"What?! What is that?! Can it really see me? Is it alive?!" Panicked questions cascaded out of my mouth, which really didn't assure the Surgeon that I was any less of a moron than I'd looked walking up to touch some strange gunk in a toxic wasteland. "Who's 'he'?"
"I wanted a bit more of a bargaining chip before we met him," she grumbled, as though I wasn't there.
"Hey, why can't you actually answer my questions for once! You know, I was thinking about it, and at first I thought I should be grateful I'm alive and you're helping me, but I didn't ask for any of this. It's your fault I'm alive at all, and so I think you owe me some answers!"
"Hmph," the Surgeon said, and kept walking. I had a sudden urge to just run away in the opposite direction, or any direction at all, but the truth was that all I had was a backpack on my back and no other idea of how to survive or any sense of purpose. I was pretty sure that I would be dead in a few days at the most, and for all the bitterness I felt about the situation, I still had a strong feeling that being alive was better than not being alive-- I couldn't even remember not being alive, that was how bad it felt. So I pulled the backpack straps to ease a little of the weight off my raw shoulders and hurried after her, head down, trying to pretend that the walls weren't literally watching me.
After we walked a bit further, and the city became more and more, well, city-like, though still empty, with narrow and winding streets and buildings piled closely and haphazardly together, she finally started talking again. "We're going to see a -- hm, an intelligence called Conversant. You won't recognize him; there's nothing about him in your memory, just like there's nothing about myself or the doctor."
"Is he really a man?"
"Is that really your first question?"
"Uh... well, you said intelligence, and there was a group of eyes, but you keep saying 'he,' so I guess I'm curious if he's a person at all. Uh, like me or you, I mean, not like the doctor, who was also a machine? Well, you're sort of a machine..." There kept being eyes, too, more and more of them, and patch by patch the whole city was starting to take on that sort of gelatinous sheen, the walls, the roofs, even the cobblestones we were walking on, as though they had all been dipped in oil. It was a bit off-putting.
When I looked back behind us, it was as if the film covered the sky as well. At some point we must have stepped through a membrane or field of some kind, but at the time it had been impossible to see it. At least the air looked much clearer in here, and the buildings, well... I wasn't going to concede that they looked 'newer', but at least they looked more... functional. Complete.
She sighed again. "It's not very pressing. But since you asked... he uses masculine pronouns, but Conversant isn't 'a man' or human, no, and unlike either of us, he never was. He's an organic processing network. You could say he is the city itself. That's what the cluster was."
"How did you think you were going to avoid him noticing if he's the whole city and has eyes everywhere?" Honestly I was trying not to say 'Conversant' aloud because it was just long enough that I was afraid I would trip over the syllables with my parched mouth.
"The daylight is harsh on optics, so they're often resting. And he's grown since I last visited."
That made sense. My eyes basically hurt constantly. Thinking about my eyes just reminded me of how much they hurt.
"Why are we going to see him?"
"He has something I need before I can start again. I saw it in the doctor's files before she shackled me. Hm, that was part of what we fought over, actually... I don't particularly like Conversant's approach, but I wouldn't say that the doctor's worked for me in the end, either." She said all this very dryly, as though it were supposed to make sense to me.
"Approach to what? Is it a physical object?"
"No. Information." She waved me off to cut off any further questions and kept walking. I frowned. She was walking much more slowly than before, with shorter strides that I didn't have to hustle so much to keep up with, almost as though she didn't know where we were going. I debated whether I wanted to ask her that and risk annoying her, or to keep quiet and maybe be lost for... hours? Days? How big were cities, anyway? When I searched my memory, the answer was vague.
In middle of all of that introspection, the sheen to the narrow street deepened. The tone darkened dramatically enough that I could tell through the tinted lenses of my mask, and then the barnacle clusters, the eyes and the roots-- wires-- twisted and slid down the walls, absorbing each other, growing in size as they devoured themselves. The Surgeon grabbed my arm roughly and pulled me closer, so that I wouldn't touch anything, I was sure. Nor did I want to.
Behind us, in front of us, and above us, the street fused into walls until we were standing isolated from the city in an enclosed box. I wasn't sure how, but the walls seemed to let the light in even though they were completely opaque, and the whole thing ran together sickeningly, the pustules still flowing into one large lump until it was at least the size of the Surgeon. It shimmed, and then it snapped open--
--into one gigantic eye, iris contracting as it focused on me. I could see my own reflection in the depth of the pupil, a scrawny figure in a hooded jacket with a buglike mask over its face and a backpack about the size of my own torso, pulled tight against the Surgeon's stilt-like metal legs. It made me queasy.
YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE, the eye said. The iris sort of moved, like a mouth, with the words, and, well, if I had been queasy before, I felt a million times worse now. I hid my face against the Surgeon's leg and pretended that the noise was coming from an ordinary speaker system, or whatever the doctor had been using in her underwater facility.
The Surgeon's grip tightened on my arm. I was sure she was going to leave a bruise if she hadn't already.
"I brought you something," the Surgeon said.
YOU HAVE NOTHING OF INTEREST TO US.
"He's not really living up to his name," I whispered. "We should leave."
"Hush," the Surgeon said, but I was pretty sure a slight wry smile had touched her lips before she looked back up to Conversant. "I do have something for you-- what I want is your old genetic records. You don't have any use for those, do you?"
I AM NOT CONCERNED WITH WHAT YOU DESIRE.
"I brought you a genetically unique, functional, sentient and fully independent human specimen. You may have him in exchange for your old records."
I yanked my head up to stare at the Surgeon in shock. Conversant's eye turned to focus on me. For once, I was totally speechless. I didn't have any questions. I didn't have any accusations. The only thing that I could think of, the only feeling in my entire body, was that I had been completely betrayed.