He doesn't know how long he's been wandering. Syncing with the system clock is useless; blocks of pico and nano and microseconds blur forward in great jerking leaps and then vanish altogether, only to return as glitching strings of characters little more than gibberish before winking out again. The dwindling part of him that's still aware enough to feel is terrified. He can't tell if it's time itself that's broken, or just him.

Sometimes the landscape itself seems to alter around him. The rough black rock of the Outlands shifts, takes on crystalline planes and facets, the black sky brightens to a graduated indigo. Light and color bleeding into the world from a crack in time's shattered shell, a memory he should not (must not) possess. He scans the skies, but there's no beam to guide him; only the Call, waxing and waning in slow cycles, drawing him on to...where?

Then he blinks, and it's gone. No light, no glimmering crystal canyons, just the dark, storm-wracked desert of the Outlands.

...Except it isn't all gone, not entirely. One tiny rill of light remains, sluicing down a geometric fissure in the black rock wall beside him and gathering in a small, shallow pool at its base. An energy spring, so tiny it's barely there, but real.

He drops to his knees beside it, retracting helmet and thrusting cupped hands into the glowing puddle. Black swirls cloud the water instantly from the residue of the Sea on his gloves, and the first mouthful is so bitter that he chokes and coughs most of it back out again. The virus cannot hurt him any more than he's already been hurt, though, and anyway there's nothing for it. If he doesn't drink, he'll die.

Finally he collapses against the rock, panting slightly as his overtaxed systems work to integrate the energy, near-flattened power levels rising and stalled subroutines clicking back on one by one. Enough to initiate self-repair functions, to keep goingfor just a little while longer.


He doesn't know.

He can see the circuitry on his fingers again, now that the black muck has been rinsed away. Blue. (Wrong) When had that happened?

He doesn't know.

He's still staring at them, silent and pensive, when the self-repair routines finally kick on and he slips into standby for the first time since he'd struck the surface of the Sea unknown lifetimes ago.

He wakes only once.

It's still dark, but the darkness is different now. Softer, somehow. Warmer. And he is no longer alone. Someone is lying against him, pressed close in the dark, slow, rhythmic breathing against his back.

Not Clu. Whoever it is is too small, too soft themselves to be Clu.

He shifts slowly, turning onto his side and trying to focus his vision through the gloom to see his unfamiliar companion, but he can make out nothing, only a dim glow from a nearby window.

A slow indrawn breath, and the figure beside him stirs. A sleepy female voice mumbles "Go back to sleep."

He wonders how he could ever have thought her unfamiliar.

He doesn't answer her, simply shifts another half-turn until she's lying in his arms instead of against his back and side, and does as he's told.