White light flooded the enclosed space, blinding me. My whole body seized up, freezing in the light, the air gone from my chest as though the light was a physical blow. Palavar gripped my hand more tightly, their fingers digging into my skin painfully.
The doctor had seen us.
We were dead.
Then the light passed over us. I wasn't even aware of how painful it had been to hold my breathless chest tightly until I let go into an inhale. The doctor's lights must have just passed overtop the alley, and we were shadowed by the walls since we had barely gotten out the door, but that single moment had felt like an eternity. Really, it seemed like any moment lasted forever in that adrenaline rush that flooded my body whenever I was sure I was about to die.
Palavar had frozen up as well, but they moved now, pulling me forward along the wall. We kept to the side of the alley nearest the Doctor's massive bulk, so that the light would pass us over again. I-- we-- could see the tank rearing and shifting against the light.
If Conversant and the Doctor were communicating, they were doing so in a way that I couldn't hear, but every time I glanced down at Palavar their nose twitched and they looked frightened.
Something that I couldn't see or hear was going on-- and although I suspected it was deadly, I was frankly fine with not knowing, because what my 'merely human' senses picked up was bad enough. I also just didn't really care to have Conversant's opinion on anything after the way that the Surgeon had tossed me over to him like... well, like a piece of meat, which I suppose I technically was. And wasn't Palavar also flesh? Flesh and metal...
...what an odd juxtaposition. I still wondered if I was "born" (a process I must have had in my implanted memories, that just made me think of blood and organs-- frightening, really, but also, in those memories, oddly reassuringly 'natural') or "grown" in some sort of mechanical substitute for a womb. The latter seemed the most likely. I'd have to worry about it later.
We hugged the walls as we made our way along the maze of streets to the outskirts of the city. We were going down the hill this time, not scaling it, and I kept imagining the tank rolling down after us, flattening everything in its way until it smashed us. It didn't take that much walking before the air started to sting at my eyes. My nose and throat burned, and I felt an overwhelming urge to blow my nose.
"Palavar!" I hissed. I didn't want to make too much noise. Conversant had (literal?) ears in the walls, and who knew how far a tank's auditory sensors or whatever they were called could listen? Well, whoever built it probably knew, but I didn't, and the manufacturer was long dead. "The air's getting worse here. I'm not sure how much further I can go."
"Wrap your shirt over your mouth," Palavar answered, very matter-of-factly and not, to be frank, quiet in the least.
"The cloth will help filter out particulates in the air."
Well, they were probably right, but pulling my shirt over my chin didn't make me feel any safer. In fact, it made me feel like I looked pretty stupid, and I was absolutely sure that if this method worked in the wastelands, that the Surgeon would have made me do it. So the air would only get progressively worse, until it killed me-- probably sooner rather than later.
"How much longer do we have?" I asked, my voice muffled by the thick cotton of my ex-military shirt. Now that it was over my mouth, I could also tell that it was, well... rank. It smelled like sweaty feet. My feet. I just hadn't had my nose close to it before. The shirt needed to be washed, badly. My other clothes.... they must have been even worse. If I hadn't been in danger of being killed, I would have definitely asked Palavar about washing my clothes next. Instead, I was knocked short of breath as Palavar yanked me down through a small door.
"Stay down," they said. I crouched as far away from the door as possible, back into a corner where my butt dislodged crumbs of who-knows-what down my back and into the neck of my jacket.
"What's wrong?" I whispered, after several minutes of methodically stifling my desire to shake out my jacket and brush off my neck. My skin crawled, and my throat felt like it was rubbed raw.
Palavar was feeling along the wall as they whispered. "Conversant's making a deal with the intruder."
"Whomever. I thought you said someone else made you... shit."
"It's supposed to be through here, but there's no opening. I don't even feel fresh air. We might have to go around."
"Around? Further out? I can't breathe the air!"
"Well, hold your breath!" Palavar snapped. "It's an underground bunker, it's supposed to be hard to access. And, again, why does this siege doctor claim that you're her property? You said the Surgeon made you."
That comment dislodged all of the thoughts that had been building up in my mind again.
"Is it made? Or give birth to? I mean, there's no longer wombs or families, right? For example, would you say that Conversant is your father or your mother? Not that it matters... but the mother is the one with the womb... right?" I was barely aware that I was audibly muttering the questions I'd been struggling with since we met. All of these concepts jostled together in my head. I felt like they had meaning, but they were obsolete, and I didn't even know how I'd learned them.
"Shut up, I'm trying to listen." Palavar put their hand over my mouth. After several minutes, still occasionally kicking the wall with their heel, I guessed for any sign of the removed bunker entrance, they removed it. "Okay. We're in the right place. Conversant knows we're gone, though, and he's guessed where we're going."
"Can... can we even get there, then?" Panic shivered through my skin, through the dust and the humidity and grime. "Did he tell her where we are? Did he trade us for the city?”
"No, no. Shh. She hasn't left yet. Keep your voice down. She got some sort of sample of 'the experiment stabilized' which I guess is you..." Palavar gave me a searching look, there. "...but she really wanted the location of the Surgeon. Conversant doesn't like either of them, so he pointed her in the direction the Surgeon went last. That's why he found us; he's been using subsurface mapping to detect changes in the city."
"He's been shaking the entire city with low-frequency signals and noting any changes. We're a change."
That must have been a large part of the rumbling. Instead of two monsters fighting, my mental image changed again... but not in a way that let me relax much. The whole city was an eye and we could not escape its gaze. But it was... well... it was less malevolent than the doctor, right? I tried to control my shaking, but I had the conviction hanging over me, the memory of the murdered body and the doctor with her red hatchet coming to kill me.
"Okay. So..." I took a deep breath, and broke down in another fit of coughing. Palavar slapped my back, which made it worse. When I recovered, I managed to squeak out, "...so let me try to... he gave her some sample of me and told her where the Surgeon went in exchange for her leaving him alone?"
"Yes, and us. For now," Palavar added, probably because they saw my eyes widen in elation. "The Doctor did say they'll eviscerate you if they find you, eye for an eye or some other old saying."
I adjusted my makeshift mask to cover my nose better. I felt like the poison air was getting worse. "Are.... are we just going to let her kill the Surgeon?"
Palavar gave me a look I imagined they had never given anyone else before; a look of total, honest disdain, so total that even they seemed surprised by it. "The Surgeon's managed long enough on her own so far, right?" Palavar said, which I gathered was an attempt at sympathy.
"Yeah..." I said, unconvinced.
"Anyway, shut up for a second. I didn't get to the important part." Palavar glanced behind us, to the door, and back at me. Their speech was rushed now, nervous, trying to cram in as many words as possible before a rapidly approaching deadline I didn't understand. "Conversant knows we're leaving, and he doesn't like it. He especially doesn't like me leaving-- he's kind of possessive of the ones he considers successful-- there's not many of us-- look, he said he just wants to keep us safe, and he especially doesn't trust you..."
There was movement outside of the doorway. I pressed myself further into the wall. I could almost feel the plaster crumbling from my weight.
"...so he's coming with us."