"Wakey wakey.  We're here Trace," a goofy smile spread from his lips as she opened her cybernetically amplified eyes.
     "Already?"
     "Uh huh.  Look familiar?"
     The setting was surreal.  Wooded land meshed defiantly against a backdrop of steel and glass.  Squirrels and butterflies fluttered throughout the tall grass.  Sparrows and larks sang cheerfully from the branches above.  A slim, stone path led upwards towards the illuminated peak of the Park's hill.
     "I don't remember the butterflies," noted Tracer, energy returning to her weakened body.
     "Well luv, some things do change."
     "Apparently.  But where is everyone else?"
     "The newbies come during the day Trace.  Man you really have been evading this place for a long time."
     "You know, I have no real plans on talking to the Columns while I'm here."  It was the last thing she wanted to put up with.
     "Don't be ridiculous, they know you're here.  You might as well see them."
     "Nah," she decided.  "I can just lie here till my systems recharge.  Then we'll go back into the 'real' world and look for my bike."
     "I need to use the Pool," declared Onyx flatly.  He paced through the untouched grass twirling a braid in his solemn fingers.  He was either nervous of the Column's response, or what she herself had to say.
     "And you're telling me this because?"
     "Because I'm gonna need your help."
     "My help?"
     "To convince them I should."
     "You don't need me for that," Tracer stated, quaintly sitting up to hear where this was all headed.  "What's up Onyx?  What's going on?"
     "It's the brown sugar."
     "Oh," she replied, still not exactly sure what he meant.
     "The Columns won't allow a marriage this way.  For them it's not natural."
     "Well technically it isn't."
     "But essentially... does it matter?"
     "No, no it doesn't.  And you don't think they... what am I saying???  Of course they won't allow a traditional ceremony this way."
     "So you see my problem."
     "Well not really.... who cares?  Just do it somewhere else.  Do it right here if you want.  While I'm recharging," she added happily.  She felt she'd discovered a way to avoid the Columns and occupy her cousin at the same time.  "It's not like you need an audience with brown sugar.  You'll be outta it for at least an hour while the mutations settle."
     "Yeah, well ya see, I'm well thinking that I want 'her' to jump levels."
     "Her?  Are you kidding?  They won't let Halogen take a dip in the Pool.  You think they'll let 'her'?"
     "Well she'll be a part of me, so I don't really see the problem."
     "Bullshit Onyx, you know there's a problem.  There's no way they'll let you go through with this."
     "WELL I HAVE TO FUCKEN TRY!!!"
     The cousins paused and contemplated the situation.  Tracer reclined into the grass, taking in its spikey touch and long-forgotten fragrance.  Onyx returned to his pacing, obviously distressed.
     "Sit-down Onyx."
     "What?"
     "Sit-down," she matted the grass beside her, motioning him to join her.  "Remember when we were new to the city?  We used to come here all the time.  Now I do anything to avoid it."
     "Yeah but look at why," he asserted, collecting his kilt and plopping to the ground.  "So much has changed.  We don't exactly identify with the place anymore."
     "It's not the place.  I like it here.  I miss it.  It's the Columns I don't identify with anymore.  Look at you.  You still come all the time."
     Onyx glared at her like he was being dissed.
     "No no," she laughed.  "Ha ha, you should see your face.  I mean you're still all natural.  You're still fairly traditional."
     Onyx continued glaring.
     "Stop that.  You know what I mean!  I haven't been here in years.  What am I gonna do when they find out I've got mech eyes?  They'll freak."
     "They already know."
     "Yeah, but like I don't wanna have ta put up with it.  Fuck the lecture.  I'm not the kinda person who's gonna take a dip in the Pool to see if she'll get some scanner programs.  I'd rather make them myself or have them installed.  Why does everything gotta be software?  That's why Mother's become so strong.  Her tribe's not allowed in here so they make things themselves.  And now they've got shit to rival our own."
     "Well I agree with ya there luv.  The only detail with me, is that I've always come out content.  My programs were always ideal.  And I'm not all 'unscathed' by the city, cuz half my new techniques are all Halogen-esque."
     "Okay okay, but you know what I'm getting at."
     "Yeah I do, and it's weird.  For someone who's First to the Throne, you're pretty unconventional.  But I think I'm catching up," he laughed.  "Look at me.  Here I am, asking for a brown sugar ceremony to be accepted, and then AUGMENTED.  The point you're trying to make, is that this place is making itself obsolete."
     "Exactly.  Because the Columns think the past is the future and it's not.  What our ancestors knew about existence when they created the Columns isn't what we know now.  The basics... well they just aren't the basics anymore.  Society has evolved.  Beliefs have evolved.  I can only imagine the interactive dramas they're teaching the newbies.  They're probably the same ones I played when I was one."
     "Actually yeah, they are."
     "Fuck, and you wonder why we're losing weight in the city.  No diversity!  Everything's gotta stay the same for tradition's sake.  What's the point?  To preserve some stagnant view of identity?  Fuck I'm really getting sick of this tribe.  Some days I don't even wanna be First to the Throne."
     There was a long pause.  Onyx obviously wasn't expecting that one.  Tracer rolled forward and buried her dispirited head in the grass.  The last time she was here she was with Deluxe, and they got into a lot of trouble.  Since then she had promised herself she'd never speak to the Columns.
     But now here they were, and lying there wasn't going to get Onyx married.  "Let's go to a wedding," she declared.
     Seconds later they approached the hilltop.  Both had been on many adventures in the name of peace, war, and of course outright fun.  None though, seemed as urgent as today's.
     Seven emerald pillars encircled a small pool of liquid silver.  Dark black grooves fluted their solid lengths.  Yellow feathers spun curiously about the crown of each, forming a dazzling lemon halo.  Strawberry runners extended from their bases, feeding from the shimmering pool.  The Columns they were called.  Sacred ideals to the Guild, installed at birth as paradigms of development.  Silver rings rippled across the Pool's surface.
     "Greetings," Tracer began warmly.
     "Greetings young Tracer.  How is our First to the Throne?"
     "Well. I'm doing well," she responded.
     "And your father?"
     "Always busy with politics and such.  Still trying to maintain talks with Zalek and the Underworld.  I'm not exactly sure how he is personally though.  We both hold different hours.  Halogen tells me he's doing fine."
     "And what have YOU  been up to?  We haven't seen you in ages."
     "I know, it's been a few years."
     "Twenty-three actually."
     Tracer paused.  "What was with the guilt trip?" she thought.  "Things have been complicated in D'ver City.  New tribes have mutated that were nothing years ago and the older ones have overpopulated the city into a sprawl.  My assassins grow in experience with each skirmish, but there will come a time when our luck will run out."
     "We see, and what is it about today that breaks you from your busy schedule?"
     Tracer ignored their pompous tone, and attempted to respond securely.  "My speeder was stolen this evening and I'm now suffering from speeder shock.  I need the protection of the Park to recuperate, as I cannot regenerate without my adrenaline.  Of course my health will decline when I return to the city, but I should have enough strength to carry out my plans."
     "Whom do you assume is responsible for this theft?"
     "I don't really know.  Whomever it was decrypted my speeder codes, so my assumption is the Hacker.  No one in Procedures can do that, not even Symm.  The Cretins are a definite 'no'.  Goth-psychedelics from the Underworld show no interest in cryptology, and that goes double for g-p packs in the city.  The Palace is a possibility.  There's talk of a new ciphernaut who can rival the Hacker: Silkworm.  But I personally doubt it.  The Palace's new intrusive countermeasures don't compare to that of the Alley."
     The Columns grew quiet.  "So your presence here is solely for recuperative reasons."
     "That's correct."
     The Columns paused again.  "It's been twenty-three years Tracer.  You don't feel you need to advance a level?"
     Tracer smiled with a hint of pride.  "Nah."
     "Are you sure?"
     "Actually, I walked the hill for Onyx's sake, not my own."
     The Columns grew curious.  "Oh?"
     "There is a possibility of impending war with the other tribes," began Onyx.  "And I believe new programs will be required to ensure my efficiency as Tracer's guard."
     "It is too early for you.  You have barely mastered the new skills you've received."
     "I understand that, and am the first to admit my limitations.  However, I also understand the severity of this situation.  If we cannot recover Tracer's speeder soon, she'll be forced to build a new one.  In that meantime she would be confined to this Park, and our enemies could begin to align against us.  The speeder's theft in itself may be a premeditated ploy to launch such actions."
     "You are overreacting," the Columns countered.  "The other tribes are not so united to attempt such an attack.  And the city can hold its own without Tracer."
     Blood angrily rose to Onyx's face.  "That's what you said before the Freeze, and now look at the Underworld!"
     "The Freeze would have transpired regardless of Tracer's presence," the Columns retorted, annoyance in their voices.  "It was Alchemy who betrayed us.  No one could have predicted that."
     "Tracer could have prevented the extent of that holocaust.  And I still doubt Alchemy played any part, regardless of what the 'evidence' says about the event."
     "We're sorry Onyx," they stated flatly.  "These conditions don't warrant an emergency and we cannot allow your advancement so soon."
     Onyx paused.  He looked both angered and desperate.  Reaching into his sidebag he pulled out the sack of brown sugar.  "I have been given the chance to marry.  I know it is not common practice, but I would like to fuse with my spouse inside the Pool."
     "Out of the question!" they roared.
     "But it would allow her to acquire exclusive skills that would not affect my own advancement.  We will need help in retrieving Tracer's speeder, as well as protecting Tracer herself.  Allowing my wife to attain her programs will aid in that."
     "Impossible.  This form of perverse merging is illegal.  You know we'll have to confiscate the sack."
     Onyx's brown sugar surged into the air, rushing towards the waiting Columns.  Rainbow feathers encircled the bag, halting its ascent over the dishevelled water.  The Columns stirred and their yellow feathers lunged forward.  Rainbow feathers knew only defence, while their yellow counterparts displayed both attack and protection capabilities.  Onyx unsheathed his polearm, as the vicious stench of napalm aggressively swallowed the area.
     Minutes later, Tracer stood alone above the relaxed chrome pool clutching her tattered trenchcoat.  Cancerous welts showered her long thighs.  Smoke billowed from the inert Columns, a rising beacon to anyone in the Park.  Yellow feathers fluttered about her aching figure, twisting and twirling in a spiralling helix, engulfed in victorious hellfire.
     "Now this I hadn't planned on."