Metal Fever II: The Erasure of Asherah

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Chapter 15

The enforcer loaded another grenade. The instant before he launched it our way, the voice aimed my gun arm at the ground before us and shot some sort of sticky purple pod. On impact it explosively grew into a shield of thorns, just in time to bear the brunt of the grenade blast.

Another trick I didn’t even know I had at my disposal. Now content that the voice had matters well in hand, I settled in to watch him perform his grisly work. The enforcer switched over to a flamethrower integrated into its forearm.

The flamethrower made short work of the shield. What little the grenade didn’t shred, that is. It also generated a surprising quantity of smoke between us, which the voice availed himself of, slipping away into the interior of the nearest building...where the other enforcer was waiting for us.

It seized me by the throat, the armor around which swelled to protect it. “Where is he? I’ll give you ten seconds.” I struggled in vain, kicking my legs at him as they dangled in mid-air. “Whatever” the obsidian behemoth grumbled. “We can just extract it from what’s left of your exocortex. Say goodnight.”

I repeatedly slapped my hand against the enforcer’s dented, shiny black forearm. It hesitated, probably expecting me to talk. Instead I pointed over its shoulder, eyes wide to communicate urgency but still unable to make any sound other than wheezing.

“Oh, that’s cute. ‘Someone’s behind me’, right? You must think I’m retarded.” I pried at its fingers, loosening its grip on my neck just enough to sputter “C..can’t it...be both?” My captor’s other hand split apart into a trio of serrated blades, which it readied to cut my skull open. That’s as far as it got before a projectile of some form I’d not yet seen impacted the back of its head.

In the span of a few seconds it burst into rapidly growing vines, which engulfed the panicked enforcer. In the confusion I knocked the rifle from its hands. The anguished tinny sounding wails grew muffled, then finally ceased once the process finished, leaving a brand new tree rooted firmly to that spot...in a conspicuously humanoid shape.

I approached the trunk, examining it from all sides in disbelief. I then knocked a few times on the bark, made a funnel against it with my hands, and spoke into it. “You stay in there and think about what you did.”

My last minute savior was revealed a moment later to be the chieftess, decked out in her own duplicate of my plant armor. “I thought you were a pacifist” I remarked. “I must avenge my people” she replied. “Besides which, it’s not like he’s dead.” She then pushed me against the left side of the door frame.

Poking her arm gun outside, she used its pair of beady little eyes to scope out the still burning wreckage left in the wake of the gun battle earlier. “How many?” I held up one finger. “Any idea where?” I shook my head, then whispered “He can hear us you know”.

She zipped her lips, then silently gestured for me to go out the back way and circle around. I couldn’t ask what she planned to do without blowing whatever it was, so I trusted in her judgement and did as instructed.

It did impart some measure of added confidence that I now had the enforcer’s rifle, in addition to the biogun still attached to my right arm. The mean looking weapon, stylistically identical to the enforcer who wielded it before me, was purpose built to take down fullmetals.

The same couldn’t be said for the gross fuckin’ thing I’m elbow deep in. But that’s because there hadn’t been any obvious way to communicate to the equally gross plant vagina responsible for its design that I needed it to be effective against machines.

It must’ve assumed I’d only be fighting purely biological enemies. “You still there?” I thought. “How come I can move my body now?” The voice returned. “I thought maybe you two were gonna have a moment or something. Didn’t want to interrupt. Ready for round two?” I wiped some of the blood off my armor and sighed. “Showtime”.

I could scarcely understand what followed. Just an incomprehensible blur of speed and violence. The second enforcer, curious as to what was taking the other so long, was caught by surprise by the chieftess on approach to the doorway.

Under the control of the voice, my body circled around back, surveying the battlefield from afar. From this vantage point I had the best seat in the house from which to spectate as the chieftess bitterly fought the sleek, angular mechanoid.

She shrieked. Not in pain as I initially feared, but with the rage of a mother whose children were snatched from the nest and eaten. The war cry of a wild-eyed Valkyrie from Hell. I doubted if I could summon a hatred so perfect and pure as to fight with such ferocity.

Mercifully I didn’t need to, once again on autopilot. A marionette with a relative stranger tugging at my strings, though I’m no stranger to the sensation. I’ve never properly fought my own battles, even back in the states I always let the AI built into my prosthetics take care of that ugly business for me.

“I sense a familiar essence fueling her spirit” the voice muttered. “There is no mistaking it. My lover Asherah fights by her side. They are one in the same. Look at how she picks him apart. Taking advantage of his every little mis-step. She always scolded me for my warlike predilections, but in truth she is never more beautiful than when she is enraged, claws out, and soaked in blood.”

What a touching, psychotic sentiment. Yet as I continued to watch her fight, driving the enforcer back step by step despite his superior strength, I had to admit she seemed like the natural counterpart to the voice now controlling me.

I wish I’d thought of praying to Asherah for help back at the village. I’m not sure what she could’ve done, exactly. The chieftess probably beseeched her for protection before I even got there. ‘Preseeched’? I think that’s right. It’s definitely not deseeched, anyway.

The chieftess launched another of the explosive vine pods, but it was roasted mid-air by the enforcer’s flamethrower. He then blasted another stream of flaming fuel onto her armor, which withered and blackened...only to secrete a foam which extinguished the fire, then rapidly re-grow every part that was burnt away a moment earlier.

Slowly, so slowly, I crept toward the fight. Moving from cover to cover, finally watching the two go at it from no more than fifty feet away. Being that I held perfectly still, the camouflage concealed my presence, and the enforcer was too busy holding his own against the chieftess to scan for my heat signature.

At last, an opening arrived. A long, flexible, whip-like appendage shot out of her bio gun. She drew the heavy tip behind her, then with a resounding crack, struck the enforcer so hard that his neck bent to one side at a severe angle. His flamethrower did nothing to stop it as the whip simply regrew faster than it could be burnt.

The second blow twisted the enforcer’s head around backwards...staring directly at me. The voice in control of me chose this moment to strike, forming a long, glistening blade which slid silently from the opening on my own biogun. There was no “oh shit” expression on its faceted, featureless face to savor.

Nevertheless it was profoundly satisfying to impale the fucker. My puppetmaster gave the blade another good push even after it was all the way through, then twisted it. As I learned from dissecting the fullmetals that died in the crash, their midsection houses much of the life support machinery needed to support their brain.

It spasmed weakly, then the light in its eyes faded away. “I like this game” the voice growled internally. “When do the opponents respawn?” He withdrew the bio blade, dripping a mixture of muscle gel, synthetic blood and lubricant onto the soil at our feet. Without the blade through its body holding it up, the pitiful monster collapsed between myself and the chieftess...who then spat on it.

I would’ve made some sort of cocky remark, were I able to. I don’t know what. A corny one liner or something. I’m sure it would’ve ruined the moment. For the best, then, that the voice still controlled my body, vocal chords included.

“Is it really you?” he asked. The chieftess slowly nodded, tears in her eyes. She was the next to speak. “What about you? Do you remember who you are?” I puzzled over the meaning of it, but the voice seemed to know. “The technological progress of this species is unusually slow, I only just woke up. Hope I didn’t keep you waiting for too long.”

She laughed and embraced me, kissing me deeply. I felt every bit of it, and wondered briefly if I ought to. When at last she let me breathe again, I found myself transfixed by her smoldering gaze. “I’d have waited a thousand eons to taste your lips again, my eternal lover” she whispered.

“Too soon though, isn’t it.” Her expression changed from ecstatic to mournful. “...Yes. Too soon, I fear. If what I was told is true, mechanogenesis is still a ways off, and conscious machines are still well beyond their grasp. Slumber, then, until the dawn of your age arrives on this world. As ever, I will faithfully await you.”

Just like that, control of my body was returned to me. Likewise for the chieftess, who looked at once startled and bashful. I realized she must’ve been under the control of Asherah, even as I was being directed by the voice which called itself “I am”.

“What...the FUCK...was all that!?” I blurted out, still feeling shell shocked by the brutal ordeal I’d just endured. Now recovered, she smiled and answered simply “A glimpse at the shape of things to come. The day when all which has been separated will at last come together in a most perfect and timeless union. But today is not that day.”

I knelt and clutched my stomach, reeling from everything I’d just seen...and smelled for that matter, even tasting some of the blood soaked soil through the soles of my feet. The air stank of burnt flesh. When I closed my eyes, if only to escape from the horror for a moment, I was greeted with a flashing notification.

The black box data from my VTOL. How could it have decrypted already? It should’ve taken a good deal longer than this. There was a commented out line inserted at the beginning which read “For those with even as much faith as a mustard seed, mountains will move. Don’t say I never did you any favors.”

My heart began to race. This is it, isn’t it? It’s all here! I just can’t use any of it until the global network of navsats comes back online. Still, that should take what...two weeks? Three? Then it hit me. The other VTOL! A corporate transport, it would have its own proprietary nav system based on aerial imagery it captured on the way.

No telling if it would accept or correctly interpret GPS coordinates but odds seemed better than even. Those things don’t come cheap and are loaded with the really primo, top shelf hardware. “Listen closely, I need you to focus. Remember the flying metal thing?”

The chieftess nodded. “Where did you see it last?” She was about to answer when her mouth suddenly hung open, eyes bugging out. She wordlessly pointed over my shoulder, into the sky. I turned to see the enforcers’ VTOL barreling towards us, just above the tree line.

...Impossible. Impossible! In a fit of terror I seized the chieftess by the hand and pulled her under cover. The same building we’d been confronted by one of the enforcers in. That’s when I put two and two together.

For the humanoid tree which once stood in the center of the room, unruly prisoner detained inside, lay shattered into a hundred ragged pieces. While the chieftess and I were ganging up on his comrade, he must’ve torn his way out. The shadow of the VTOL crept quietly across the clearing between the buildings as I peered outside through a filthy, cracked window.

Then it began blasting everything with napalm. No regard for which building we’d run into, just laying absolute waste to the entire site. “We have to get out of here!” I shouted, barely audible over the conflagration erupting outside.

She insisted there wasn’t any safe place to escape to, but I knew better. I implored her then to put her trust in me, as the voice asked of me before. We locked eyes, pupils dilated with fear, and in that instant she made her decision.

The two of us counted to three, then bolted from the building. The VTOL swung around and began peppering the clearing with machine gun fire. Rounds big enough that, should one of them strike our heads or vital organs, there wouldn’t be enough left to regenerate.

The pilot must’ve expected us to head for the jungle, as the VTOL lurched in that direction. The miscalculation bought me the time I needed to lead the chieftess straight to the docks. There, I pried open the rusty hatch of the narco sub still peacefully floating in the murky water.

Of course the inside was jam packed with drugs. Neatly packaged into shrink wrapped white bricks stacked up to my eyeballs, from the front of the hull to the back. I yanked the hatch shut, spun the wheel until tight, then climbed over the chieftess to get at the controls.

The sub hull rang like a bell when the first bullet impacted it. Must be thicker than I imagined if it repelled bullets of that calibur, but I didn’t care to find out how much of a beating it could take before springing a leak.

Immediately, I blew the ballast tanks and we sank out of sight. The filthy green water afforded zero visibility through the modest acrylic bubble in front, but the sub was also equipped with an impressively modern hydroaccoustic underwater mapping system.

Sonar technically, but able to generate a pointcloud of the seafloor just fifteen feet beneath us. Detailed enough that I was able to avoid scraping against rocks and other debris as I departed the mangrove swamp.

The hydrophone also picked up the sounds of bullets cavitating through the water as the VTOL, still hovering overhead, continued to fire on the sub’s last known position. The chieftess held a single finger up to her mouth as if to hush me. Not sure why, but I had more important things to focus on right then.

After navigating the claustrophobic canal for what felt like hours, we at last emerged into the clear blue waters of the open ocean. I heaved a sigh of relief. The chieftess still looked sullen. I could guess why. Whatever remained of her people were now scattered to the winds, having been decimated by the inevitable intrusion of the metal world into her cloistered paradise.

There was nothing I could possibly say to heal a wound that severe, so I didn’t try. Instead I began wracking my brain for an alternative plan of action, now that hijacking the other VTOL was off the table. The sub had a pre-set course for smuggling runs in its computer, which would get us to the US.

What it couldn’t do was take me to Dad. With one enforcer still out there, at the helm of a flying death machine, our escape now felt like a pyrrhic victory. As I sat deep in thought, the sub lurched suddenly, a dull thud sounding through the hull as we ran into something.

When I returned my attention to the bubble cockpit in front of me, I could scarcely believe my eyes. A dolphin! It emitted a muffled series of chirps and squeaks which my implant translated as “Do you fucking mind? I’m swimming here!”

...That voice. It can’t be. Not way out here, can it? “R...Remble? Is that you?” The streamlined, muscular gray marine mammal hesitated...then swooped back around for a closer look. Floating so close that the tip of his beak nearly touched the viewing dome, he snorted a few bubbles out of his blowhole.

“Pardon my language. Fancy meeting you here! With a lovely lady, no less.” He winked at the chieftess and blew a bubble ring, which dissipated harmlessly against the dome. She managed a feeble smile and waved at him.

“The hell are you doing off the coast of South America?” I demanded. “I thought you were on a business trip” He shook his bulbous melon. “Not even a little bit. No business, purely pleasure. I’m on vacation for the next six days.”

Dolphins go on vacation? I didn’t voice the question, lest he lecture me for an hour about my insulting preconceptions. Instead, as he hovered there just outside the sub with beautiful moving patterns of light cast down onto his body from the surface, I told him everything.

How I was forced into a VTOL at gunpoint. The crash. The village, and finally our escape from the final survivor of the six enforcers sent to search the crash site for survivors. He emitted another puff of bubbles, what might’ve come out as a whistle on the surface.

“You know there was an attack on the space elevator, right?” he chirped. I nodded and asked how the rest of the world reacted. “Reacting, present tense. The uproar still shows no signs of dying down. I’m glad I took my vacation days when I did, with any luck it’ll have petered out by the time I have to go back to work.”

Still a weird concept for me that dolphins have to work for a living. There’s no escaping the system, whether you’ve got flippers or fingers. If you have a complex enough brain, it’ll find a way to extract surplus value from you.

Sensing my confusion, Remble filled in the gaps for me. “There’s no part of the ocean that isn’t owned by somebody. Mostly humans, I might add. The only parts of it I can use for free are the fin reservations, and public submarine travel lanes.”

I cringed, suddenly wishing the chieftess weren’t here. She now listened with rapt interest, occasionally glancing over at me in disgust, as if I were personally to blame. “So now you’re stranded, right? No GPS until they launch the core of the new counterweight satellite, and begin manufacturing the new tether on orbit.

But maybe I can help. Where are you trying to get to? I’ve been coming out to these warm, sweet waters twice a year for the last decade. Pretty much since I got the promotion that let me afford to, haha. I’m sure you know what that’s like.”

Again I cringed, this time because I realized Remble still had no idea that I’ve never held down an honest job in my life. “Y-yeah...anything to get away from the rat race, am I right? Heh heh…” I fumbled with the sub’s nav interface for a bit before turning the monitor to face the viewing dome, so Remble could see it.

“It won’t accept the coordinates? If it has an offline map, it should at least be able to…” I shut him down, explaining that I’d already tried that. “Hmph. Well my implant has one. It’s a few years old but I doubt the coastline of South America has meaningfully changed shape in that time. Let me take a look.”

I sent the coordinates to his implant using the hydrophone as an accoustic modem. Upon receiving them he didn’t give me but a few seconds to react, just turned tail and darted off into the blue. I directed the sonar system to lock onto him, and set the sub’s navigational software to auto-follow at a distance of 0.1 nautical miles, matching his speed of 6 knots.

With nothing demanding my immediate attention any longer, there was at last room to breathe. To decompress, and begin to process everything I’d been through over the past few weeks. I felt utterly drained...but also transformed.

Cleaner, leaner, and radiating with health undreamt of back in Shenzen. Hollowed out by the experience of killing for the first time, but emboldened as well. Above all else, having been touched by cosmic gentleness, I knew I would never be the same again.

How, after I witnessed and felt such indescribably beautiful things, could I return to my old life? To the empty pursuit of money and pleasure, not so much a man as a collection of appetites. But what else can I do to put food in my stomach and a roof over my head? The hustle is all I know.

A field of brittle, dead coral passed lazily beneath us, visible through the dome window as I contemplated life. Reordering my values in light of everything that transpired back in the jungle, charting a new path into an unknown future. One where my primary concern would no longer be increasing a number on a screen representing the quantity of imaginary tokens in my possession.

It occupied my mind completely enough that hours passed like minutes. The next thing I knew, Remble was bidding us farewell as the sub approached the coordinates I supplied him with. “You ought to consider revisiting these waters some time. Hear me out! It’s much nicer when you’re not being shot at.”

I fibbed that I’d think about it, then waved at him through the dome as he pumped his tail, accelerating into the blue haze until he passed out of visible range. I fiddled with the delicate controls, scooting the sub gently up to the underwater supports of the dock before surfacing.

I half expected the shooting to resume. But when I popped the hatch and warily stuck my head out, shielding my tender eyes as they adjusted to sunlight once more...the skies were clear. Probably he was still back at the mangrove swamp, shooting at phantoms.

“May they haunt him for the rest of his days” I grumbled. The chieftess asked me to speak up. “It’s nothing. Come on, I want you to meet my Dad.” I tied the sub to the nearest dock post as she clambered out of the cramped little vessel, swearing in her native tongue a few times when she bumped a knee or an elbow in the process.

The cabin was not out on the beach, but a couple hundred feet into the jungle, beneath a deeply eroded rock overhang which looked as if it had once been a sea cave. There I found a weathered looking wooden geodesic dome cabin, badly in need of some fresh paint.

“Not another step” a familiar voice barked at us. Dad emerged from the cabin with his trusty old shotgun pointed our way. “It’s me Dad, put it down.” The portion of the armor comprising my helmet peeled away, revealing my face.

He gawked. “No fuckin’ way! What’s your gear made out of? Is that the new cool thing that everybody’s into now? For fuck’s sake, I feel like I just went fullmetal yesterday and now there’s some new thing I gotta buy.”

I reassured him he was looking at the only two prototypes as he welcomed us inside. The cabin did prove to be much homier inside than out, apparently owned by some kind of new age fruitcake. When I asked Dad about it, he filled me in.

“It belonged to a college buddy of mine. Way into chakras, colonics, homeopathy, all that garbage. He did turn me on to organic farming though, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. He formed a little...group of friends...who came out here to live with him when the government started paying too close attention to his operation.”

Must’ve been growing more than organic veggies, I’d wager. An aspiring cult leader too, by the sound of it. The center of the cabin’s interior was dominated by a seven foot tall cylindrical acrylic aquarium with a spiral staircase leading up around the back side to a platform at the rim.

From there, a ladder descended into the tank itself, mounted to the inside surface. A scuba regulator on the end of a ten foot hookah line dangled from the little platform, covered in cobwebs from disuse. I gestured to the setup and raised an eyebrow.

“Oh, that!” Dad chuckled. “He had some unusual ideas about meditating while immersed in salt water. Said that it acted as a psychic radiation blocker, and that normally we are so swamped by the thoughts of ten billion other humans that we can’t make any of it out. It’s just relentless background noise that makes us neurotic. Even wrote a book about how his meditation tank replicates the conditions in the womb, where our psychic abilities first develop.”

Hoo boy. One of “those people”. Dad went on to lament that he was convicted on a predictable collection of charges nearly twenty years ago, whereupon his followers moved out of this cabin, returned to the US and went on with their lives.

“Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water” Dad recited. “After enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water.” My ears perked up. It felt deeply relevant for some reason. But then it could just be the sort of hokey pablum that appears profound because it’s cryptic.

I spent the next hour recounting everything that’s happened to me since Shenzen over piping hot drinks. The chieftess brought them with her, something which closely resembled an unripened coconut. She advised me to twist the stem and pull it off, which she said would start a chemical reaction inside.

I did so, and a few seconds later, fragrant steam wafted up from the small opening. Dad was understandably a lot more reluctant to drink it than I. “You mean to tell me she’s got a plant for every purpose we built a machine for? Houses, clothing, tools...it all just grows right out of the ground?”

Even after finally drinking the steaming contents of his own fruit, he struggled to wrap his head around it. “Boy, some crazy shit happens out in the jungle, don’t it.” I answered that I couldn’t have put it better myself, then asked if he had a boat stashed someplace.

“It’s under some camo tarps behind the cabin. Why?” I told him about the narco sub. He pounded the table. “That’s my boy! Always gotta do one better than your old man, don’t you? But I ain’t complaining, now we can slip out of here under the radar.

That spook whose buddies you iced could still be out there looking for you. Alls he’d have to do is follow the coastline far enough north to spot the dock. I only didn’t take it down ’cause I figured you might need it to find me.”

The notion sent chills down my spine. “We’d better not waste even another second then. Have you got everything you want to bring with you?” Dad pointed a thumb back over his shoulder. “There’s about three months worth of MREs in the sailboat. How much is there room in your little sub for?”

I estimated at least half of it ought to fit after we dumped out the drugs. Dad whistled. “That’s a lot of money to just go and dump in the ocean.” He wasn’t wrong, but I couldn’t bring myself to sell any of it. Not having seen what it turns people into.

So it was that the three of us spent half an hour emptying the neatly packaged bricks of white powder out of the sub, and loading in the replacement cargo. I eyeballed the fuel gauge. Still full, didn’t even use any yet on account of escaping from the swamp submerged, under battery power.

It must’ve been in the final stages of preparation to get underway when we jacked it. Fully loaded with fuel and everything. The battery meter, however, sagged about a quarter of the way down. I knew those old lithiums never read correctly except under load, so I gave the throttle a bump to see how much charge was really in there.

The needle sank to about half of the way down, then slowly began creeping its way back toward 75%. While we had the chance and were busy loading it anyway, I ran the onboard diesel generator to bring the batteries back up to full charge.

The intake snorkel began rattling, the reverberations of the purring combustion engine traveling up through it. A blast of black smoke belched from the exhaust tube at the other end of the sub, followed by grey smoke, becoming less and less offensive after that.

“For shame! You’ve been letting that new gal of yours do all the heavy lifting!” Dad proclaimed. I hastily advised him that she and I weren’t involved in any romantic capacity. “Although, we did shower together…”

The chieftess, passing back into earshot as she effortlessly schlepped a full pallet of shrink wrapped MREs along on one shoulder, curtly added “It was a really hot day. There’s only one shower, and we have no nudity related taboos.”

Dad went silent for a moment, hand over his mouth. Then guffawed, setting his own stack of MREs down just to slap his knee. “Crazy shit happens in the jungle, right? Haha, and here I’ve been holed up in hiding, scarfing down imitation eggs while you were going native.”

The suit concealed my embarrassment as I elbowed past him, making a show of loading the last of the MREs into the sub by myself. Why? Why did I tell him that? Why do I ever say anything. “Right you two, that’s the last of it. Climb in and I’ll shove off.” My stomach growled.

I began climbing into the sub when Dad rebuked me. “Now hang on, don’t go ignoring your body like that. You won’t be much good at the controls if you’re hungry. Don’t just eat an MRE neither. Trust me, those things ain’t been kind to what little I got in the way of a digestive tract. Get one last solid meal in you before we’re stuck in there eating dehydrated lasagna and chicken fried steak for two weeks”

The chieftess backed him up. “A feast before a long sea voyage is good luck, and honors the spirit of the sea. It would be foolish not to curry his favor when so much could still go wrong on your way home.”

Dad chimed in: “There you go! Besides, what do I always say you need more of?” Organic meals in my belly, I mumbled in a rehearsed monotone. The chieftess nodded approvingly, then hurried off into the jungle to gather ingredients as Dad and I made a fire on the beach.

I don’t know how she managed it in the fifteen minutes she was out of my sight, but the chieftess returned with two mangos, a cluster of plantains, a guava, and a crab easily half my size with a bright red shell covered in prickly little spikes.

“Looks scary, but wonderful taste.” I assumed she meant the crab, as if she was instead referring to the plantains, it would be a bold faced lie. In my opinion, anyways. She set everything down next to the fire and went to work fashioning it into something appetizing.

She swatted my hand away when I tried to dig in. “Say something first”, she scolded. I asked why she didn’t do it on our behalf. “Because I don’t know what you believe in.” Fair enough. By that point, neither did I.

I climbed out of the mangled wreckage of a VTOL not too long ago with a very...metal view of the world. Countless separate little creatures, all of them existing in their own little worlds. Hustling, struggling to survive, pursuing their own unconnected ends.

But they are connected. Not in some supernatural way, but in a web of causal relationships. Each affecting many others in the course of a day, through every interaction, however small. Every conversation representing the partial equalization of a personality differential between those involved.

So I said that. More or less, I never was good at speeches. The chieftess seemed well satisfied though. “As it ever was. Gentleness is the final wisdom, and separation the most persistent and cruel illusion of them all. May the spirit of the sea bless you with safe passage, and may Asherah smile at you from every green thing which still grows in the world of metal.”

Was all that really necessary, I wondered. Does every meal have to be sacred? Then again, I don’t see why not. It was just alien to me, still acclimated to the customs of a world where the concept of sacredness died long ago.

There’s room for at least that much sacredness in my life, isn’t there? Surely at least that much. To give weight to things, a gravity by which I might mark the passage of events and get a sense of my goings. Doesn’t particularly matter what I attach it to, I suppose, so long as it’s present in my life.

Even were I to go live in a cave, carve figures out of stone and worship them, it would still be more meaningful than selling little plastic replicas of them in a gift shop. The metal world has little tolerance for the ineffable, unless it can be monetized.

“Wait. Wait just a-...hang on there!” I interjected, picking up from her wording that she didn’t mean to come with us. “If this is about how to fit all three of us in the sub, Dad’s fullmetal and can fold himself away into damn near three cubic feet.”

Dad animatedly insisted that in fact, he’d once flown for free from Honolulu to Las Vegas inside of a buddy’s carry-on. “I saved half a fedcoin that way! But lost it all at the tables a day later.” The chieftess smiled, a rare sight since the village.

“I have to seek out the survivors. We have a safe place down in the caves that everybody knows how to reach without being tailed. They took us by surprise that day, but a few still escaped, and will be waiting for me there. Even if it were only one, I-”

I fell all over myself assuring her that we understood, and were grateful she’d accompanied us this far. It still felt like a shame not to see it through to the end with her after everything we’d been through up to that point...but I knew well enough that the metal world has nothing she wants.

“There’s an encrypted satcom unit in the sailboat I used to stay in touch with my boy on the way out here” Dad pointed out. “It runs on a solar panel fixed to the mast, and should still work once the powers that be finish unfucking the satellite situation. Nothing to stop you from checking in now and again, just to let us know how you’re doing.”

I couldn’t even look at her right then. Didn’t know what to say, all congested with feelings I could find no way to express that would satisfy me. She saved me the trouble, pulling me by the wrists into a brusque embrace.

“Don’t you dare forget anything that she taught you” the chieftess whispered, eyes glistening in the setting sun. As if I would ever be able to forget any of this. I reflexively leaned in a little, lost in the moment. She furrowed her brow.

“You’re not gonna try to kiss me or something, are you?” I scoffed. “Wouldn’t dream of it. We both just had crab.” She laughed heartily and squeezed me once more, this time so tightly I feared some of my soft parts would rupture.

That’s when a barely audible droning wafted into our ears. Carried in by the warm coastal breeze, there was no mistaking it for anything other than what it was. “Has he spotted the dock yet?” He couldn’t have. We’d be dodging bullets if he did.

There well and truly was no more time for goodbyes. The last I saw of the chieftess, she was dashing off into the thick of the jungle, as though merging back into the same wilderness that she was only ever the human expression of.

The droning grew louder as I piled into the sub after Dad, shimmying down through the narrow opening before pulling the hatch shut. A few good spins of the wheel tightened it, and with a few flipped switches and key presses, the sub resumed its preset course...to Florida.

Dad took notice over my shoulder as I studied the glowing display. “I hear Florida is lovely this time of year.” I grimaced, folding away the controls until they next required my attention. “You heard wrong.”

Trusting our lives to remnant tech as the sub scooted along, only pitch black visible through the dome was a touch dicey. Neither Dad nor I slept a wink of that first night at sea. When at last there was a glimmer of blue visible outside from the rising sun casting its rays down through the surface, I uttered a prayer of thanks to the sea.

One thing I somehow forgot to factor in, back when I was loading all these MREs, is how smells accumulate in a confined space. Not just the samey, stomach turning smell of congealed fats and msg, but how they smell coming out as well.

It quickly got so bad that we surfaced prematurely, just to air out the interior. Dad took more convincing than I would’ve, still wary that the surviving enforcer could’ve followed us all this way. But the sky, upon opening the hatch, was once again as beautifully empty as I could ask for.

While we were topside, I ran the generator. The racket made it hard to have any sort of conversation until I closed the hatch, Dad and I sunning ourselves on the sub’s surface deck. “I’ve never come out this far before. Who all do we need to look out for?”

He took a minute to cotton to my meaning. “Oh, well. We’re traveling from South America to the mainland US in a stolen narcosub jam packed full of milsurp rations. So...Navy, Coast Guard...other narco subs...everybody, pretty much.”

Somehow, I dreaded more the prospect of explaining to the authorities why we appeared to be smuggling MREs than how it would go if we’d left the drugs onboard. A drug run? Sure we’d do hard time, but our presumed motives would be understandable from their perspective. A dude and his old man in a sub full of dried eggs, lasagna and peanut butter sandwiches? Less so.

An incoming gas storm drove us back down into the sub, the irony not lost on either of us. After sealing the hatch and submerging to a depth of 250 feet, I resumed course. Reclining against the hull, I reflected on the bizarre series of events which put me here.

Some of them lucrative. Others disastrous. But then, it’s not an adventure if nothing goes wrong. Dad asked what I was so preoccupied with. How could I answer that concisely? “All of it, I guess. The big come down. Hard to believe it’s all over now, after I learned so much. I’ve been through some fucked up shit before, but nothing that left me so...transformed.”

Dad remarked that it said alot, coming from a guy who’s body hopped twice in the past decade. I think he knew what I meant. He’s just as bad at articulating complicated emotions as I am. The tree doesn’t grow far from the apple.

After a minute or so of thinking, he actually did come up with something that fit the occasion. Dad cleared his throat. “No man steps in the same river twice. For it is no longer the same river, or the same man.” I smiled, inwardly trying it on for size. “Yeah, alright. I’ll take it.”

That wasn’t all I took, though. Safely nestled in a concealed pouch within my armor, there gently jostled a sack full of seeds that I lifted off the chieftess during our final embrace. No doubt she’d be hopping mad when she found out, having made big plans for those seeds...but I felt certain mine were bigger.

These little seeds don’t look like much, not the way they are now. But if planted in places where the conditions are right for them to flourish, they will put down roots in the world of metal. Roots from which a new, softer world will grow.

Still, I somewhat dreaded her first transmission. It had to wait until we surfaced so the radio signal could reach us, airing out the sub interior once again as the generator recharged the batteries down below.

To my surprise, there was nothing about the seeds in it. After selecting the notification and opening the message, it read simply “I am ok. Found 12 survivors in the caves, guided them safely home. Flying metal thing did not follow. Are you ok?”

I confirmed that we’d been underway for a day and a half without any sign of pursuit. Then added that I couldn’t stop thinking about everything Asherah taught me during my time in her care. I swore I’d carry those teachings with me back to a society in dire need of them.

It took a good long while before I got a reply. Maybe something to do with the unreliable connection at sea, or maybe she was just taking her sweet time to think it over. When it finally did come in, it read “They will hate you for the same reason that they hated me; because you tell them the truth.”

Then came an attachment. Without the benefit of a satellite bridge, downloading a color photograph was agonizingly slow. Worth every hour, in the end. It depicted countless bright eyes and big smiles. The happy faces of the villagers.

Nearly a hundred of them! Alive somehow, and in perfect health...though something was amiss. Their skin was a deep, rich green and their hair looked as though it was grass. Behind them, more could be seen busily digging at various spots in the soil.

“Was struck by an idea when I returned to the village” the caption read. “Found the womb still intact. Guess what else can go into it?”

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