Below

Bach left the congressman and headed for the nearby hall of offices.  The physical husk he wore over his consciousness was too large — too lacking in dexterity to navigate the corridors between what was left of the warehouse and the few offices that clung to its side.  Of course, if he had to bend a few walls to get there, that would not stop him.  Hopefully, though, he’d not have to try.

He leaned his husk’s shoulders through the double doors that led into the hall, and craned his neck ‘round the corner for a look.  No immediate sign of his father.  He called out, “Dad?”

At first, there came no response but, after a moment, a head splashed into view through an open doorway perhaps ten meters further up the hall.  “That Bach?”

“Yeah!”  Relief surged though him.  He’d grown so numb to all the tension that he now that keenly felt its sudden departure.

“Good thinking, boy!  Is that the heavy industrial from the stores?” 

“Yuh.”  Bach returned.  “Dad, I’m going down.”  

“What?  Going down where?”  His father had to yell.

“Down into the fallen wreckage!”  

There came a pause.  And then,  “Okay!”  If his father had been there when Khloe had fallen with the wreckage but continued to yell for a time afterwards then he’d understand.  This husk’s just a machine, when all is said and done… expendable.  

“Don’t stay here overlong, Dad.  I gave some Diaz woman access to my ape-husk.  She’s pulling the debris off the street side exit.  She said more waves might come!”  Better off just telling the man why he’d best be out as fast as possible.  He’d come to his own conclusions as to what to do, anyways, so best he know why staying would be a bad idea. 

His dad waved an arm, and moved to return to his search… but then stopped short in a whirl of water.  “Did you say her name was Diaz?”  

The question struck Bach as being wholly odd.  “Yeah?”

Another pause… and then, “Wow, I thought they looked familiar.”  Before Bach could voice his sudden confusion, however, Ol’ Dean swam out of view.

He thought they looked familiar?  Must be sisters after all.  “Oh, come on,” he cursed to himself.  At any other time, he’d press this issue… so much had Haley’s familiarity been nagging at him until now.  And now his father sounded like he actually knew something about this?  He resolved to ask, but later.

Bach pushed his husk free of the double doors.  A passing glance toward the crowd around the exit showed him that progress had been made there.  They’d be out soon, and likely in good time.  Even the flowing water appeared to have leveled off.  Perhaps they’d have little trouble evacuating after all.

Satisfied, Bach pulled his way past the door to the husk storage room, ‘round another corner, and on toward where the building had been so violently cloven in two.  Where once there’d been an open mechanics lab, now the underside of the far floor faced him like a wall, jutting up past where the ceiling had been, and at a crazy angle.  Only fragments of indigo sky could be seen through the gaps up above.

Approaching the steeply angled wall while scuttling sideways to his left a ways, Bach caught sight of a spot, not too far off, where the buckled floor’s edge reached only half as high as the ceiling.  He might just be able to vault over it, and let himself slide down into what remained of the far end of the warehouse.  

At first grab, Bach thought it might actually have been that easy.  Instead, a good stretch of the old flooring broke away and nearly sent his husk sprawling.  Once recovered, Bach paused, waiting to see if there’d be any further consequence, any further collapse.  His massive husk could endure quite a lot of abuse, sure, but the last thing he wanted was to send anything heavy or sharp raining down upon where Khloe might be.

At the very least, this meant he hadn’t quite such a hurdle to clear.  A quick look over the edge showed him a significant mess below.  The long and many-windowed wall that once had faced out toward the bay now lay as a beaten metallic flooring a good twenty, maybe even thirty feet down from where he stood.

Machinery and buckled shelving lay in jumbles, heaped up in piles half drowned under sea water, heavy with silt, that flowed in through one set of shattered windows and out another.  Nowhere had there been a straight line before that had not bent under the wave's long assault.

Bach saw no way down other than right here — down a very steep and water-slick slide along the old floor and straight into a terribly jagged pile of debris.  Though it wouldn’t really matter, though this body was nothing more than a lifelike machine that could be sacrificed, Bach's mind recoiled at the idea of tossing himself over that edge, all the same.  

Bach focused his beams of light directly below.  Though he couldn’t be certain of every detail in that mess, he saw no one where he thought his husk would likely touch down.

Without further thought, Bach vaulted over what remained of flooring before him.  The slide down into the depths flew by in a blur, and though he felt the jagged impact at the bottom, the sensation did not quite translate into living pain.  Rather, it was just a level of physical discomfort designed to tell the pilot, ‘hey, this is not recommended treatment for this model of husk.’  He shrugged it off.

“Is anyone down here!?”  Bach called out with all the significant volume this husk could synthesize for him.  “Hello?”  When no response came, Bach concentrated on widening the husk’s many tiny eyes.  If only he'd thought to have surveyed his likely landing spot in the infrared before he'd leapt.  Luckily, no one had been where he had landed.  "Let's not think about that too much," he scolded himself.

Though his vision altered, the scene around Bach remained much as it had been — if perhaps just a tad bluer — while some spots and objects took on additional red hues.  Beneath the water, not more than a few paces off, there lay a dully red-tinged object.  A human body, from the looks of it, and losing its heat even as he watched.

“Damn,” he exhaled.  Even as he inched his husk slowly forward, Bach’s mind pulled away, wanting to flee from the reality barely submerged before him.  This person’s leg had been pinned as the building flipped on its side, and… god, as the water first rushed in!

Bach banished his too-active imagination before taking such thoughts any further.  He pulled at the debris that lay atop the cooling body and felt his living throat constrict in guilty revulsion as it drifted free.  It didn’t quite float, though.  Neither did it wear a strange orange-red frock, or appear female in any way whatsoever.

This body belonged to the other military man Bach had seen.  It had been the companion of the one still alive in the surviving half of the warehouse up above.

Though a further pang of self-disgust fought against it, relief flooded through Bach.  This was not Khloe.  He didn’t want to feel this way about the fallen.  Certainly not relief!  Having no other idea as to what he would do with the body other than move it out of the way, Bach propped it up where it might be retrieved later.  Khloe had to be down here somewhere.  If she still lived, she had to take precedence.

Pushing onward — over the debris and along what once was the seaside wall of the warehouse ruins — Bach spied something out of the corner of his husk’s eye that might prove useful.  A small and rounded barrel, about half a meter tall and half as wide, bobbed lazily in the calming waters.  Heavily sealed, with a computer interface all its own, this thing contained a small population of nanites — maybe a few million individual, cell-sized devices capable of interacting with matter down to the molecular level.

Groping for the bobbing canister, Bach lurched on, husk-face close to the water as he crept carefully forward.  If Khloe’s down here, he’d do her no good by stepping on her.  Searching as he went, Bach found himself steadily running out of potential places to find her.

Before very long, all that remained was one particularly large pile of debris in the furthest corner, nearer what used to be the floor.  With the all the delicacy that one could muster when weighing half a metric ton, Bach crept over that pile.  There he finally saw what he’d nearly given up hope of finding.  

Wedged into a corner somewhat behind the crest of the pile, lay Khloe, still glowing with living heat.  Stooping close, Bach could see her heart beating.  Though another knot of tension left him in seeing that, he didn’t much like that she hadn’t responded to the glare of his spotlights.  She may be alive, yes, but she looked to be knocked right out.  A hanging bit of shelving that swung lazily not far from where she lay told Bach about as much as he needed to know of what had probably happened.

An experimental nudge did not bring her to, so he tried “Khloe?”  No response to that either.  Damn.  If she couldn’t be brought around, then this would be a lot harder.  Still, there might be ways out of this.  Bach moved to kneel beside the black-haired woman, carefully picking her up, and still she did not wake.  

She was pretty darn wet, Bach observed, and lacking for any of the figments she’d worn that afternoon.  That almost certainly meant that her wetware posse busied themselves with keeping her bloodstream safely warm.  If so, the stuff would be indisposed to full contact via the wireless.  Even if he could broadcast to her… in this state, she’d likely interpret it the way any dreaming mind processes just about any external input.  

Having considered this, Bach once again gave himself a mental kick, chiding himself before opening himself up to broader layers of the wireless.  Preoccupied wetware such as hers would not go completely silent.  Instead, the stuff would chirp a single repetative string of bits — a low-cost distress signal, really, that indicated little more than how life-threatening an individual’s situation was.

"Should have thought of this before, dammit."  A quick scan of the surroundings told him few other similar signals.  Khloe’s yellow-hued beacon spoke of no serious injury, and aside from one blazing orange moderate injury among those he’d left up above, the rest inside the building looked equally as well off.

Rather, it was the storm of distress pings indicating every level of injury — including the ebbing grey signals of the deceased — that had Bach shut them all out again.  It was too much noise, and nothing he could do anything about at the moment.  Best not to think too much about this, Bach knew full well.

Once satisfied, having distracted himself with clearing a spot safe of the sharper of debris, Bach deftly lifted Khloe from where she lay, and set her down again carefully on her back.  He could see the warmth of her breath puff upwards into the air, dully red-hued but otherwise not unlike what one sees of their own breath in the coldest depths of winter.  As long as he could see that much, he’d make the best of what time he might have.

First off, Bach thought he’d better get someone in the loop on this.  All the others, relatively safe up above, were similarly drenched and chilled loose of the wireless.  The brief storm of distress pings told him that much.  Then again, there’s that Mitsuki girl.

Bach wondered at how she could be immune to the cold even when wading in the frigid water while others were not.  Not that it mattered at the moment.  Without a pre-established bond between them, Bach would have far too much difficulty seeking our her wireless psyche amongst all the rest.

There was the ape-husk that he’d given over to Haley to wear, though.  He could find that in a heartbeat and, in so doing, he’d also just as easily find its pilot.  Reaching out with his mind, not more than two of Khloe’s slow and glowing-red breaths passed before he sensed the other man-made beast.

Bach imagined himself standing near that husk and, then, there he was.  Though there was no representation of the flowing sea water itself, the figment warehouse nearby had taken on some of its newly ruinous aspects.  Likely, even as he and Haley experienced the devastation present in the real world, this virtual and overlapping layer was being automatically updated.  Maybe not quite in real time, but close enough.  Whichever net-connected individual had last looked upon the street-side door had seen it dislodged of debris, and that was just the sort of positive news Bach could use right about then.

Not too far outside the open door, Bach saw the ape-like husk—represented here as it appeared in the real world—busying itself, from the looks of it, directing net-senseless people up the hill.

Bach approached the machine, not as the husk he currently wore back in the ruins of the warehouse, but as his own personal self image — as his online avatar, recognizable as Bach.  

“Haley?!”

The figment husk paused in its arm swinging, in its nudging of persons invisible, if only momentarily.  That she so quickly returned to these motions had Bach suddenly worried over how many more people might still be pushing each other to exit the warehouse.  

“Hey, Bach.  Where are you?”  

A question with a convoluted answer, that.  With the circulation in his physical arm feeling nearly cut off past his elbow, Bach knew not only that there’d be pins-and-needles to endure later, but that her own living body still reclined next to his.  And yet, her presence of mind resided within this towering machine a good hundred feet away from where his psyche resided in yet another mechanical beast.  Further still, he now walked this ethereal layer as his avatar self-image.  He’d split his one consciousness across three simultaneous locations.  Of course, he could guess after which she’d asked. 

“I found another industrial husk inside the warehouse,” Bach answered her with awkward alacrity.  “Checked on the people inside… then jumped down into the fallen half of the building.  Found one body, and an unconscious woman who's still alive.”  

“Do you need help?”  Haley’s virtual ape-husk asked this, but with her unfiltered and natural voice.

“She’s unresponsive, so I don’t think I can just help her climb out.  I may have…”  Bach lost his train of thought as he felt his husk sway and shift.  “This place just moved,” he declared, voice thick with alarm.

Haley froze again, then instinctively moved towards his figment body.  She asked, “moved?” but then conjectured upon her own question.  “The water level on the street has been coming down pretty rapidly the last couple minutes.  Wave’s receding fast.  For all we know, the pressure of the wave might have been holding the remains of the building in place.  So, now that it's going out, not only is the pressure holding it up dropping, but the wave may actually take to pulling at the building instead.  If you are going to be able to get her out at all… it’s going to have to be now.”

“Sour,” he cursed.  

The husk turned and waved an arm, “Everyone head as far uphill as you can go!”  Then she turned back.  “I’m coming inside!”

Bach almost nodded, but then something occurred to him.  “Not yet!”

Haley’s husk stopped even as it swung into its first loping step.  “Why?”

“If there’s going to be more waves,” he returned by way of reply, “we shouldn’t count on that little shed roof for long.”  The first wave had nearly crested over the roof the first time, and the building it attached do could be in any kind of shape, as far as Bach was willing to guess.  “Who is to say that it would survive a second wave?”

“Aye, that’s true enough.”  She paused, but with a motion of the husk’s hand that asked for a moment’s thought.  After a few seconds, she came back with the same notion he’d already had, himself.  “I can probably carry the both of us up the hill… then come back?”

“That’ll be best, I think.”

“Right then… I’ll get to that.”  And having said so, Haley’s ape-husk turned and headed uphill, past the corner and toward where that little roof lay out of Bach’s line of sight.

With nothing else here to do, Bach let go of the virtual layer and found himself once again back inside the indie husk body.  Khloe hadn’t moved so much as an inch, though she still breathed regularly and with a warm red strength.  Problem was, the shortest climb up and out of this spot, over at the other end along the former wall, had to be at least eight meters or more, and slick with salty bay water.  

The sealed barrel of nano-machines might help with that, though.  Bach picked it up with one hand, and cast a single mechanical finger over a small circular lock that kept the bottom half firmly attached to the top.  It wasn’t so much the motion that was important, but the intent that the person had in their mind in making such a gesture.

Following Bach’s physical inquest, figments sprang to life, brilliant against the surrounding gloom, representing the container’s menu of allowed commands.  The words ‘Seal’ and ‘Contents’ floated before his eyes, encircled by ovoid holographic buttons.  He poked at the one marked ‘Contents,’ causing it to highlight a bright and blazing orange.

The canister spoke across the wireless, if only for his ears.  “Contents.  Industrial Recyclers, unscripted.”

“Perfect.”  That’s exactly what Bach had hoped to hear.  “Let me script the indieware, please.”  

“Signature is for?”  Of course, something as highly regulated as these nano-machine posses had to be closely protected.  Any attempt at forced entry into the canister would see the contents destroyed in a brief bit of flash and bang.  The canister had to ask if he truly was authorized to get at, much less manipulate, the contents inside.

“Bach Alan Kavanagh,” he answered, and no sooner had he than his own personal eye-bending signature appeared in the air not far from the barrel’s seal, albeit in miniature.  He produced his fragment of the question, and the two combined again into that same sapphire bubble, proving he damn well was who he said he was.  

“Secured,” it answered in confirmation just before a hovering question mark appeared.  Now he could make his request.

“Thanks,” Bach replied, out of habit.  The barrel wouldn’t have cared either if he’d thanked it or not.  “Split content, oh, say eighty-twenty over two scripts.”

The canister replied its confirmation, “Ready.”

“Script one, given to lesser share.  Adhere to available surfaces of metal or biocrete and force water evaporation.”  Bach allowed a moment for the barrel’s AI to accept and confirm.  Then, “script two.  Sinusoidal distribution… um… two centimeter wavelength, please, with same amplitude.  Go ahead and recycle biocrete on negative values.”  That makes sense, right?  Bach decided it did, and hoped to god that it would take effect fast enough to do Khloe any good.

The canister then asked, “Time of life?”  Bach cursed himself for not having thought of that, leading the AI to chide him over his unrecognizable reply.  Such an important question, though, with potential gasses resulting from water fission being highly reactive fuel sources, improperly instructed industrial nanoware might perpetuate their instructions indefinitely!  Of course, these microscopic machines could not replicate themselves on their own, so the damage such a small posse could do would be miniscule, really.  Still, that was no reason not to instruct against it.

“Sorry.  Use only original fuel.  Take none from recycling.”  That would ensure they’d probably only run themselves through a few hundred thousand cycles of operation before dying from fuel starvation.  Twenty minutes, at most.  After that, they’d break apart and safely decay away according to their entirely biodegradable design.

“Ready,” the canister reported.  

With that taken care of, Bach pushed his husk up off its haunches and gave Khloe’s resting body another careful examination.  She looked bruised, sure, but her previous distress ping said she’d no serious injuries.  All he could think to do was to pick her up again.  He’d cradle her like an infant, if need be.

This would be precarious at best, but he saw no better option.  He had to be up and out of the fallen ruins before anything worse became of them.  Bach shuffled carefully down the pile of wet debris, nearly losing his husk’s balance once on the way down.  Still, he made the far end of the ruins and saw that, even here, the water level had declined noticeably.  

He addressed the canister again, “Unseal.”

“Unsealed,” it replied before it physically hissed, popping its top from its bottom, if only just about a centimeter or so.

“Dammit,” he cursed.  He couldn’t take it off with only one massive hand.  All he could think to do was drape the poor young woman over his husk’s shoulder, cliché as that mental image struck him in so doing.  Carefully as he could, he heaved Khloe over his shoulder.  At the very least, this husk’s pliable polymer skin would suit well as a pliable cushion.

Without further delay — and with Khloe dangling over his shoulder — Bach took the moment he needed with both hands free, and uncapped the canister.  Inside, illuminated by the light eminating from both sides of his husk's head, Bach saw that strange and perfect iridescent glitter which represented millions of tiny machines, if not more.  

Each and every one of the little buggers would bend themselves upon single minded tasks that, en masse, could produce wonders.  With a careful toss and twist of his husk’s hand, Bach sent the contents flying in a dusty waft right up the side of the water-slick floor that angled sharply up and away from where he stood.  Following that, all he could do was wait.

The first of his scripts had taken immediate effect.  Even as he watched, the glistening wall dried before his husk’s multiple and multi-sized eyes.  A barely visible steam wafted away, dispersing quickly.  Even drips of new water falling from above didn’t last long.

Though he could see the first signs of the second script’s intended effect, selectively eating away at biocrete proved to be something of a tedious task for so small a posse of indieware.  As if to further Bach’s impatience, a metallic groan echoed through the walls with such intensity that he felt its vibration even through his mental link with the husk.  The nauseating sway that followed had him cursing up a storm.

“Wuh?”

The unexpected voice brought Bach’s attention away from his overeager waiting for the slow-paced etchings appearing in the vertical floor.  “You awake, Lady Kalitzakis?”  

“Wuh?”

Guess that’s answer enough.  “Are you in pain?”  He asked this but, given the yellow hue of her distress ping earlier, he didn’t concern himself overmuch with her answer.  The occasional sway of the building had him much more worried.

“Awwgh,” she groaned at first, but quickly reclaimed her wits.  “Hit my head,” she said, following with her own litany of cursing. “Who’s that?”

“Bach.”

“Oh, sorry.  I’m stupid when my head hurts.  What’s going on?”  Even as she asked this, Bach felt more than saw her struggle to pull herself up and out of such an awkward position, draped across his shoulder as she was.

Now that she’d regained consciousness after all, Bach had to think about his plan again.  “I was preparing to sprint up this floor… wall… whatever.  With you.  Now that you’re awake, though, I wish I’d written the script to carve out square-edged handholds, instead.”  Bach pulled at the still struggling woman, and helped turn her around so that she could sit upright on his shoulder instead.  “So I guess this means I’ll still have to make a dash for it.”

She thanked him but, after a moment, she came back with a confused “what did you say?”   

Bach gestured toward the vertical flooring before them.  “Indieware dust all over that surface will make it easier for me to get up, traction-wise.  I’d recommend against touching it, though.  Might sting for a few minutes.”  He didn’t need to get into the details about how, for the next ten minutes or so, the nano-machines might go about forcibly dehydrating whatever amount of skin she pressed against them.  There’d not be enough to do any lasting harm, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be pleasant for her.

Bach felt Khloe tense and recoil. “Nanoware can do that?”

“What?  Obey intricate instructions?”  

“I… guess?”

“Sure can,” he gave in answer.

For a minute, she said nothing more.  Then she admitted, “I just thought the stuff recycled anything and everything dumped into it.”

“Sure,” he replied.  “Can do that, too, when told to.  It’s just as versatile as wetware, really, but for different purposes.”  He’d been watching, even as they spoke, and the look of the vertically-angled floor had Bach feeling just about ready to make an attempt at escape.  After all, he thought to himself, time ebbs preciously.  “I’m going to make a go of it.  If I come up short, be ready to jump from my arm or shoulder.  You might be able to clear the top… or catch it at least.  Ready?”

She nodded, and he leapt.