1 ASAIMC.7.7. "Kuma"


Now he sat, old and tired, a motor whirring against his skull to filter anything which came close, finding place as the doorman to the bar which sat atop this peak, its dock overlooking a vast, perfect, rolling blanket as those inside came and went but never descended, caught on the terms of tenders refusing to open the door out. They came for a drink, heard the fable of this paralysed place and left, flying far away to leave those abandoned behind.

They dared not leave.

Only the old man could withstand infection because of his respirator, which had been built for a taller, stronger, healthier form. The few inside would not come to the steps, which the old man watched, to stare frozen but with skin immune to a cold now brotherly, as he awaited one to climb the case and reach the summit. Never before had he seen someone emerge from the sheets but still, he waited, the vigil of a dying kin; the last of his people. There were other ports, other facilities, but they could not be connected and travelling from one to the other only promised a rotting fall. No, he thought time and time again. He was this now, an ornament sitting against a wall, gazing at stone and stairs, his brain sharp but numb, as a blade of the drunkard. He had said he would do this job back when he thought he'd stand strong against those approaching. Now, at his age, all he could ever do was sit and watch nobody and nobody's friends pass. While his eyes were tired, he could never hope to see someone walk from the clouds. It ruined his heat to know that he would never see a face again.

A hand he had not seen in years rang a rhythm against the slot and he turned, reaching as a plate of steam slipped through the slot, a hiss following it as the chamber decompressed. Taking the dish with one grip and navigating it with the other, the old man ate, lifting imitations of salt and sustenance and chewing with prosthetic gums. He knew that those inside felt for his condition, but he reassured them of false security, to a degree be which neither he nor them wanted him anywhere else. For oddly, it was a comfort, to work your off-world foreigners with peace of mind, even if they didn't know you existed, as a silent figure observing the passage up. Mind, they didn't get many visitors, the family inside, but all who came offered supplies and condolences as payment for services and a tale which had been spoken too many times by too few.

Weak, rusting metals had been lashed and nailed together with supports dipping down through the stone, holding the perch up as a building really built upon the true peak of the mountain. The only thing breaking the fog in sight, as little more than a hut with a pad. Pump and slight net to catch moisture, fungus and meagre food growing inside and around the cabin as food. More than enough to feed the survivors, but nothing of luxury. Nothing to break the perpetual cycle, in terms of commodities and starvation. Kept alive for the sake of living, to fill the cups of travellers and voyagers among the black, and stare out over the wash of white, flared by an observant sun which painted a scene untouchable, to surge around the height.

Although, there had been more. His sore mind had noted. Alien colours and sounds slipping down from a speck to a roaring gust which trembled and screamed its arrival, landing with an impact to shake the small place on the mountain, as footsteps took the noise of a brief second, before disappearing into the house. The sun here was long, but he knew the increase of each rising glow and felt it in his weary bones. Many more had come than usual. A constant occurrence, as sure as a shiver. He wondered if he would ever get to ask what the reason of that sudden influx was.

A rock slipped and he span, twisting from the door too quickly and cursing as he gripped his back.

Squinting but staring none the less at another who graced the path, moving without pace upward, from the smog as the cold shifted around him, curling against his form as tendrils caught in the sun rolled against him like knives, jabbing at the threat which was not fatigued or visibly ill in figure from his vast ascent, upon a walk which will have taken many lives.

The vented ornament thought on his violent summary of ascent and considered it a sickness of abandonment that he would find a man walking so intoxicating.

The old man found himself fixated on the approach, the first of the living to be seen since his joints fell stiff. A graceful, calculated motion. Taken for granted, as a beauty of motion approached the bar, the smoke of breath slipping from his mouth under a thick, all-encompassing hood and coat to shield from the lower powers. Legs bound around the ankle and shin for supports on his troublesome climb. Sleeves sliced to the elbow, exposing tightly clad arms and fists. Twin shapes slipping from the rear as the ends of dual tools, hooked on either side. A slight glow slipping from the hood, different to that of the chill. Young. Intentful. Armed. The old man grunted and struggled to stand, failing in his effort and collapsing to his seat, grimacing as the figure approached, lifting a hand to remove his gently billowing cowl as a thicket of uncut, truly unchecked tenebrous slipped and swam in pale winds, the length of scrambling arms and the shade of the coldest night skies.

In a blink and elder saw wounds, in another he saw vents, cut into the boy's cheeks as slats which eased subtle amber and blue, like the edge of a flames reach against a lake, not unlike the natural sun but darker and more precise. They made their mention only when he breathed in, expanding as gills, with a trio of lines on each cheek. Filters, but of a breed completely different to the old man's. Not loose fittings of spare parts, but inbuilt components, designed for the boy's face. And he was a boy, although maybe that was merely the noun of the elder, who stared at a face no older than seventeen standard years. Cold eyes, without the warmth of comfort the elder could faintly remember, still flickering behind his gaze. A drifter, forgotten to the cold.

He stopped and shifted, addressing the old man with a slight shunt, his eyes level with the door in accordance to viewing it as the greatest threat. From the open front of his garment protruded the grips of his two blades, wrapped in cloth to comfort the hand, both fists resting now on the weapons as slow motions brought them into hold, bracing them as he fell into a crouch, taking his gaze and allowing it over the elder who stooped without choice, unarmed and frail, trying to maintain the composure of vision cast over a wraith, malnourished below heavy clothing and armed even visibly despite his grand garments, great strands curling with the icy flow, marred by his desire to survive. Expressionless eyes, as they seemed to have lost their need, and he held out a hand and pulled loose a turn of cloth, pushing forth a word scrawled permanently against his hand.

It said Kuma.

"You can't talk?"

The elder stared at the modification which must have trailed down through the boy's throat. The boy nodded.

"That your name?"

The boy made the same motion, dropping his hand and rebinding it. The elder could see no supplies or heavy pack save for whatever Kuma hid under his coat, which brushed the stone in his position. While there was little to gauge of his character there was no hostility, at least none toward the old man, although he presumed his sense of people to have waned over these years.

"Why're you here?" He tried, the machine against his head whirring with each processed breath. Opposite, smooth mechanics rolled in perfect function. "The only thing we got is a ride with a traveller, if they'll allow you." The boy but nodded again, seemingly immune to the chill. It was a large world on which they lived, with endless skies and high rocks. The elder wondered how far the boy had travelled to reach this place.

"Well, I can't really let you in, in case you infect everyone inside…" He blinked, wondering how Kuma could articulate a response aside from cleaving his head, as the old man leant back and allowed a faint smile, his loss of attention leading to a frozen plate, as he knocked the bowl from his seat to the ground. "If there's any way you can prove you're healthy then I guess you're fine to pass, but otherwise I'm afraid I can't let you in." He wasn't sure if the boy even understood anything he was saying, but a slight drop of the brow at the mention of a worldwide illness, not an expression of anger but subtle confusion displayed on a vizard newly born to emotive features caught the elder, who now saw himself staring at someone who seemed unaware to their plague.

Nobody was unaware. Everyone lived high for that reason. Nobody lived on the ground because of their disease, save for the folk who had torn their bodies to mechanical designs and sacrificed their sense of self to live below the clouds.

The elder had never met any of these people, but he'd heard of them before he'd ascended the mount.

"You from here? This world?" Kuma performed his motion. "Then where you been living all this time?" The boy just stared. Stupid question. "Where did you get all of this done, then?" He gestured to the modifications, with the same silent response to follow. He couldn't tell if Kuma wanted to tell him and just couldn't or would refrain the information regardless, but asking question beyond the terms of yes or no was an endeavour which only held the boy down, as he returned his sights to the door, barred shut and locked tight from the inside, unopened for so many years. The elder, now a hermit of his previous self, had designated himself to crawl each cold yet short night into a nearby thing he called a cave, which would resound to all others as a pit, lined and roofed.

Kuma played the peak of the construct no interest as he leant back and pushed from his knees, rocking to a stand before the elder and walking, relaxed but built by adaption design to remain strong, toward the side of the hovel, edging toward the vast drop into the clouds below, before stopping and tucking his arms within his coat, staring with minimal movements at the pad on the opposite side of the building, empty but welcoming, and sun low and beaming across the golden hills of cast white.

"You going to wait?" Asked the old man, to a quick gesture and a pause. "You could be a while." The boy did not respond, but stood straight and still, observing the shrouded apocalypse as a misshapen form with wavering streamers atop his crown, floating with the oncoming gusts which acted as meagre siblings of the horrors below. There were things down there, among the planes, the elder knew. Creatures able to survive their curse, however he presumed hardened by their condition, to leave only the strongest alive. Those capable of escaping the infection or naturally withstanding its brute, while hunting the barren chill and dead remains of habitats long ravaged by sickness.

"How long have you been walking?" Came the elder, speaking up over the high breeze. "You can use fingers." He held up his own, to no response, but the boy looked back with clear attention which indicated his longevity, as garments closely bound and blades kept close adorned a form similarly purpose built to thrash whatever this forsaken land cast his way. A boy then, born below the smog and built to live his best life, the strongest of his people, now probably dead as they fell to their seeping afflictions, leaving their son to wander the planes, purposeless. Kuma, the purposeless swordsman. The elder nodded to his silent remark.

And wait Kuma did, still and quiet with an eye to the horizon, until the roar of an approaching craft on the rota of growing numbers came to view, descending the emptiness and sending everything flexible into a storm, flaying the loose lines of cloth used to protect the exterior windows now barred from the frosts, the dense materials and hair of the swordsman churning with the approach, his coloured fog of breath taken by the flurry like liquid. The old man lost track of time but considered it a length of careless stance until the craft made its port as a single fighter, adapted to its owners need for both transport and residence as sounds of decompression signalled someone leaving their ship, taking to the bar across the makeshift walkway under the seemingly unreturned inspection of the wayward wanderer, who traced the visitor until they moved from sight and became memory to the echo of an entrance used.

As the noise flew Kuma walked, slipping into motion as he approached the edge of the building, its drop into an endless white and reached, taking the elders breath as he moved without hesitation toward the forgotten viewing point which he made a grip, planting two feet against the vertical point of corrugated grey and reaching from one section to the next, edging across the drop with his coat swaying below him. The elder found energy and rushed with his pace to the last stable ground, staring as quick eyes dictated each grip, the boy looking back in surprise to see the old man up and standing, watching as he froze, awaiting an address he expected.

"What are you doing?" The voice asked, resound that now not even a hand could be raised in name, ogling at the climbing boy, finding words to explain intent. "Are you going to steal the ship?" Again came disregard but those same eyes told his tale, as he resumed his crawl from different acceptable ledges, manoeuvring the points as the old man turned, hobbling to the unused entrance and hammering a fist against it, listening to the slight noise of the boy's movements, until the shaft used for food was cast open, left uncompressed on both ends on the occasion as the first demand for voice the old man had ever made.

"There's a guy with swords, climbing around the side of the building to grab the ship." He called to the soundless noise of reception within, everyone silent to the sudden call from beyond, motion rising through the scuff of chairs and a curse of foreign tone as whoever owned the craft sprang toward the rear door, presumably halfway into the tale of how difficult life here was when the news of their impending, permanent migration rang. Leaving the latch, the elder slumped around the wall, coming back to the winds as Kuma reached the edge of his manoeuvre, glancing back at the old man while the elder moved toward the furthest point to find the best perspective, as a flash of steel cut the air where the swordsman had been a second before, preluding a dodge considered back breaking as his top half collapsed under the slash to the neck.

The old man watched, Kuma's back to the gunman, and he felt one of the few emotions he was glad to have thought lost to the winds.

Kuma rolled with his motion and came up, back to the pursuing alien who pocketed his knife and drew a rifle from over his arm, pushing it to his shoulder as the swordsman drew, still facing the skies as two curved blades slid from their corners while he walked. Whoever this guest was he showed no care for negotiation, as he readied for a shot to follow the impossibly quick turn of Kuma, who fell into a crouch, swords spread as his legs bent, welcoming an attempt to beat him to the heavy breath he took, his respirator flaring as something found power, given traction and released as his exhale brought forth a slice which fired him forward, the earth and water shades of his strike streaking as efforts to his force which trailed a move of lightning, bright under the arc of crimson which chased its heavenward brother, the head spinning to splay its colours as art interpreted by but one soul as such.

The body shuddered and buckled at its weakest, collapsing on itself as the crown spiralled and fell from the platform, dropping into clouds.

Someone from inside screamed and Kuma looked to the noise, and a fear unlike any other became the elder as the swordsman stared through the open door invisible to the old man, his heavy machine respiration flaring as his body heaved, devoid of the placid expression first presented and now ensnared in a snarling glare, the smoke of great cold curling from between his teeth as the rain of red still fell and something hot churned within that frail form, the rising tendrils only taking his shades and carrying them skyward.

The old man shouted words he himself couldn't understand as Kuma started toward the exposed entrance, and from within came more calls to actions, as someone struggled to close the door and another screamed again, the tones carried by the falling winds right to the elders ear as he listened without sight, but found himself enthralled by that one sense as the swordsman walked the pad, his blades the colour of molten rock under the aureate horizon, a black shape of distorted proportions against bold definition, wielding dual edges of thick sunlight. It was this observance which crippled the elder, unable to reach his side of the building as he collapsed, weak and truly incapable, too old and too weary even to move these few steps as the bewitching tones from the boy's breaths became more than mere lights but a bleeding residue upon his past space, wavering in his wake as long, dark threads swayed before that most lethal intent.

But his sense fractured when the old man heard the reverberation of a loaded weapon, and in an instant Kuma leapt, rising from his ground to the cabin's roof to evade the slug which swept under him, another shot following to splinter the framework as whoever was inside retaliated, still trying to close the door as another covered, calling to one another in frantic, incoherent speech connoting their incapability to hide, incapability to flee, as Kuma looked to the weak and ruined man on his knees, held a look of pleading mercy from the dying eyes of the fallen, before he span his blades high and cut into the roof, tearing loose layers of metal and fabric and whatever was used to reinforce the material, now presumably tense and brittle with its many years of service in these unforgiving climates, spiralling as fragments while the shouts from inside rose, those maintaining their composure now broken as they ducked under falling debris, a last cry escaping the elder as he watched a family he hadn't known of a number he couldn't guess look up at a seething shape brandishing pointed death, which slipped to weave a shot before falling into the room.

The old man could remember the sounds from below, back when he had lived with those augmented people of the forgotten cities, derelict in the wake of their Devastation. The sounds of people, forsaken to a life alongside inbuilt automations, fitted to lungs and limbs and hearts to allow them to survive, and the brutality of their endeavour, as they rose and fell to the ruthless, who glanced back to nothing but ruin. He could listen to their call in the rumbling remains of careless skirmishes, executions for resources and equipment as the vermin abandoned by life fought for whatever remained.

He could recount the noise, of shattering metals and grovelling, pleading, crawling calls as parts were torn loose and sent spiralling in a storm of the only shade worse than the endless white.

And he knew nobody inside held such modifications, but heard tones more guttural and uncompassionate from within than he had ever done before, as things natural and protected by an existence of discomfort up high were cast against walls and floors, drawl like paint from its glass case and used to illustrate the blind, animal hate indulged by a boy the elder had never before seen or heard of, who tore loose his only reason to exist, and threw it against cold walls.

The old man couldn't speak, couldn't articulate nor think, but mumbled a drawl of confusion under wheezing, course motions, head against rock as he pressed his skull into the ground and cursed and kicked, feeling everything fail as the first true movements he'd made in effective memory tore away while that thing of ravenous fangs tore away the hut, blinking slithers of light parting the poorly constructed building until sections started to collapse, and the last of the cries from within moaned to end the onslaught as the blades ceased and the murder found its content, resounding in its screaming silence which shook the very mountain.

The old man stared at the stones and wept; his vision gone numb with the chill as he bled his tears into unsympathetic rock.

He heard a shifting but did not look, too tired and sickeningly too frightened to observe as Kuma walked from the defeated place and took to the ship, climbing through some latch and firing up engines in a process which must have taken some time but flowed as mere moments to the elder, who felt the power of the ship ripple against his clothes, tied for a larger man as they billowed and bulged, the noise shadowing his weeping drawl as the old man bawled helplessly on the other side of a door he could not open, alone and abandoned again as that horror from below the clouds rose ever higher, and disappeared into the flames of a perpetually golden horizon.