently along the causeway, black water slapping in the cracks between the planks below. But the rotunda is empty. Id is about to ask Reg where he thinks they should look now, when a small noise and a hint of movement from the causeway makes them turn.
Id recognises Clover Lebanon immediately. She is both taller and stranger than in the com news bites, or in the hours of Company files he has looked through. She is dressed in a black garment of indistinct cut and her neck arches out, long and white, holding an elongate face, its cheekbones high, mouth small and diamond shaped. Her nose is long and dignified; her ears are pointed, at the top and at the lobe. She is outlandish, and Id wonders how she managed to get elected - he imagines surreal news bites in which she kisses babies, hands out sweets to small children, perhaps provoking frightened tears.
“I am sorry to sneak up on you,” she says with a hesitant smile, “but I wanted to be sure you were alone.”
Lebanon stands at the rotunda’s entrance. She reaches to shake Id’s hand, and abruptly breaks into a wave of violence, taking the hand he offers and pulling him to her, delivering a savage head butt to his face. They clash in an almost choreographed cascade of punch and block. Id must rely totally on the skills drummed into him by the mechanical, repeated again and again until they became automatic. He holds his own for a few seconds, stupidly advancing on her while she remains in the doorway, where there is no room for Reg to help him. Then Clover catches his wrist, twists it, dislocating his shoulder, and yanks him to her again. His forehead smashes into the heel of her palm, and she discards him. He lays stunned, thoughts slow with pain, and watches as she turns on his partner.
Registered is amazingly quick, but with such fluidity that he seems to move almost lazily from one position to the next. The 2 fight fiercely, Reg on the attack, reeling off effortless 8 and 12 punch combinations interspersed with sweeping low kicks and leaping high kicks. Clover blocks or parries most of these, then presses forward with a barrage of fast, stabbing punches. Reg melts away from these and she presses harder. He is forced to block, then retreat.
Id struggles under the weight of his concussion, groping for the small boson gun he realises he should have drawn the moment they stepped into the park. Clover sees him fumbling for the weapon, and suddenly spits something at Reg’s eyes. There is a fizzing noise and Reg swears, blinded. To Id’s amazement he continues fighting for a moment, by sound or instinct, but soon the Councillor knocks him down.
Id’s hands still won’t cooperate, and before he can draw the gun Clover steps forward and kicks him neatly in the head. Id blacks out for a moment, and she bends and takes the gun from inside his jacket, then moves away and trains the weapon on them both. “Fuck. What are you?” says Reg, sitting quietly, his eyes shut tight and red.

Torch has a chat with Idiom.

Late the next night Id is walking through the Well, back to his room after spending the afternoon and evening pivoting between the Company’s basement and various possibilities. The catwalks around him are quiet and dark, no echoes or lights to compete with his own.
He is tired and, still unfamiliar with the route, he realises too late that the lights, instead of illuminating him as he walks, have led him astray. Stopping to look around, mentally retracing his path, he concludes that he is lost. Annoyed, slightly embarrassed that he will have to break the Well’s silence to ask the AI for directions, he is surprised to find himself stifling a frightened yell as the single light above him brightens to a searing intensity before burning out with a pop and a drizzle of sparks. He is in total darkness, total silence, and spiralling towards terror, despite reassuring himself that there is no need for such feelings.
Then, from the darkness nearby, he hears the soft exhalation of breath.
“Who’s there?” he says, voice tight and expectant.
“It’s only me Idiom, no need to be ah ... so alarmed.”
“What are you doing?”
“Just walking. Yourself?”
“I’m going to my room, to bed.”
They stand in silence.
“The light went out,” says Id, voice a little high.
“That it did. Tell me Id, I am curious, are you ah ... satisfied here with us? With the Company.”
“Satisfied? I suppose so. I’m more than satisfied with what I’ve learnt, with what Reg is teaching me. I’m satisfied with the investigation we’re working on. But then, I’m not satisfied with other aspects, aspects we’ve discussed before ... the violence, this casual immorality, the Company’s purposes,” Id says, surprised at how honest he can be here in the dark.
“I appreciate your candor Id. You still wish to ah ... stay with us then?”
“What? I have a choice now?”
“No, no more than before. I simply want us to be clear. Suppose I were to hear ah ... rumours, it would be good, would it not, if I knew your opinions, your feelings?”
“What about them?”
“You said you’d heard rumours.”
“No, no. If I were to hear rumours. Are there rumours I should be ah ... made aware of?”
“I’m sure you’ve heard everything that’s going around,” says Id, expecting a knife, or a deft flip over the catwalk’s edge and a long fall to the concrete floor far below, at any moment.
“I hear a lot, it’s true. Tell me, are you satisfied with the ah ... cortical implants we gave you?”
“Completely, I’m in your debt,” he says, sincerely thankful. Although he can no longer see the energy fields around rifts - at least not while the implants are active - this seems a small price to pay for the freedom from pain and from painkiller addiction they have given him.
“Good, good, I just wanted to make sure. About those rumours though, if you can try to remember, what we give we can also ah ... take away.”
Abruptly Id is plunged into an incredibly fine moment of agony. Pain so brief it is there and then gone, leaving him sweating cold and breathing hard.
“Oh. Look, the lights have come on again,” says Singer, completely unsurprised, and when Id turns he is already moving off down the catwalk, a small device briefly visible in his hand. A device that Id guesses must be a remote control to his cortical implants.
“Good night, Torch,” he calls, managing to keep his voice steady, noting with pleasure the small tic it produces in the man’s stride.
“Good night, Id. Pleasant dreams.”

Torch Singer's plans are challenged by the Company.

Singer is working in his office when the Computer interrupts him.
“Good morning Mr. Singer. I must inform you that surveillance of your primary team has just been destroyed.”
“Electromagnetic pulse.”
“Replay me the footage from just before we lost them.”
Singer sits back in his chair as the small holographic screen he was using moves back, expanding as it goes. The half finished report on-screen disappears, replaced by a shot of the Ampersand Hospital, the Councillor’s room highlighted in the bottom right corner. A row of green text along the top of the image gives the time and identifies the footage as being shot from a security device affixed to Ascent Shaft Driver #4.
“Expand Lebanon’s room,” he says, watching as the image complies, becoming slightly grainy. Id is visible standing next to Clover’s bed.
“Run it.”
Singer watches impassively as Id chats, looks out the window - almost directly at Singer - talks to Reg, helps Agaric push Clover’s bed away from the window. Reg swings the chair, but then moves too far back into the room to be seen.
After the window breaks Singer has a brief glimpse of Reg as he throws his homemade e-bomb. As it begins to descend the bomb explodes in a bright light that sprays a wall of static across the screen.
Singer shuts off the screen and sits, rubbing absently at the place where the metal in his jaw meets the skin of his face.
“Did the explosion affect that driver the camera was mounted on?” he says suddenly.
“The blast destroyed Driver #4. The sudden feedback shut down 2 other drivers and depleted the output of the remaining 3 by approximately 40%.”
Singer laughs in appreciation.
“Registered certainly absconds in style does he not? Casualties?”
“160 at present. 30 confirmed dead.”
“It’s time I got down there,” he says, standing, but the door does not open when he approaches.
“I’m sorry, Torch, some of the directors are questioning your handling of this operation.”
“Then assure them that I know exactly what I am doing.”
“You’re going to keep me locked in here?”
The AI is silent. Singer kicks the door savagely.
“Then I appeal to the Company Charter. I must be allowed to handle this.”
The AI’s voice changes, gaining resonance as it diverts its attention from some of the thousands of tasks that occupy it, focussing. “Who do you nominate to second your appeal, Torch Singer?”
Singer names his second.
“Please wait.” There is silence, then:
“Now let me out of here.”
“The directors wish to advise you that you have 5 hours grace, after which there will be a full accounting.”
“Fine. That’s all I’ll need.”

Id, Singer, and friends pursue Reg through the various possible worlds along the ritual trail known as a hej machet.

Two men, a woman, and another being, more difficult to classify, trudge through the stone forest in which they have been moving for the past week.
Id walks at the head of the column. His face is schooled to near perfect blankness, though sometimes a flash of bitterness, nausea, or resignation, impossible to control, passes across it. His brain is stuffed with the murders of his companions, fantasies that culminate in the moment when he jams the gun’s barrel against the roof of his own mouth. He hopes to pull the trigger more than once, damaging his head beyond the possibility of the Company reviving him once again. A quick look back at Singer enforces the necessity of destroying his brain. Perhaps a grenade.
Since being summoned back to life his memories have largely returned, intruding like thick spikes into a reality that he has trouble differentiating from the bubbling mess in his head. The hej machet is a constant, tangible presence in his mind, a collection of strange impulses that itch at him, demanding total concentration before they will resolve into useful information about the route they are to take.
Behind Id walks Quinine Tinsel, their very own pivot-capable executive. As far as Id can determine the tiny, shaven-headed woman must defer to him on matters relating to their route, and to Singer on any other matter, unless Singer’s precarious mental state seems to be responsible for any incomprehensible order, in which case she is to use her own judgement, or possibly defer to Id’s. So far she has simply followed their lead through various worlds, usually spotting the fulcrum before Id. At first she offered conversation that had fallen like a stone into the party’s cold silence. Now she keeps silent, her thoughts her own.
Torch Singer walks next in line, a slight shamble to his step. His face is unlined and smooth, only weeks out of the vat in which the Company has regrown him. The expression on this fresh visage is somewhat slack, as if the muscles are still unsure. Id keeps expecting to see a line of saliva run from one corner of his mouth. The metal filled scar that once bit into his jaw has never marked this facsimile, and the absence is merely flesh.
Id almost feels sorry for him. The sharp intensity that once characterised the man has been smoothed away. The soft ‘ahs’ that punctuated his speech are still there, but bracketed now by longer silences as the remnants of the mind behind them struggles for the correct word. The thoughts themselves are still hard and cold, but their motive force has shifted into a lower gear. He seems confused and frustrated with his new existence, perhaps angry to discover that his plan to trap Reg at the Fibonacci Transit has failed, leaving him nothing more than a poor replacement of his former self. Id often wonders if Singer still has the will to feel any hatred towards him, and it pleases him to imagine that this is indeed the case.
The being bringing up the rear is by far the strangest member of their party. It is what the Company calls a misanthropic entity, but as far as Id can determine it is a monster that has been somehow genetically linked to Registered.
He cannot remember whether misanthropic entities were covered in his training. He suspects not - certainly Quin knows nothing about them, and she seems as disquieted by the thing as Id.
He had eventually persuaded Singer to tell him about the thing, learning that the process for creating such beings was discovered far back in the Company’s history, and involves growing a clone of the entity’s eventual target - in this case Registered - and subjecting it to a number of specific mutations, all of which somehow allowed an actual ‘misanthropic entity’ to invade the clone. Singer had explained how the Company had once taught one to speak, a painstaking process that revealed little more than how vastly removed the thing’s thought processes were to their own.
“It told us there were only 4 such ah ... creatures like it,” Singer had said. “It was correct too, if we tried to make more than 4 at any one time the process would fail. It explained they were from a place - if that is the right word, the translation was ah ... awkward - that it was from a place it referred to as the ah ... ‘Feed-Kill-Chain.’ The one we taught to speak called itself ‘Knocker.’ The others, if I remember correctly, were known as ‘Sticker,’ ‘Shackler’ and ‘Splitter,’ quite the ah ... boys about town I imagine,” he had said, deadpan, with a quick twist of the lips.
“In making them it seemed we were extracting them from the Feed-Kill-Chain and ah ... tying them into our reality, bonded to the individual whose DNA had been used to make them. They seem to hate it here, but they cannot return until they have killed the person whose DNA they have been cloned from. In that respect they are tenacious, a very vicious ah ... hunting dog if you will.” Physically the misanthropic entity resembles a pale, bald, and slightly deformed version of Reg - though heavily muscled, and possessing ferocious claws and teeth. The Arrant have complex DNA that makes them difficult to clone and, having none of the highly developed mental skills possessed by Reg, the creature is unable to control its appearance as he can.

Registered, nearing the end of his journey, passes through a number of increasingly strange possibilities.

The possibilities are becoming stranger – farther removed from the conglomerations of worlds through which Reg normally travels. The hej machet is strong and clear in his mind, and he moves quickly through the downpour that is all he can see of the place in which he finds himself.
The rain is cold and hard, obscuring everything around him. There are forms hulking nearby, but they are unrecognisable. The water is falling so fast that he is effectively stepping across a shallow flowing lake, hammered all around by the countless tiny explosions of a billion raindrops.
It is raining so hard he finds himself choking on the water that invades every breath.
The hej machet, seemingly the only dry thing around, sheltering in his head, leads him to a structure that reminds him of a disused stadium. He expects a brief respite as he passes inside, but bizarrely the short tunnel that allows him access to the building has sprinklers recessed into the ceiling - their spray, massed together, mimics the downpour outside.
Laughing, he passes into the centre of the stadium, a place filled with machinery rusting in the mud. He digs into the puddles that grow around his hands, blows the water from his nose as he bends to the earth, and pulls a worn piece of ceramic from the ground.
The rain cleans it in his hands; it glows in his sight, and he pivots into limbo. The immense
brings both a welcome absence of water and a disturbing sense of the world he is moving into. It has the feel of a possibility filled with poison, with burning, chemicals, and with radiation. With a short grimace he
back to the stadium, the change of direction throwing him through the flooded air and into a rusted slab of metal. Wishing he could somehow procure a spacesuit in this place, he instead crawls under one of the derelict machines and spends the next few hours adjusting his body to suit the hostile environment he expects to find.
When he finally pivots back he finds himself in a world that seems more like another planet entirely.
The land is flat and glassy. It is incredibly hot, as if he is being tortured. Gases vent from small holes in the ground. His first breath burns horribly, and so he tries to take small, shallow gasps, holding each one for as long as he can, allowing his body to get the feel of what it must deal with.
The sky seems caught in some sort of hellish twilight, the edge of the immense red sun rolls along most of the horizon - so large that it seems midday would be nothing more than the land melting under its hemisphere filling glare.
Looking around, eyes itching and burning, he wonders how it is that he is still alive here. The huge star and the absence of molten rock burning his ankles seems to indicate that the world on which he stands has become tidally locked to the red giant at the centre of the this solar system. Presenting one side continuously to the sun would lead to metal-vaporising temperatures, and presumably conversely freezing conditions on the planet’s dark side - heat transfer producing weather. He supposes he is standing in a narrow band, perhaps bounded by fields of frozen argon on the night-side and immense storms closer to the day-side ... metal would precipitate from the atmosphere ... perhaps a pinkish-white rain of potassium.
Regardless of the solar system’s history the radiation he is being drenched in is intensely painful. He curses himself, wishing he had scrounged some sort of rudimentary metal umbrella, even something as basic as a sheet of tinfoil would have stopped the shorter wavelengths.
Looking down at the chunk of ceramic in his hand, tinted red in the strange light here, he realises how incongruous it is. Someone, and logically he supposes that someone must have been one of the Stillwatch, or perhaps a distant ancestor of his own race, had placed the fulcrum here. He can feel the next link in this ancient chain push against the hej machet stuck in his mind. It is to his left, not too far, away from the furnace sunset and towards the flattened remnants of a mountain chain on the horizon.
Reg moves off in a daze, some dim part of him deciding not to return to the rain drenched stadium for a radiation shield. He feels as if he must simply move forward, continue. There is no possibility of failure.
The ritual buried in his head acts as a compass. He moves slowly to avoid breathing too deeply.