Wet and glistening, Cahn Dal’s head slurped out of the gelatin sac.
Shrinking away from her freezing body, the sac formed into a Ball and rolled from her bare skin. It hit the cobblestones with a damp squelch.
Cahn practised breathing. The hard discomfort of the cobblestones pressed into her face, breasts, abdomen, thighs. Her eyelids struggled against the accumulated sludge coating her lashes and then finally opened onto the darkness of the alley. “When am I?”
A cool, polite, loud voice penetrated the dark. “We have arrived in the year 2456 CE—”
Stupid machine. Unknown animals scrambled, yowling, over the nearby alley wall, metal clattering to the cobblestones in their wake. Screeching voices soon followed. “Great, tell the whole world.”
With a sigh, Cahn collapsed against the moss-covered wall and wiped the milky filth from her face. Her hand flopped to the ground. The Ball rolled towards her, leaving a trail of glistening slime. “Dry out.” Within seconds, a hard, crystalline shell replaced the gelatin. “Thank you. Now, more quietly, where and when am I?”
“As I have already stated, the year is 2456 CE,” the Ball said. “I landed precisely one kilometre away from the desired point, which, for a Sphere of my service and one who is in constant,” the device stressed the word, “use, is remarkable in its accuracy. In fact—”
“Yes. Thank you.” Cahn stared down at her nakedness. “Clothes?”
“I would recommend them for this time period.”
“Why didn’t I get the replicator model? Something that could clothe and feed me.”
Cahn climbed to her feet. She’d impressed her tutors with how quickly she recovered from landing trauma. It was the only thing that had impressed them. “Then there’d be none of this stupid running about.” She slipped over the crumbling wall and dropped into the cluttered yard beyond. “Keep with me, Ball.”
The device muttered to itself.
She stared at the faded lights stretching up into the night. The stink of decay was thick in the air. Cahn winced as her bare foot sank into an unpleasantly soft pile of rotting refuse. “What is this place?”
The Ball hovered at her eye level, a soft light radiating from its core. “Housing Facility Three-Seven-Eight. Recommended occupancy: ninety. Current status: two hundred and fifty-two.”
“Nasty.” Cahn scratched at her short, wet hair, staring up at the squat block. “Locate me something to wear. Within easy reach this time. I am not scaling anything. And make it quick. I’m freezing.”
“Why was I Associated with you?” the Ball rasped. “Dull, rapid Operation. In. Out. In. Out—”
“I am standing naked in unknown territory. Have you found anything?”
“A refuse collector was murdered two days ago. They stripped the body. His oversuit is in the bin to your left.”
Cahn pressed the release on the bin. With a slow sigh and a gush of rank air, the lid dissolved. She winced at the stench of rotten food but reached in and pulled out the black, soiled suit.
“The filters are 56% effective.”
Cahn dragged on the cold substance, shivering as the synth-material clung to her
skin. “Now I’m wearing the clothes of a dead man. I hate the twenty-fifth century.” She fixed the collar of the suit as it constricted her throat, flexing her shoulder blades to settle the product over her body and activate redundant filter systems. Her toes curled against the tightness of the oversuit’s bond-soles. She was ready. “Right. Let’s go.”
“Your objective is located 1.01 kilometres north-north-west from this point.”
Cahn glared at the Ball as it hovered. “Lead the way, then.”
“There was none of this ineptitude with Alexander Roen,” it muttered as Cahn
followed the swift bobbing trail through the rat-infested alleys stretching out around the Housing Complex. “He knew what he was doing. He did not insult his Associate. He—”
“—is a traitor,” Cahn finished. She grabbed the Ball and glared at it. “I’ve had this speech for two whole years—”
Cahn pressed herself into the dark shadow of the wall. “Evasive mode,” she hissed at the glowing Ball. She calmed her pounding heart. Her brain was always the last to kick in after landing. The twenty-fifth century was a vicious place and she was being an idiot.