A shadow passed over the doorway, and then doubled back and stooped inside. It was something tall, shadowed, draped in a dark beige cloth the color of the old city walls. Half of its head glittered in the dark. I didn't need to see even the silhouette to recognize that deep voice, though muted and hoarser, not echoing off the walls and broadcasted through the liquid that coated much of the city.
"Ywain," I croaked.
The figure rolled its shoulders back, straightening up. "Yes. We overheard the naming. Stealing my citizens, Ywain." It stepped closer. Conversant had made himself some sort of human body as well, as angled as the city; the cloth was a trenchcoat. The overall effect would have been picturesque, or at least classic, bringing to mind... theatre celebrities, maybe? Except...
...except that the glittering when he entered hadn't been dust, dampness or even the biomechanical ooze that Conversant utilized over the rest of the city. Instead, half of his otherwise-human face seemed to seep eyes, as though he had begun with half of a human face and then quickly calculated something else to fill the remaining space instead of just copying the first half over. I wasn't sure if it was a rush job or a deliberately aesthetic choice, but the myriad eyes tracking me had an overall nauseating effect.
He grabbed me by the wrist, and Palavar by the wrist as well. "Come. You've both caused enough trouble. Did you wonder why the wall here is rough, Palavar?"
"No," Palavar said, as sullenly as I had ever heard Palavar say anything. I was starting to get the feeling that, much like how I resented the Surgeon for turning me over to Conversant, Palavar didn't like Conversant.
"It's because the bunker was sealed off before the city was abandoned."
"Uh--" I said, and both Conversant and Palavar turned to look at me. I was pretty sure that I had not been looked at by so many people in such a small space before, and it gave me a heavy, sinking feeling in my chest. I clenched my hands and forced myself to speak, since Palavar hadn't answered the question I'd asked them before, and as for having more than one person around, well... I'd just have to get used to that eventually. "--are you just going to allow the Doctor to hunt down and kill the Surgeon? I mean, she hasn't really hurt anyone, uh, except me, as far as I know, and maybe she knew you wouldn't kill me? And the Doctor is definitely, beyond the shadow of a doubt, absolutely psychotic and murderous, so that doesn't really seem fair--"
Conversant gave me a stronger look that was remarkably like the one that Palavar had given me the last time I'd asked.
"If she can catch her, I don't see why not," he said, dryly. "They are both wanton purveyors of destruction, and furthermore, the so-called Surgeon, as you yourself have correctly observed, abandoned you to me without a second thought."
"Maybe she knew you'd take better care of me than she could," I said. It sounded just as stupid to me as it must have had to both of them. Palavar rolled their eyes.
"If you prefer to think that," Conversant said. "Now come along."
“Are you just… letting us leave?” I asked, feeling once again as though I had missed some key part of a discussion between the two.
“No. I am escorting you. Avoiding her in the wastelands will be considerably easier than defending our city from siege. Of course it is a temporary solution, as evidenced by this—” He grimaced. It seemed that admitting his own flaws was difficult. “—rushed body we were forced to patch together, and once the Doctor settles her business, we all will return.”
Well… a chaperone with some vast library of knowledge was probably better than braving the desert with only Palavar and their enthusiasm as preperation. Even so it was hard to reconcile this... blonde human man insisting on accompanying us with the imposing, alien obelisk form that Conversant had taken when we first met. The extra eyes definitely helped me match the two.
We exited the building and turned to walk around it, but even though it was dark I could see the haze deepening in the distance. I pulled back on Conversant's hand.
"I'm already having trouble breathing here," I said. "If I go that way I'll probably die."
Conversant grimaced, baring his teeth in a snarl halfway between a cough and a smile. I scootched a step backwards. He appeared to be thinking something over. I hoped it wasn't being communicated silently to Palavar behind my back, or rather, directly in front of me. They were both still for an awkwardly long time; I glanced around us, trying to use the odd pause to get my bearings.
Far out in the distance, down the hill and over the skyline of the city, I could see the bright lights of the doctor-tank, disappearing out into the wastelands. I hadn't really believed that she was leaving until I saw it myself; but there she went, after... wherever the Surgeon had gone with her own little piece of me. It was, to be frank, a bit of a relief that they weren't fighting over me, and the doctor wasn't really after my blood, or at least, actively, so to speak. Merely having to avoid crossing paths or giving her the opportunity to revenge-murder me seemed a much more manageable task than having to flee her dogged homicidal pursuit for... who knew how long. My entire life, maybe. Artificial creatures seemed to have very long memories; like, centuries.
That the full force of her endless anger was focused on the Surgeon, however, was not comforting in the slightest. I suppose it's just foolish sentimentality, but the Surgeon had helped me escape that first facility, dressed me, and guided me to the place where I'd met Palavar in the end. Without her, I would be dead several times over. Even though she'd sold me out at the first opportunity, I wanted to know why she had bothered to help me. Just as a token to trade? Why was I important?
It was clear, however, that Conversant and Palavar wouldn't help me, and I definitely couldn't take on an entire war machine by myself, so...
...well, they were right that the Surgeon had taken care of herself so far. It wasn't like she needed me and my unreasonable sense of obligation in order to survive. I watched the lights recede into the night, and I hoped for the best from afar. It was all that I could do.
"Palavar's right," Conversant said, finally, startling me. I'd been right, they were talking on ... wireless frequencies or however Palavar had described it earlier. "I'd forgotten about your... unfortunate impediment."
Really? Palavar was the one who was right, when I'd been the first to mention it to him? I had several other issues to bring up with him, but he wasn't done speaking.
"As much as it pains me to modify the extant architecture, which has survived in its current state for well over three thousand years, or at least, the foundation has, as this particular building was not in fact built until the 16th century, we'll have to make due with the circumstances we have and go directly through the wall. I have no restoration capabilities at the moment, so you shall have to live with the knowledge that your creator's insistence on recreating human deficiency is at the cost of the preservation of-- "
"You could just... bring me my gas mask," I said.
"Your what?" Conversant said, with an air of deep affront. His already-tight grip on my wrist tightened. I winced.
"In the ... I had a backpack and a mask on when you, uh..." I didn't know how to describe the handing-over process, nor did I particularly want to. Words seemed to be failing me. "...whatever you did... look, it's the thing that was over my face, and it filters out the bad air."
"Oh, that thing," Conversant said. "We thought it was some sort of historical reconstruction. It was rendered into components for reuse."
"What! But, what about my backpack? And why did you leave my clothes on if you took everything else?" Not that I minded having been left clothes.
"That's in storage. It had more things of obvious use in it which I haven't had access to; mostly the protein. As for the clothes, obviously you couldn't be left indecent for Palavar's discovery. The record stands quite clear on that."
"I just mean... I would have preferred you leave me all of it, since it's my stuff. Food and... ugh." I rubbed my eyes, trying to ward off the growing ache in my head, which was a mistake. My fingers were filthy and the dust just made my eyes sting more, exacerbating the headache.
"We weren't planning on letting you leave, but it's clear that the city is in less danger with you out of it, for now, although I, of course, will come along to keep an eye on both of you. As for the mask, worry not. We have existing alternatives which will be suitable. Humans left the things scattered about like litter for centuries. There's no shortage of them."
"Centuries? Do they still work? Don't they ... degrade? The Surgeon said..."
Conversant gave me yet another 'suffering-the-fools' stare. "Everything we keep archived," he said stiffly, "works. It's in impeccable condition. You'll feel as if you are breathing my own clean air." He gestured out to the city grandly. I imagined some other... fragment of Conversant hurriedly stuffing Conversant-goo into a bad copy of my mask and frowned, an expression that Conversant didn't miss. Perhaps feeling that he'd wasted enough time on me, he tugged us both along the street, this time thankfully back towards the center of the city.
"This is new, by the way," Palavar said to me, leaning behind Conversant. "He hadn't, uh, deigned to take on a human form before. If you were wondering why I didn't warn you."
"Well, he's not very good at it," I muttered.
"I heard that," Conversant said, snippily. "Ah, there we are."
I wondered what significance there was to his switching between 'I' and 'we.' There seemed to be a pattern, but I couldn't entirely make sense of it. Either way, something was skittering down the cobblestones towards us. I shuffled behind Conversant as much as I could, with him grasping my arm so firmly.
The thing on the street was, as best I can describe it, a construct, several-legged and mechanical but shining with the black Conversant-goo. It carried a backpack on its hunched back, and a triad of drippy eyes squinted up at us with a familiar, skeptical, somewhat judgemental gaze. Maybe the 'we' was the goo itself, or a reference to the various pieces of Conversant as a whole, versus single units? How did he manage to keep track of all that? It seemed overwhelming. On the other hand, the doctor had (or, at least, had had) multiple bodies as well... so it seemed having 'practical' bodies and then humanoid-appearing variants were popular among the artificial intelligences as well. The Surgeon was the only one who had combined the two so far-- not counting Conversant's plethora of eyes, as I still wasn't sure if they were intentional or not. He certainly seemed to like eyes enough.
"That's the drones," Palavar whispered. "He can be a bit moody about how they ruin the town image, so don't mention it. They do look a little more natural when he 'antiques' them, in my opinion."
Conversant made an irritated noise. Without missing a beat of his forward momentum, he released Palavar, snatched the offered package up, and turned to present it to me. Both my backpack, and--
--well, it was definitely a mask, and in most ways it resembled the one I'd lost. Except that this one had a face pattern painted onto it, and two little ears; some sort of stylized animal, with a little nose and mouth, all browned and rotted. The corpse of a cartoon. One ear had broken off. I shook it. It didn't rattle, at least, and I could see through the lenses.
"It's to look friendly and nonthreatening," Conversant said, catching my palpable despair. "Oh, come now. No one else is going to see it; everyone else out there is dead, and it isn't as if it's going to make the Doctor want to kill you more than she already does. She broadcasts quite openly.”
I put it on. It fit well, and despite my misgivings, it didn't even smell as musty as the last mask had. I took several experimental breaths. My throat already hurt, so it was hard to tell, but... filling my lungs didn't make my throat hurt worse. I checked the contents of the backpack. Yes, there was the food sludge, the water, the straw, and even my trusted flashlight. I zipped it closed and slung it over my back.
"Okay," I said, my voice once again muffled by the mask's filter. “I’m ready to head out to the bunker now.”