Previously: Starling takes an ill-advised hike. He stumbles into the house of an AI named Glimmer. They agree to combine their efforts for adventure and wealth.
The speaker dangled heavily from Starling's ear. "Nothing."
Glimmer sighed on all the room's speakers at once, a sound like wind in a forest. "We'll need one of the wired headsets, then. Next drawer down." The desk drawer popped open, and Starling peered at the contents. He took what he guessed was the least dusty headset to Glimmer's creche. "Take that flat end and put it on my left hemisphere, where I'm lighting up the - ooh!"
He stopped. Glimmer chuckled. "Kidding. There is good." The headset's lead adhered to her case like a magnet. He tugged it off and held it close, feeling it pull at his hand.
"Hmm?" The voice came from just behind his head, and he spun around.
"That's a trick with the speakers," she said from directly above. "I'll only be able to talk to you through the headset soon, so I thought I might as well use it while I could."
"Are you finished?" He put the speaker on. This one melded to the shape of his ear and skull until it barely felt like he was wearing anything.
"Yep." Glimmer's voice came clearly through the earpiece. "Let me eject from the Dolphin Cottage systems..." He heard nothing. "I'm out. Now gently lift me up..."
Glimmer's casing was wide enough he could hold it with both hands with his fingers nearly touching. He grunted as he took the weight. "My heart is very dense. That's how you can tell it's good hardware."
He laid her in his coat and wrapped it around her. The computer lab went dark, and it almost felt soothing to his eyes. "Would you explode if I dropped you?"
"Not if you shot me. I'm tough enough to last..."
"Oh. You really wouldn't believe me."
He held the bundle with one hand as he felt his way out. "How are you so sure there's humans around?"
"The building's seismograph's still functioning. I take the readings and send them to Grommet - he's the brain of the pharma lab across the street, a real sweetie and he processes them..."
"So there are more AIs buried around here?" He fumbled at another door.
"Just a few. Most ran out of power way back, but some had proper backup supplies. The ones in the basement of this building... Oof!"
He had dropped the bundle while tugging at another door. "I have accelerometers in here, you know."
"It's not as easy to open the doors now, you know. Sorry if I let you shine a little and ruin those furnishings no one's ever going to see."
"It's more than that," she said. "I can't... completely control the security system. Actually right now I can't at all."
"Security system? You mean an alarm?"
"Do they still work?"
"Do you want to find out?"
He gulped, and cautiously felt his way back toward the entrance, slowly winding through the silent passages, hand following his own hand's trail in the dust.
"This is where you found me," he said. He could hear a distant wind now.
"This is where I brought you," she said. "Smart carpet."
The fibers seemed to squirm under his feet. His skin crawled, and the mysteries of the buried penthouse seemed curses of a tomb. He groped for his boots and hurriedly put them on. The Master's pants flared around them.
"Follow the glass to the end of the room," she said. "I opened the roof in the garden a... while ago."
They stepped through a heavy strip curtain into a small room, waited for the plastic strips to settle, and stepped through another into a brilliantly lit room. Starling winced but held on to Glimmer's casing. "That's daylight, isn't it?"
"You'd better stay here and adjust to it. Those are natural eyes, aren't they? They're very nice augments if they're not."
Starling had never heard of augmented eyes. He wrapped the coat into a kind of sling, which he tied around one shoulder, with the wire for the headset running down his back. As his eyes adjusted he found that he was in a dirt-walled cave, with pieces of metal poking from the ground, and a grayish carpet under all of it. The wall next to the strip curtain had a drawer slid out from it, full of brightly colored marbles.
"You said we could trade these, right?" he asked. Each one had at least two colors swimming and sparking around each other inside, but they didn't seem to be precious stones.
"Right. Humans think they're pretty. You'll be able to get at least something from them, and then trade up. I'll help you negotiate."
He prickled. "Thanks." He stuffed his pockets with marbles and climbed into the passage. His pack had come off inside, and he tore through the empty food packets to find exactly two meals left. He ripped one open and devoured it without even hydrating it. Afterwards he felt more hungry.
"And you're sure these are humans? Not just human-sized deer?"
"Positive. Grommet doesn't make many conclusions but they're solid."
The light grew steadily as Starling clambered to the surface, a bundle of marbles wrapped in his pack. He stopped to rest in a desert similar to the one he had crossed but clearer, more lucid, until he looked up and gasped.
Half of the sky was filled with brilliant stars, cold fire in the night, while the west was lit up in warm orange, light pollution from some tremendous city over the horizon.
"What is it? What is it?"
He described the scene to Glimmer. "I have no idea," she said. "It wasn't like this last time I was at the surface. Maybe some... atmosphere thing."
"How did they program you to be this imprecise?"
"I wasn't programmed, I was raised. Maybe the humans know. There are three of them making camp to the northwest... walk for a bit and I'll try to figure out how long."
He got to his feet and shifted his pack. "Wasn't there a camera down there? Could we have torn one off the wall?"
"We'll need tools." She sounded embarrassed. "One of the autolock subsystems hit a loop a long time ago. I can power it up but I can't open most of the important things."
The sun rose, and the light in the west shrank and intensified into a thin line of fire on the horizon. Dirt and sagebrush stretched to the hills. Starling reached the top of a hill to find a ghost town on the other side.
"Buildings. Fifteen, maybe twenty, all in bad repair. A dry river bed's cutting through it, more of a ravine on this side."
"Look for a building about three times the size of the computer lab," she said. "They were treating that space as a campsite."
He made for a big garage next to the ravine. The gravel crunched under his feet, the smell of dryness filled his mind, and he reached the garage by mid-morning.
It was well-lit from holes in the ceiling. A vehicle covered by a tarp was parked just inside, and Starling ducked around that, calling out.
"Hello? Is anyone..."
He glanced at movement to the side. A scrawny, ill-scrubbed man stood there, pistol in hand. Another man lifted the tarp and stepped out of the vehicle, a section of pipe in his hand. Across the garage a man in slightly cleaner clothes sat up from a picnic table and pulled a revolver.
"Shut up," he growled, his voice echoing against the breeze. "Drop your gear and empty your pockets." He leveled the revolver against Starling and advanced across the garage.