OUT OF JOINT
A/N: For Scarab Dynasty, slightly after her birthday. Happy nineteenth, Scarab.
Note: Contains some swearing. One-shot concept posted in three parts for greater convenience.
Dust surrounded him, thick particles filling his nose and mouth as he breathed heavy warm air. His eyelids felt like they were made of lead, dust settling on them as well, sealing them closed. His body, too, was too heavy to lift, and inside his head he knew he could do nothing.
But what was there to do? The question struck something in him, a match against a dark fence-post failing to light. There seemed nothing for him to do that was more important than lie here, nothing more than to continue allowing the dust to devour him. He was…but what was he? He was nothing, with no indication in his mind as to where he was or what he was, or who he was at all.
Was there a word for this forgetting, this lack of memory? His thoughts moved as sluggishly as the dust-filled air on his face. He had been, he was, he was here, here was… Here was where he came to a blank, and recalled nothing of where he was supposed to be, even if such a place existed.
He should open his eyes, he began to decide—it felt like years, and perhaps was; his thoughts seemed to move at the pace of dried milk. It did not feel like a motion he had practised for some time, and he blinked, trying to let the dust flow from his eyes and allow him to see…
…grey. That was the name of the colour around him, he knew, although how remained an unsolved question. Grey rock above him, lit by a small light coming through an equally small hole in the wall to his left. Grey rock next to him, forming the walls bar for one bright spot. He heard, then, through clogged ears a rattling noise, and then with his eyes noticed a few pebbles flowing past the hole. Grey rock, probably, below him, of material similar to the rolling pebbles and the remainder of the cave.
His arms would have to be the next to move. He began to tense them, slowly, as though they were made of the sinews of mountains; and they moved like that, slowly and ponderously, waking from the earth below them.
He had large hands, he thought, spreading his fingers on top of the rock beneath and feeling how heavy they weighed on him. A giant's body, perilous and cumbersome to move, but the will behind it seemed to match, and his own determination shocked him.
The muscles tensed, pained, moved; he levered himself up with his hands, to look down at his legs resting on the ground. He saw more grey; he was clad in some sort of armour of that shade, or perhaps it was a carapace, patterns of sinew and ligament and vein drawing themselves on it like strands of seaweed moving together. Large, he thought again, not having any frame of reference with which to judge, but thinking of moving that huge frame of its own accord.
It was almost easier to get his legs moving, following the arms, though he did not think of that earlier success as an encouragement, but rather as one small step in his greater goal. When he finally stood on two feet, shakily balancing on a rough stone floor, it was not an occasion for jubilation; such thoughts were as alien to him as his identity.
He felt a coldness coming from his back, surprising in the dry warm air that surrounded him. In three precarious steps he put one of those hands to rest on the wall; it had a gnarled appearance, thick-jointed and dark-fingernailed, a hand that could destroy but would have difficulty in rebuilding. He closed his eyes to regain what strength he could; when that was finally done, he concentrated on forcing the coldness from him.
It was easy to feel the dust now, not just on his face but by another way of perception, finer made and more ready to sense than the pressing weight of the remainder of his covered form; it was springing free after a long imprisonment, he gradually came to think, ready to be stretched and prepared.
He brought it to his face; more grey, a darker shade and almost greenish in the dark, banded about like the tendril of a thick plant or perhaps a tree trunk laid sideways. Three more flowed around to join it, their movements slow but sure as they woke from their long dreaming, ready to go forth in his name and make ways ready. They were warming, taking the heat from the air and reanimating, preparing themselves.
A small hole had already been made in the cave wall. Perhaps it had been what had first woken him up, the slight light after many years of slumber transforming both the darkness and the sleeper. He knew for certain that it was the way towards his liberty, and that was the purpose of the cold things.
One of them made its way forward, delicately questing at the edges of the small hole as he felt every crevice; there were animal sounds above, he heard, and perhaps that was what had created the hole in the first place by a chance rockslide. More pebbles skittered down, and he felt them bounce off; he identified the sensation, though he could feel no pain. Then another joined the first, positioning itself also at the hole, going to the left as the other took the right, shaping themselves around the rock's sharp curves and preparing to pull.
He took a step backwards, whether by instinct or by choice he could not know, and watched as they ripped the rock apart to leave a doorway large enough for him to exit by. He was not shocked; it was another necessary part of his goal that he had now achieved. Accepting the four tentacles, he drew them back into his body as he made his way out into the sunshine for the first time since he had slept.
And he collapsed on the dust and pebbles, strong legs no longer supporting him, bright light blinding him, and did not move from there until the golden light had died and been reborn six times, and a layer of dust had formed on him as though he was just another rock.
He could hear a chugging noise which his brain identified as the sound of a machine, too loud in this quiet dusty place, and accompanied by bumps and bangs he suspected were doing the machine little good.
"Hey!" he heard a voice crying. Was it directed to him? There was no reason why it should be, surely; he recalled no friends or acquaintances. "You there!" The engine powered down. "Jeeze, Chrys, is he dead?"
He slowly raised his head on muscles which felt like they had grown stronger since his awakening to stare at the heads leaning out of the windows of their vehicle.
"…Shit," one of them said. "Stay back!"
He was too slow to dodge the something hard that hit him on the face, simply watching in surprise.
"Fuck, where's the gun?"
"Just drive! Some of 'em don't feel bullets!"
Another hard thing hit him; he flicked out a tentacle to catch it this time. It was a bottle, sharp-edged and just heavy enough to do some damage if correctly wielded.
"Go! Look at it, drive!"
The engine started again as he stared at the vehicle and its inhabitants in some bemusement; he could have attempted to stop them, but he did not see the point. Why had they reacted so to seeing his face? He reached a hand up to see if he could detect any abnormality in his features; he found two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and that some areas of his skin felt of a slightly different texture than others, nothing different to what the inhabitants of the car possessed in feature. On the top of his head, he felt that unlike the people in the car he was bald; perhaps that was the taboo? He filed the information away as a problem he would have to solve later.
The vehicle had been passing along the dark grey path in front of him on a surface adapted for it; it would almost certainly be going towards what passed for civilisation in this place. Perhaps others at the vehicle's destination would also loathe the sight of him, but he had no other plans.
He stood slowly, and tensed the muscles in his legs to prepare for the journey ahead.
No more vehicles travelled past him for hours as he followed the road, choosing the infrequent turnings at random, the signs meaningless to him and some of them rusted and fallen. Some of the land beside him appeared to have been burned, some time ago; he was not sure by what.
Finally, in the distance he could see a building at the side of the road; he considered the need for refreshment, and then realised that he had no need of it as yet. He was careful, though, to walk towards it with his hands raised in a gesture that suggested no harm would come to any of the inhabitants, preparing himself for the chance that they might react in a similar fashion to the vehicle's passengers. There were more burned areas on the side of the road, the black ground scoured of plant or animal life; he did not think they made him as uneasy as they ought.
He heard no cries as he approached the building; there was no doubt that his large form would have been seen at a long distance away in such flat country, but he noticed no signs, whether good or bad, that his presence had been so much as noticed. As he drew closer, he noticed that the building was not clean, and had not been for a very long time; like the areas around it, it had been burned at some point in the past, and had not been repaired. It was not inhabited after all, he realised, seeing its damage more closely; he would have been surprised if anyone had so much as walked inside within the past five years.
Outside it stood several pump systems, also damaged, though he saw faint tyre tracks left in the dirt around them, the right size for the vehicle that he had seen, and a few of the pumps appeared to have been recently displaced. Perhaps the pumps had once been used for some sort of fuel for vehicles; the area was certainly the right size for a refuelling station.
He entered the building, more out of curiosity than anything else, leaving large footprints in the dust and debris overlaying the floor. There were a lot of large shelves, long overturned without contents, a large counter with the top of it ripped off, and behind that a small door leading to another room.
Similarly to the main room, the small one was also cleared of most property, though in a corner buried under a broken cupboard there was some sort of old garment. He examined it; the material had not decayed much over the years despite its smell and the dirt that covered it. It was a coat too small for his form, but a practical use for it would be to cover his head, in case that had indeed been what had frightened the people in the vehicle. There was other debris, too, the remains of a fire, a few old cans, and even a coin, but other than that he found nothing that he required. He found a second small room, this one on the other side of the structure, but it stunk badly and he did not spend long there.
Uninhabited, this building; he wondered what catastrophe had caused the devastation of this and the surrounding areas, and continued on his way down the road. Perhaps the next humans he encountered would be able to inform him about the building and its fate.
The sun rose higher and higher in the sky, and the heat and light would have been overpowering but for the material shadowing his face. The dark, textured ground would have been hot too, but the hard skin of his bare feet seemed to protect him. Would other people be the same? He had not seen the feet of the humans in the vehicle, but their pale skin had looked too fragile to withstand this long labour of travel. He filed it away as another factor he would have to think about, later.
As the sun finally dipped towards a distant darkness, he saw another building set to the roadside's edge, far in front of him. It looked shabby, coloured a dark grey dappled with lighter spots of decay, with small bowed structures set to the front of it, but human clothing hung limply behind it, and there was smoke coming from its roof. It would be his goal, he determined; perhaps the humans in there would be more informative.
He approached, not bothering with caution; in the arid landscape there was little possibility of hiding, and his body was resilient enough to take any hostility. He had no need to fear.
A loud noise broke the heat-drenched silence as he felt something rush over his head.
"Stop right there and stick 'em up!" a voice growled.
He stopped walking; in this strange world, he might as well play along to its dictates until they began to harm him.
"I said, stick 'em up!" the voice repeated.
Stick what up? His question was answered by a further statement.
"Put your hands where I can see them and wait while I come up to you. One warning shot is all Sam Hearney gives."
He obeyed the instruction; whatever the 'warning shot' had been, the velocity suggested by the air movement probably meant that it could do him some damage, though he doubted it would destroy him.
The person presumably called Sam Hearney advanced towards him, carrying a long, black instrument; a look of shock spread over his face as he came close enough to see his features. "Okay. Give me one reason why I shouldn't blast you to Kingdom Come—or wherever you people go."
He shook his head; he couldn't think of any good reason why this stranger shouldn't destroy him. He was nothing but a memoryless creature with no past or future; Sam Hearney was no friend or family to him. There was nothing he could offer to persuade the man against destroying him. "I…do not crave destruction," he said after a while, feeling the pressure of the man's eyes watching him and the black instrument trained in his direction. That might change once he had his memories back—who knew what he might crave then?—but for now he only wished for knowledge.
"Ya sure?" The black instrument didn't lower. "I saw enough of what you freaks did in the war. Can't trust any of you."
"What war?" he asked. It was a logical enough explanation for the damage he had seen around him, and if people like himself—the phrase gave him a thrill, people like himself existed even if Sam Hearney called them 'freaks'—had fought in it that would explain the hostility towards him.
The man gave an exasperated sigh. "The war. You know it. When you freaks appeared from who-knew-where and started attacking everything in sight. Started close on twenty years ago now, and nothing repaired ten years after the last big battle hearabouts."
"I have no memory of it." The truth sounded inadequate, and he did not blame Sam Hearney for the look of scepticism that was written across his face. "What happened after the last big battle?"
"You'd know. Ain't no freaks been appearing for long years."
"If I knew and I wished to attack everything in sight," he said slowly, "would I try to say I remembered nothing, which I do not?"
The man snorted. "Double bluff. Triple bluff. Whatever." He looked slightly more thoughtful for an instant. "I guess I never saw any of you trying the stealth approach, you weren't smart enough for that. But you look big enough to pack a punch or two, and we don't like taking risks these days."
"I do not intend to harm you," he said quickly; he could simply whip out a tentacle and take the man's weapon from his hand if he had to. He calculated the distance and the effort in an instant, knowing that he would win a fight if Sam Hearney started one, knowing that he was fast and strong and unable to be defeated. But he did not make his move; the other man seemed to be waiting for something, and he did not want to mark his blank memory with blood shed for no reason.
"Samuel!" he heard a higher voice crying. He watched as a woman pushed her way out of the building and hurried down to stand next to the man. "What is this…this person doing here?"
"I'm asking him, Em. Now what's your problem?"
"And what are you doing here?" The woman jutted out her bony chin towards him, evidently giving him license to answer. "Destruction, murder and chaos?"
"I followed the road," he told her. "I don't remember any of the three in your list. Do you know who or what I am? That is what I wish to learn, not how easily one of these buildings burns."
"I know what. Don't care about the who," Sam Hearney said firmly.
"Stop it, Sam. He doesn't harm us, we don't harm him," Em told him, placing a hand on top of the instrument and lowering it to point downwards. "We've never turned away a stranger for fifty-five years if they did no harm, though if he does…" She brought a small black thing from the side of her pants, taking it out in a movement that facing the sunset light was almost too fast for him to notice. "I'll shoot him myself."
He had not moved during Em's small speech; they would not answer questions truthfully if they thought he was going to attack them, and their weapons would probably harm him.
"We still haven't seen anything like you for five years," Em said, still pointing her own weapon at him. "Where'd you come from, Mr Amnesiac?"
"I woke in a cave." The answer was almost nonsensical, he knew. Confiding the truth to these two made him feel uncomfortable, but he did not know what lies would be convincing in this world. "I have no memories of who and what I am."
The two exchanged glances. "Likely story," Sam said, spitting on the ground.
"We'll make you a deal," Em said. "You ain't done nothing to hurt us. There's a brain in your head even if you're as evil as the rest of them. You work—it looks like you've got a strong back, and Sam's been bad for the past year—and in return we talk. Any funny business and we shoot you to the place you call white hot oblivion."
What's white hot oblivion?
"Agreed," he said. He might have felt galled, he thought, to submit, but these people appeared shrewd enough, and he needed answers more than anything else.
"And once you've lifted the last of those out, we're going to need a hand to fix the wall," Sam told him, keeping a careful eye on him as he used his tentacles to almost effortlessly heft the large barrels from the storehouse. His strength seemed to have impressed the two humans; they had not left him alone for a moment since they had given him their orders and seen him easily do the tasks they had struggled at. It was no doubt one of the reasons by which he was marked out as different, and he desperately wanted them to finally fulfil their part of the bargain and enlighten him as to who and what he was.
He placed the barrels in a careful pile out the front where, Sam had mentioned, they would be sold to travellers.
"Did a red vehicle pass this way?" he asked as he made sure the barrels were securely piled up.
"Yah, two hours back. Gave us a hundred bucks for a full tank and ran off fast, like they were scared of something. Friends of yours?"
"They saw me and were afraid."
"What'd you do to them?"
When he did not reply, Sam pointed to the building. "We're fixing the wall to the west. You're gonna be helping me get the timbers into place."
There were several large planks piled on the ground, and a heavy curtain draped over a gap in the wall.
"We don't need it mostly," Em said. "It's hot enough in the daytime, and when Sam got his bad back we couldn't finish it off. I'll be cooking the supper while you boys work."
Sam picked up a hammer from a toolbox lying on the ground. "I'll be nailing them over the gap while you get them into place," he said. "Hold them steady."
He nodded; it was hardly a difficult task for such as himself, he thought, though as the splinters began to pierce through his tentacles he began to reconsider.
"Soup's up," he heard Em calling, and was glad of the impending relief.
"Three to go," Sam yelled back. "Keep it on the stove."
"Finish it later. Gas is short enough as is, and you've worked him enough for tonight."
"He's not like us," Sam protested, but put down his equipment anyway. "We'll finish this after Em and I have our supper," he said.
"He's having some too if he wants," Em said. "You eat food?"
He considered the question; he had not eaten since he had exited the cave, and had not noticed the lack. But he was pained and tired, and if he could get the stuff down it could only help him. "Yes," he said.
"Sam will show you where the pump is. Wash your hands and get a move on."
After the man had quickly cleansed his own hands, he followed suit, pulling down the handle and lathering up the rough cake of soap to clean himself of the dust that had collected on him. He dipped his tentacles under there, too, to try to soothe the splinters that had wormed their way into his flesh, but Sam stopped him with a curt 'can't afford to waste water these times'.
He sat down to a small bowl filled with an odd-looking brown substance; beside it was a scooping implement, from the actions of the humans to be used to convey the substance to one's mouth. He imitated the movements of Sam and Em, carefully curling his large hand around the delicate-appearing cutlery and bringing it to his mouth, where the heat of the food burned him. The humans appeared to have no such difficulty, breathing a small amount of air across the liquid before swallowing it, and he did the same, drawing in breath for the first time since he had woken.
"It's just onion and tinned cabbage and beef stock," Em said. "Our store trip isn't till next month."
He nodded politely, though the words she used did not remind him of anything he had known; and no wonder, if his people did not always eat food.
"Can you tell me about the people like me?" he asked after he had eaten a few mouthfuls of the food. The taste did not displease him, and it seemed to be making warm energy flow through him, becoming part of his body.
"What we know of them. You're not exactly chatty types," Sam said, pushing aside the bowl he had quickly emptied. "It all started twenty years ago. I was US Army then—" he seemed to sit up a little straighter, as though this was a great honour—"just posted back from Iraq when it all went crazy here. I was just thirty then—the war added twenty years on my life. Some said it was just evolution, though we never held with that…"
"And some say it was one of us, a scientist gone crazy, but hardly anyone likes to think a human'd do something like that," Em added. "Whatever it was, people like you started appearing out of nowhere. Had a flock of crazy bat-things all flying in our house and up our flue, as easy as you please, and my sister's flat got pulverized by a creature the size of a mountain, like Godzilla." She shook her head.
"I was posted to fight them, in our own country, not that they all stayed here. Shot anything nonhuman on sight, bagged hundreds of them with my Lee Enfield. But there were always more to come, and some of them didn't die so easy."
I wouldn't die easily. The thought struck him suddenly, a cold memory from a past life; he tried to snatch at the trail of memory, but it was already gone from him.
"What happened in the end?" he asked.
Sam shrugged. "Nobody ever knew, or if those bigwigs from the government did, they never told anyone. They just faded away, year by year, though nothing from our world ever managed to fade back. I reckon they just couldn't last long enough in this world. I came out here with Em once the battles were over. Like I said, it's been five years since I saw one of you, and that was just a single goldworm. Now it's your turn to tell your story."
"What is the difference between me and you? I have similar features." Two hands, two legs, eyes and nose and mouth; he had extra tentacles, but they stayed hidden most of the time.
"You're not real."
I am real, he thought, the statement filling him with outrage. I'm here, I'm strong, I must be real.
"You're cartoon real, I mean," Sam continued. "It's the skin. Not complicated enough, not pores and sweat and blood but smooth. Simplified. Look at it." He sighed in impatience. "And there's your tentacles, the outfit, and the fact you're near eight foot high. See it yet?"
He looked down at his hand resting on the table, its largeness dwarfing the bowl next to it, and compared it with the hands of Sam and Em. There was no question about it: the texture was different in a way he couldn't quite put into words, marking him as other.
"It's not that I lack hair, then." He cursed himself over the simple hypothesis that had been so easily proved wrong.
"Nope. But the tattoos are weird." Sam leaned back in his chair and lit a white cylinder, which he brought to his mouth and used to blow a puff of pungent-smelling smoke into the air.
"You going to tell us your story?" Em stood to pick up the bowls. "There were heroes way back, they said. Things that looked more like us, like you. They didn't kill humans and fought the other ones. They died quickly."
"I'm not dead." Had he been a hero, though? He couldn't remember. "I woke up in a cave not long ago and walked along the road. There is nothing more to the story. So not all of us hurt people?"
"Twenty years ago." Sam shook his head. "They're gone."
"I remember some of the stories they used to tell way back, like when the Lightning Lady stopped the Colorado disaster," Em added, briskly running the dishes under a trickle of water coming from the sink. "And the Lightning Man, though he might've been just a myth, Lightning Boy, and another guy they called the Virus. Any of them ring a bell?"
He thought, trying to let one of the names spark something inside his head—one of them could even be himself, he thought with excitement—but they remained mere words. "No," he said eventually. "I don't think so."
Sam and Em exchanged glances.
"Well," Em said. "You'd better get back to helping Sam fix the wall, and no funny business. You'll sleep in the shed, and there'll be more for you to do in the morning."
It was after several days of performing various tasks for Sam and Em and listening to their talk that he realised just how odd it was for something like him to be in the area, and how much more odd it was for humans like them to be offering him hospitality. The 'others like him' had mostly been beasts incapable of reasoning, and from his shape and actions he was not like that, but even so it was fortunate Sam had not seen him well enough to shoot him on sight. The heroes had looked more like him, he learned from Sam's descriptions of the battles he had lived through, but they had been rare and dead. It was good enough that Sam and Em were starting to think of him as less a dangerous creature and more a useful, peaceful sentient.
Heroes die, something inside his head whispered to him, but he ignored it. He wouldn't have to be as suicidal as a hero was supposedly meant to behave.
Sam and Em lived a secluded life, he learned, supplying fuel by hand to travelling vehicles in return for cash; every month, they used their own small vehicle to make a trip 'to town' in order to pick up supplies. In the old days, a lot of fuel had been stored underground here by Sam as soon as the war started, a forethought which had saved them much these days. It was an ugly area, part because of the war and part because it had always been a desert, and there was little opportunity for business, but what there was always paid well, and the humans got by. It was more than most living through the war had received.
The surrounding devastation almost impressed him with its thoroughness and power; whatever terrible creature had scorched the ground he had seen—Sam had talked about fire-breathers, giant dragons with sapphire wings and deadly breath, and phoenixes, born in flame and setting themselves and everything around them afire, as well as human weapons that had destroyed their own people along with their enemies—had been strong indeed. He himself was strong for a mortal, much stronger than Sam had been even in his prime, he thought, and his tentacles assisted him, but he did not feel that he was anything near something which could unleash that much destruction—or prevent it, he reminded himself.
Why had he woken up? Or possibly appeared, he realised; he could not be sure that he had always been lying in that cave. But he had been covered in dust; if he had appeared, it was not recently. If he was the precursor to a thousand new arrivals, nothing had been seen of them as yet. Sam and Em without fail played their radio in a nightly ritual in order to learn news of their country, and it was all rebuilding projects and human problems and governmental changes rather than anything that interested him. Perhaps he had been held in thrall by some design during the war and only now it had worn off, though he could not imagine any reason why he had not faded away with the others, because surely some of those like himself would have also slept. He could have walked back to the cave to take a closer look at it, just in case it held special information, but he could recall the images to his mind—it was strange that he had near-perfect recall of recent events, yet none at all of his older history—and there was nothing there more unusual than a decaying human road sign.
He worked, day after day, in the warm sun over the burned land, scarcely feeling exhaustion as he laboured for the humans who had taken him in, hiding himself whenever a lonely vehicle trundled its way up the road and into the filling station. He had nowhere else to go; and so time passed.
He was lifting cans with his tentacles, transferring fuel to the smaller containers that were easier for Sam and Em to use.
The vehicle which pulled up was no different from any other, creaking and rocking along the road followed by a plume of exhaust, this one painted a red that had once been bright. As always, he walked backwards into the shadow of the house to wait until they were gone.
"Fill her up and hurry, old man," he heard a voice from inside the car yell.
"It'll be seventy-five," Sam said. "And I'm gonna see the colour of your money first." His gravely voice sounded more like stone than usual in response to the rudeness.
There was a sound like spit landing on the ground. "Seventy-five? Fucking robbery."
"Go find another station," Sam said. "I'm not obliged to serve you here, and we don't like troublemakers hereabouts."
"I got a better deal. You give us the petrol and we don't shoot you, man, because we've got places to go."
"You put that gun down or I shoot!" he heard Em yell from her habitual place at the kitchen window. "Petrol's not worth your worthless hides."
"He gives it to us or we shoot your man," one of them said. "Else we're not gonna make it to Tombstone without supplies."
It was time for him to intervene; he could do this, he knew, though whether by instinct or memory was not clear.
"No. We are not giving anything to thugs like you, and if you know what's good for you, you will be off our property immediately." Em, sounding harried indeed.
"Kneecap the old man, Ben," someone in the car said, and it was then that he intervened.
He grabbed Sam with a tentacle, putting him behind himself and near the house; with another two, he reached inside the car itself and pushed it on its side. There were loud cracks and screaming sounding around him, and he felt something sharp almost penetrating his tentacles.
"What is that!"
"Shoot it! My god, shoot that thing, get the hell out of here!"
The thugs spilled out of the car, clambering out with their weapons held in their hands. Red bloomed out of one of their shoulders, and he realised Sam and Em were shooting too. Small things hit his carapace, but he barely felt the impacts as a strange, fierce sensation shot through him.
They shall not harm what is mine.
It was memory telling him what to do, he would have sworn, as he reached out with a tentacle, knocking three of them from their feet and crushing the fourth in his grip, feeling the energy surging from the man to him and leaving a red, crushed mass behind. He did the same for the second, and the third, as bullets kept flying into him, and when he came to the fourth the man had thrown away his empty gun and was kneeling on the ground, begging.
It was as though a red tornado had seized his brain; he grabbed the man as he had done to the rest, and stole his energy. There were no more shots in the air, and in the sudden quiet after the man's scream he started to return to himself.
He sensed a device unfamiliar to him, a glimmering component that felt brighter than the old radio; he reached down and plucked it from the fourth man's pocket without noticing the red stain on his tentacle. It was crushed by the battle, a small silver thing with wires hanging out. There was energy in this, too, and he drew it out; and as he drew it he saw everything in the land.
Not everything, he would realise later; just a small fraction of a network, in the dying spark of the mortal machine's final moments. But it opened up a new world to him, a vista of shining centres of power and a vast network that this thing could access, and he was left with a vision of more energy than he could use.
Superheroes, fighting, energy drain. The information rushed through his mind as he opened himself to the electricity, letting it course through him like human blood. Who he was could be hidden here, among these machines that held so much power in the way they all joined together, making him more than what he had been.
Killer bite, he thought, replaying the memories of the recent battle, kill a byte, and finally the single word Kilobyte.
And then it all blinked out, as the circuits of it fell apart in his tentacle, crumbling into dust without the power animating them any more.
He looked up to see Sam and Em staring at him; they had not lowered their guns. He ran a hand over his body absently, feeling small bumps that had impacted upon his armour; he used his fingernails to start prying one out. Evidently bullets didn't harm him.
"I think I realised who I was," he said. "The glowing network of energy. It's where I came from. I'm going to find the rest of it."
"You do that," Sam said slowly. "You just go do that."
He looked around himself, and saw the four shattered bodies on the ground. They had not been good humans, but he could sense the fear that Sam and Em might feel, that if he had done this to others he could do the same to them, and perhaps he would, if their energy was the only way he could recapture that feeling of knowing everything once again…
He shook his head at the dark thought.
"We'll be needing to get rid of these," Em said, nodding brusquely towards the still red heaps. "Get the shovel and bury them out the back. It's not like we haven't had to deal with bandits before. Sam, you get a bucket from the pump and wash off the ground."
He sensed a moment of tension between the two of them; Sam was reluctant to move, he could tell. He turned his back on them, and lifted the limp flesh in his reddened tentacles to get started on the task.
The shovel was easy to wield, cutting through the hard ground as though it was made of butter; he did not think about how the energy he had taken had enabled him to use this much strength.
"You saved us, and for that we're grateful," Em said at last, as he returned from the job to see a splatter of water covering where the bodies had fallen. "But you should go now. Get to know what you are."
She had said what, not who; perhaps that description was accurate enough. "My name is Kilobyte," he said.
"Take the car," Sam told him. "Tombstone's a hundred miles down the road. You'll find more electric stuff there, networks and that. Don't bother coming back."
He nodded. "I understand," he said, and cleaned his tentacles by passing them underneath the dry soil before turning to the thugs' car.