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see you in the city

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i.
Hey, Red. We’re not going to get away with this, are we?

The problem is, the Country never changes.

It’s idyllic, of course. The hazy, half-formed images that people in Cloudbank held of the Country couldn’t hold a candle to the place - her own images are woefully washed-out in comparison. It was supposed to be... the heart of their population. The place that they’d go, when they were done with the city life, a permanent retreat that isn’t shadowed by skyscrapers and Processes.

And it is. For all of a handful of days, during which she quickly loses track of how many days it’s been, the Country is all that she ever hoped was waiting for her. Only, the grass is always green and the sky is always blue and it’s starting to wear on her a little.

Blue, part of the Transistor for - well, only a few hours, but real time doesn’t mean much in here - shrugs when she asks him about it. “It’s the best we can do,” he says, not realising his slip back into being Transistor. “We were meant to stay in the cradle and be the Country for everyone, Red. It was designed to hold everybody. Not its fault it’s just us here and it’s got some processing to spare.”

“Just us?” she asks, and takes the cup of tea he forgot he was holding. It’s warm against her lips, but there’s only ever two flavours.

“I don’t know what happened to the others,” he admits. His shoulders sag, so she takes his hand and nudges his arm until they’re standing with their sides pressed together. He’s warmer than the tea, anyway. “Do you regret-”

“No,” she says, staunchly. And if there’s a lie in there - that wishes she was back in her apartment, paper scattered over her desk and Blue a comforting presence in the other room - it’s only half of one.

--

ii.
Take the second right. Do not turn left. And… thanks for the lift.

So the Country’s set on a repeating loop and there’s no process to change it. It doesn’t mean that they’re going to remain as static as their beautiful afterlife. She writes songs and sings them across fields of gently-wafting grass, relishing in the fact that she can do more than hum. He, left bereft of a world to protect her from, adapts to domesticity admirably.

He would have been a good father, she thinks. Later, when she was done being Cloudbank’s darling, and they could have raised a child in relative anonymity without the Camerata interfering. The thought of it sends a pang deep through her, and her hands come to rest on her stomach without an order from her brain.

It will never happen now, of course. The Country is static for a reason, and it will not support an iota more than it was created to. Still, she misses the world changing as she changed. Now she has violence in her hands and Blue has knowledge in his eyes, and all they have to show for it is a place that they will never, ever be able to affect the way they used to.

It’s probably vain of her, to think that the sky will never be the precise colour of her hair again.

“Come on,” Blue says, one day that is like every other day, and takes her hand. He hasn’t tired of that yet, being able to touch her and feel flesh and bone from both of them. He leads her, unerringly, to the very spot she first landed in her, and stops.

She shifts her weight from one foot to the other, and weakly jokes, “Got a surprise for me?”

“You always had a plan, Red,” he says, and cups her cheek. His hand is rough, and his touch is full of reasons to be happy here, to be content. “You’re so lost without one.”

She tilts her chin up, an invitation and a challenge.

He leans in, and she closes her eyes, weak in the knees even after all they’ve been through - but he stops, a hairsbreadth away, and whispers against her lips, “I can send you back,” before closing the gap.

She has to fist her hands in his jacket to keep her feet.

--

iii.
Look, whatever you’re thinking, do me a favour. Don’t let me go.

They don’t talk about it. Or, rather, they don’t waste time talking about it. Their Country cottage has a master bedroom with a bed that seems larger than her apartment, and they’ve put it to good use in the time they’ve had. Now, they have golden light filtered through curtains and fresh air that smells like baked grass. She wraps her arms around him, presses her face into his neck where any tears can be hidden, and guiltily lets herself savour the feel of having him with her, head to toe, for the last time.

I can send you back, he’d said, not We can go back.

He falls asleep with an arm draped over her, the blankets haphazard over the both of them, and she watches the ceiling as her brain ticks over. Getting in here was - not easy, but she knew what she was doing. Find the Camerata. End things. She’s not a thinker, like Blue. She doesn’t plan for contingencies. She takes the path to what she wants and slams through anything in her way.

She wants Blue. She wants Cloudbank.

She can’t have both, even if she tears the universe apart again.

--

iv.
When I first saw you up on that stage up there, it was like…

Blue’s eyes are shot through with streaks of Transistor cyan when he wakes up, although the way he smiles at her hasn’t changed. She smiles back, even though it breaks her heart.

“So, we need to talk,” he says, and she punches him in the shoulder for his terrible sense of levity. “Breakfast first, I take it,” he says, and levers himself off the bed that’s too big for the two of them.

“I love you,” she says, when he’s made it to the door.

“I know,” he says, and doesn’t turn around. His hands ball into loose fists at his side, before he relaxes them with a deep breath. “I picked it up somewhere along the way. I never wanted you to do this for me, Red. Not...”

He shakes his head and walks away to the kitchen. She lets him go before making her way out from under the covers and settling an old, golden dress over her shoulders. She rips most of the skirt off above the knee, too.

He shakes his head again when he sees her, but slides her a cup of tea and, to her surprise, wraps his jacket around her shoulders to complete the outfit. When his back is turned, she buries her nose in it and inhales.

She may have made her choice to leave, and he may have encouraged her to go. But that doesn’t mean that they’ll ever be apart.

--

v.
Where are you? Where are you? Where are you…

“You’ll have to make it out of the Transistor,” he tells her, head craned back to look at the sky. The colour of it matches the traces of cyan in his eyes, and she pulls his jacket a little tighter around her at the realisation. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like in there.”

She tilts her head, watching him instead of whatever it is he sees in the sky. “I’m not meant to make it out, am I?”

“No,” he says. “The Transistor will think you’re a routine gone wrong. It’s not going to be friendly.” He places his hands on her shoulders, heavy and reassuring. “But routines don’t have me.”

She places her hands over his and just looks at him, steady now that she has a path. “I love you,” she says again, since it will have to last an eternity. Until she’s ready for the Country, anyway. “Stay with me.”

“As long as you’ll lug me around,” he says, and leans forward until their foreheads touch. She closes her eyes and lets out a silent breath, capturing this memory to keep with her. “Easy on the contacts this time, huh?”

She laughs a little, jolted into it, and the Country disappears.

Cloudbank melts into being around her, although it’s... off. Like the Process has optimised it. She climbs to her feet and the Transistor clatters out of her lap onto concrete that she has no wish to ever see again.

Still, it’s nice to have something familiar.

She picks up Transistor - the idea of a Transistor inside Transistor all too like being stuck in Royce’s arena, although she supposes she’s taking a different path - and says, with forced cheer, “An unmarked alley, east of the bay. Think I know where we are.”

She’s inordinately relieved to hear the sound of her own voice. So relieved, in fact, that she doesn’t realise Transistor hasn’t replied until she goes to take a step and get started on the path, again.

“Transistor?” she says. “Blue?”

Transistor flashes.

“You can’t speak.” Her knuckles tighten on the hilt. A girl without a voice, a gent without a body. She needs to stay calm. “Is it because Transistor’s trying to keep me in?”

Transistor flashes again. She assumes it means yes.

“Will you be able to speak on the outside?”

Another flash.

“Right.” She hefts the sword up and balances it over her shoulder, the blunt edge digging in painfully. Only the very best of unscraped contacts for her beloved, this time. “I’m going to go find the thing that’s doing this, and I’m going to break its heart.”

The flash that comes this time lasts a shade longer. She squeezes the hilt reassuringly and sets off.

--

vi.
You’ll be back someday.

The Transistor’s automated routines look a lot like the Process. At least, this time, she has all of her borrowed skills.

She doesn’t know what to make of the glowing blue cube floating where she found Lillian’s body.

“Blue?” she says.

Transistor pulses softly. With a grunt - because she figures she can’t make anything worse - she swings the sword off her shoulder and plunges it into the heart of the cube. A glowing mist seeps out of the cube, coalescing into the shape of Lillian Platt.

“Ah,” says the ghost Lillian. “Didn’t you learn from the Camerata?”

Red lets go of Transistor, leaving it in Lillian’s cube. “The Camerata learned from me. Now we’re fixing their mess. Could use an OVC expert.”

Lillian hesitates, but then shakes her head. “I don’t imagine we’re all evacuating the countryside.” She looks over her shoulder, to nothing. “Darzi and I are well enough. And you’ll require some routines on your side if you’re to get through.” She reaches out a ghostly hand to Transistor’s eye, and the glowing mist that makes up Lillian Platt disappears into the sword.

Transistor’s light fades in and out slowly, a comforting pulse. Red picks him up again and continues on, albeit with less determination than before.

Preston Moyle is happy to see her, although she thinks Preston Moyle would be happy to see anyone. The first thing he does when he sees her is clasp her face in ghostly hands and say, “What a ride, superstar!” He throws his hands in the air extravagantly as he pulls away. “Flying on wings of Process! I could not have dreamed better!”

“It’s unlikely to happen again,” she says, a laugh hiding in her voice.

“I would not be so sure.” He eyes her, shrewd. “And I will come with you, yes?”

Red hesitates. “I wouldn’t have thought that the Country was your speed, Mister Moyle.”

He waves a hand. “The Country, no. The Transistor, I think you will do very interesting things with. And how will you manage without me?”

Red is confronted by the thought of a battle without Jaunt(). It is not a pleasant thought.

Preston lays a hand over hers on Transistor’s hilt. “Think of me, sometimes, and take some risks, superstar. It’s not a life without it,” he says, and follows Lillian’s example.

Transistor pulses again. Red picks him up and wipes her eyes with Blue’s jacket. “People, right, Blue?” she says to her captive audience, and Jaunts to make sure that everything’s in order. “Let’s go take some risks.”

She fights her way through more of the Process, finds the bike, wedges Transistor into place, and takes off down the highway with Lillian, Preston, and Blue at her side.

She turns left, of course. Her stage beckons.

--

vii.
We sincerely regret any inconvenience our actions may have caused you.

She was never one for stage fright. It’s a different situation when she’s walking up the catwalk and can see Sybil’s body lying there, waiting for her to approach. She’s not sure she wants to.

Transistor cycles smoothly between light and dark, Blue picking up on her nerves. She’s not so worried about not being able to talk to him, but she wishes that he could talk to her. Despite everything so far, it feels like she’s facing this alone.

Sybil had almost been a friend. That’s what makes her plunge the sword down into Sybil’s body, although she almost changes her mind and yanks it out again in the time it takes for Sybil’s essence to coalesce.

“Red,” she says, after a long moment.

“Sybil,” Red says.

There’s a long silence. Too long, but then Sybil raises her palms in a gesture of apology. “I did it for you, Red.”

Something in Red - the something that has seen her city crumble, her lover killed, and has only had the justice of death - snaps. “You did it for you! You took my life - you took my voice! You planned it all for a single moment with me that you never got! Are you happy now?”

Sybil turns her head and shudders. It’s hard to tell, given that she’s made of light and mist, but Red thinks a tear trickles down her cheek. “And I helped you,” she says, her teeth clenched to hold back any wayward emotion. “To atone. I didn’t have to.”

Red sighs. When push comes to shove, all she feels for the Camerata bar Royce is sorrow. They didn’t understand what they were toying with. Red doesn’t, either, but at least she has Blue’s guidance. And Luna was helpful. “Are you going in the sword, or leaving us?”

“There’s another option,” Sybil says, and Red jerks in surprise. Sybil reaches her see-through hands out and lays them on Red’s collarbones. Red does her best not to flinch. “Take me with you. Get me out of here. Transistor can remake the world, it can remake me, and I - I don’t want to be in the Country, I have so much more to do-

Red steps back, letting Sybil’s hands drop. “Blue?”

Transistor flashes three times. One for yes, two for no, and three for, ‘Hey, you turned left.’ It’s up to her.

It’s not fair, that Sybil chooses to come back and that Lillian and Preston don’t, and that Blue can’t. But then, thinking of Cloudbank, Sybil’s probably as big a force as anyone in keeping it running, and she’s just a good voice and a way with words. It’s still not fair.

“No more Camerata,” Red says, finally.

Sybil places a hand over her heart. “No more Camerata.”

Red gestures, helplessly. “Do what you have to.”

Sybil’s ghostly figure leans forward and pecks Red on the lips, almost chastely despite everything. She gets the sensation of something pouring into her, settling just below her breastbone and leaving her lips and throat numb, then her vision clears and Sybil is gone.

Not gone, a foreign voice whispers in her head. Just waiting.

Transistor buzzes, alarmed.

“I got it,” Red says, and picks up her sword. Her voice doesn’t sound any different to her ears. “I got it, Blue, I’m okay. We’ve got a boat to steal.”

He flickers once, worried, then settles. She goes to steal a boat.

--

viii.
Here’s your voice back.

Her apartment seems perverse in this slightly-off Cloudbank that exists inside the Transistor. She doesn’t stay long. It’s not the same without a box from Junction Jan’s on the table, anyway.

The Spine makes an appearance. Of course it does. It’s not as alarming, without Blue’s feverish rambling, but Transistor still turns red. She carries it carefully and bolsters herself with the knowledge that she’s torn the Spine’s heart to shreds before, and she’d break a hundred thousand hearts to save Blue again.

Don’t worry, says Sybil. It’s not entirely comforting.

She climbs the stairs - “You know what I hate more than stairs?” she pants, and Transistor flashes weakly in acknowledgement - and rides the gondola to the roof, and right on cue the Spine roars at her.

She tries to Jaunt behind cover, and can’t.

Sing! Sybil hisses, just as panic starts to set in.

Before she realises what she’s doing, she does.

It’s not the best she’s ever done. Her voice is shaky, she can’t quite get enough air through the panic, and of all things she had to choose, she chose The Spine. But even though it’s not quite worthy of the Empty Set, her voice warms up and she can feel something in her words, something lilting and lullaby-esque that she thinks might be Sybil.

Slowly, the Spine’s head droops, and hidden hinges relax to let an invisible jaw droop open.

In! Sybil says, but Red is already moving, Transistor hugged to her chest as she ducks inside the massive maw. It’s not the best decision she’s ever made, but she’s not exactly known for good decisions. She picks her way to the heart of the Spine and stops when she reaches it, only to pick up the song again when she hears a warning rumble at her halt.

The Spine’s heart is broken.

Keep singing! Sybil urges, and grace suffuses her.

She always thought there had to be more to being a SuperUser than Kill(). Friend, Red thinks, and sings to the heart of the Spine, pressing her hands against its torn halves. It knits together in front of her eyes and she backs her way back out, still singing softly and trailing a hand along the wall of its flesh.

Its city was being killed. No wonder it had been so angry. She can sympathise.

It’s tough, ducking out, but once she’s out, she turns and sings the final verse to the Spine as softly as her voice can go. Its heart is the heart of the city, in so many ways. She can’t blame it for being so unreasoningly angry at Transistor, and maybe she can convince it to trust her now that she’s mended its heart.

She lets her voice peter out, and waits.

The Spine grumbles, a terrifying sound, but after a long moment it nudges her with its head, almost toppling her over. Transistor’s red glow fades to its usual blue. All is forgiven, it seems.

“Sorry,” she says to the Spine, and places a hand briefly on its head. “Gotta keep on going.”

She has to run the gauntlet again to get into Asher and Grant’s hideout, although this time she doesn’t get the enigmatic memos. As she expected, two cubes are floating over their bodies, and she thunks Transistor down to lean on as she thinks.

It was Royce who was the worst, Sybil supplies. Asher just wanted to learn. Grant was disillusioned, but it was Royce who gave him ambition.

“A perfect storm,” Red says, and props her chin up on her hand as she considers. Transistor flashes in confusion. “What do you think, Blue? Will the city need them?”

There’s a long pause, then Transistor flashes once. Grimly, Red hauls the sword up and plunges it into Grant’s cube first.

--

ix.
Here is your body.

Grant didn’t want to join them, at first. Red is stubborn, though, and a borrowed line from Sybil about atonement convinces him to come back to Cloudbank. Asher just wants to follow his husband after that, and now Red’s voice bubbles with potency that she’s afraid to unleash.

Needs must, though. She crosses to their balcony and then stops, because the Process in here isn’t the sort of Process that will listen to Transistor.

Do it, Asher says, and she takes a deep breath before humming a short refrain.

The Process doesn’t answer.

The Spine does.

She crawls onto his neck and carefully balances Transistor in front of her, before leaning down to - does the Spine have an ear? -say, “Fairview Bridge, please.”

The Spine lifts into the air, despite every piece of common sense that says it shouldn’t, and winds its way to the southeast edge of Goldwalk Bay. Red spreads her arms so the wind tugs at her fingers and hopes that Preston is getting a kick out of this.

The Spine dumps her at where Fairview Bridge is going to be built, and she slides off right in front of the OVC terminal, doing her best to not look at the spot where she and Blue died. Doubt does no good, at this point. She’s almost there.

I’m sorry, Grant says, in her head.

“There are better ways to change things,” Red says, and summons the bridge.

A voice for the people, Grant agrees. Attempting to control you was a mistake.

“Sure was,” Red agrees, and steps onto the bridge. “But you should be apologising to Blue, since you murdered him.”

I’m not sure when we went too far, Grant says. When we took the Transistor or when we fed it to give us control. I won’t say that I wouldn’t have someone killed for Cloudbank, but his termination was fruitless.

He means he’s sorry, Sybil says. In a smaller voice, somehow, she adds, I am too.

I didn’t have anything to do with your lover, Asher says, but I do wish he hadn’t been involved.

“The Camerata apologise,” she tells Transistor, resisting the urge to roll her eyes as she hikes her way to Royce’s lair. “The ones with us, anyway.”

Transistor flashes. It’ll have to do for now.

The Process get tougher on the way, just like they did last time; she supposes Transistor’s subroutines are getting desperate to stop her. Still, this is nearly old hat to her now, and she clears a path with little trouble.

Every time she makes a jump, she curls Transistor lightly in her arms and closes her eyes.

--

x.
Have a nice day.

Royce’s lair lets her in. That’s the first surprise. The second surprise is that all the firewalls on his path are down. Even though this looks like Royce’s lair, it’s not, and the Transistor should be trying to stop her.

“The cradle?” she asks, and sets off without waiting for his answering flash. The firewalls rise behind her, cutting off her exit, and she holds Transistor at the ready as she walks the circular path.

Royce? Grant asks.

“He pulled us both into the Transistor,” Red says, and arrives at the cradle. “I left.”

Oh, is Grant’s only response. For all that Royce was bad news, she supposes he was, at least, someone’s friend. Well, he was always curious, Grant finally adds, and Red politely ignores the grief in his voice.

The cradle is as impressive as ever, and she halts in front of it just as she did last time, bringing Transistor up in an embrace. The Camerata in her head go quiet, giving her the dignity of the moment.

“I couldn’t say it last time,” she whispers to him, unaccountably afraid - that she won’t be able to turn back the Process again, that this time Blue will be stuck without a voice, that she made the wrong choice, “but no matter what happens, I love you too.”

She lets Transistor go and floats it to its place in the cradle, and everything goes white.

--

xi.
They say you can be anything you want in this town.

“Red!”

Everything is still white, but at least it’s the white blocks of the Process now. She climbs to her knees, ignoring the Camerata clamouring inside her head still, and casts about for the Transistor. Her fingers meet the hilt, and she clutches it with relief.

“Red, say something,” Transistor begs. “Are you alright?”

“Hey,” she says, then swallows the dryness of her throat away and tries again. “We made it.”

Transistor flares painfully bright in relief. “Took your time. So where do you want to fix up first? Junction Jan’s? It’s been a while since that slice of Sea Monster.”

“Just so you know, I ate that for you,” Red says, and pushes herself to her feet, using the Transistor as a crutch. “And the first thing I’m going to fix up is here.”

“Red, you can’t get me out-” Transistor says, in alarm, “we’ve been through this!”

“I know,” she says, and finally accepts it. “But I can give you a funeral.”

With knowledge of the Transistor she can’t quite comprehend, she calls up new bodies for the Camerata out of the Process and ejects them from her head, leaving her voice just her voice again. It’s enough. It’s always been enough.

“We all owe you thanks,” she says, and raises the sword. “They owe your ownership of Transistor witness. It’s not mine, it’s yours. Show them what you can do.” That said, she plunges the sword into the ground, where Blue’s body once was.

A wave of light ripples out from the Transistor. Red keeps her eyes open, tears streaming down her face. The surviving members of the Camerata shield their eyes as the wave whips past them and spreads over the city.

It restores everything. Everything. The small garden she and Blue died at, the buildings - she can see the effects rippling out to Highrise. The skyline comes back. It comes back right.

And best of all, she can hear the sound of people living in a city and doing their own thing coming from 16th.

“And I will see you again,” Red whispers to Transistor, falling to her knees in front of the sword and wrapping her arms around it. “I’ve just got a show to put on here, first.”

--

xii.
Now you’re here. And me. And that’s it.

She balances him against the railing, wrapping her jacket around him because she likes the idea of giving him a human trait every now and then. She’s warm, anyway. That done, she leans back in her chair and waits for their order.

“I figured I’d have a body next time, when I said I missed coming here,” Transistor says. “Nice view of the water, though.”

“You don’t regret-”

“No,” Transistor says, firm. “I meant what I said, that it wasn’t me any more. I’ve been in here too long to come out, Red.” His voice softens, the electronic rasp nearly warm. “I just miss you.”

“Me too,” Red says, and pulls her expression into a watery smile before it can collapse. They’ve both had their moments, but Transistor has the distinct advantage of not having tear ducts. “We’re doing good, though.”

And they are. Mostly it’s restoring Grant to administrative power. Now that he doesn’t have Transistor, the only way to perfect Cloudbank is to sway its citizens the old-fashioned way, and he and Sybil have been putting the QVC system to good use and marshalling the now-harmless Process. She can sense Asher’s hand in some of the more persuasive writing, but the younger Kendrell seems content to leave Cloudbank to the experts.

Red sings, mostly. After handing Transistor back into its own keeping, she has no voice in the city other than the one she makes for herself. It’s hardly nothing, but neither is it the power to remake the world. Just enough, maybe, to remake a mind.

And if, sometimes, the Process accidentally deliver some of her favourite notebooks and pens to her doorstep with no return address, or the Junction Jan’s terminal glitches and gives her another free promotional slice of Sea Monster, well.

She figures she’s put in the legwork on getting the city to like her.