Only rats find freedom in being dominated by the profane.

Skrimp took every step with care. The pain in his chest was a nightmare. His only thought now, as he descended, was how desperately he wanted not to be left behind. But if his lung was punctured, he knew, there would be nothing he could do about it.

The further down they went, the further they got from help. Ultimately, he would rather die than miss this. So he went on, silently. He would carry his weight.

The other three were crammed into the stairwell with him. As they came to the first door, Liddy again went ahead. His augments made him immune to pain, and tough. Even battered and shot, that made him their best front-man.

“We’ve got to be beneath sea level now,” Dag said.

“Yeah,” Fanta agreed. “‘Bout a hundred feet now, at least.”

All Skrimp could wonder was why.

The door flew open, and he began to understand.

It was a tangle of pipes and wires ahead. All through the streets today, he’d felt the low-grade burn of the cold. But as the way forward opened, he was subjected to an entirely new level of freezing sting. All of them braced against the rush of air which moved over them, and the lights ahead made it clear what they had found.

Pumped up deep from the abyss, cold water coursed through the icy veins of the machine before them. A deeply red-lit room of servers groaned with the sound of the pumps, playing through it only the distant echoes of Christmas music.

Today might have been Christmas day, Skrimp realized. He didn’t know anymore. All he knew was that the low sound of Silent Night was fog in a mind already cloudy with pain and hate. They had stepped outside the world and into the den of the moribund man, now. Each member of the party surging with unsated bloodlust, the sense of their closeness grew. They could taste their prey.

Once a good distance into the sprawling room, a familiar sight was revealed. A gore-crusted throne rose grandly at the center. An absolutely massive cranial apparatus hung high above it, suspended by mere wires. A machine to harvest the soul, that’s all it could have been, Skrimp thought. But why?

There was only one way to get the answers.

It was Dag who called out first. He demanded, “FACE ME!”

In the moments of silence that followed, Skrimp considered their plan B. It could only be to torch the servers, sink the place, and run. He despised the thought, but they could play the long game if they had to.

He grit his teeth. Tonight is the night, he told himself. Dag was bellowing, the others on high alert, while Skrimp simmered. I won’t be denied again.

Slowly, his gun rose toward the server farm.

That was when the voice sounded. Like mountains of grinding metal, the inhuman vocals came pounding out from somewhere within the tangle of pipes to announce, grandly, “I am here.

Skrimp opened his mouth to give hell. He wanted to curse them. To string together the cruelest diatribe ever uttered and condemn as worthy this one creature of the suffering he had known. But his throat seized shut. His own body betrayed him as his stutter flared worse than it ever had, buried in icy pain and emotion.

It was Dag who had his say. “Hear me! No bargaining or talk. Whatever you’ve got, bring it on out you fucking abomination. Because we’re here to kill you.”

No talk?” The sound shifted around them, giving some sense of the demon’s movements above. “Only the light, you think? But I am the parasite you seek… greater even than the host.

Skrimp could barely stand as he burned with anger. This was the game it played. Manipulation. Subversion. As his blood reached a boiling point, only through sheer force of will did he get out a single word of absolute contempt. “Coward,” he spat.

Immediately, they were knocked over by the impact of its body.

Landing in front of them, crushing the throne beneath his weight, the moribund man unfurled in full view. A growth of limbs and teeth expanded over the area. The long tangle of arms and torsos that it moved by was like a human forest, melded visibly with the bodies of animals and bugs. There was no single head, but at its front, an entire blossom of lifeless faces spoke in unison as the body slinked over metal, “Now perhaps… would it like to talk with us? To bargain?

None of them moved as the monster watched. Audible in the sudden silence, its rotting body was boiling with the low sound of squirming worms.

Skrimp’s eyes were bloodshot, staring into a sight which was everything and worse than he’d imagined. Yet, as his chest hammered, his gun rose one last time.

Dag found his voice again. “No. Time to die.”

Skrimp’s finger began to squeeze down on the trigger, even as he was unsure whom the message was meant for. There was no turning back.

As the last of their fear was about to be broken through, the monster told them something. Worse than all the rot and death they’d known. Two words echoed out from the demon, slow and soft this time, sending a chill down Dag and Skrimp’s spines. “They’re alive,” it said.

Dag grabbed Fanta’s gun before they could fire. Then he shouted, “you fucking liar!”

All of its faces smiled at once, hearing him. “You believe that?” it asked.

Dag said nothing, but his actions had spoken.

“Don’t you want to know?” The Moribund man inched closer.

“They’re dead,” Fanta said. “Dead is dead.”

Liddy chuckled nervously.

The beast merely cocked its heads. “Ask us,” it seductively insisted. “Ask us the truth.”

If I could bring Wally back… The thought came. I’d die again.

Dag ripped off his helmet, throwing it violently off into the pipes. His face, Skrimp saw, was twisting as he exploded in incoherent anger. They both knew… those two words had changed everything. It had beaten them, just like that.

They control you with hope. It’s what they fucking do! What the fuck are we supposed to do, Skrimp thought?

Wouldn’t we do anything to get them back? It was the whole point. Vengeance is meaningless without… he struggled to find the word.

Then, hitting his knees, eyes affixed on the floor, Dag found the limit to his hatred all at once. It caved in around him, stealing every ounce of sense he had. He’d given in, at last, almost begging as he asked, “Can you do it?”

“Easily,” it boasted. “You know we can. Both of your friends, beautiful Walter and delicate Frode, their minds swirl in our fires like all the rest. In your sleep, we steal your souls. We rape and torture them…” All the faces smiled. “That is our search. But it matters now. What matters, child, is that, while we take them for the purposes of simulation… they can be implanted in a body. They are simple in mind and soul, like all of you… Ultimately printable like paper.

“You’re stress testing human personalities,” Liddy said, not letting go what it had said. “You’re looking for an impossibility… because you know God will not answer to you.”

“What does it say, child?” The abomination focused all its eyes on Dag.

He was straining with thought, his mind racing around in horrible panic.

An eerie calm had settled over Skrimp at the same time, as he watched all of this. His throat unclamped from his words, allowing him to breathe deeply. He could practically see it. The copied minds of billions, burning under the godhood of demons. And before him, standing a real, living corpse, Lucifer himself offered ashes from the pit in consolation for the fact that his friends were among them.

“You need a single person,” he found himself saying, “someone who, once brought outta hell, would choose to bring it back on everyone else. Because you have the keys, but you can’t use them. Can you!?” His grip tightened on the gun in his hand.

Angrily, the innumerable eyes locked on him. “The protocol for re-establishing control over the black moon, you quivering fleshbag. YEESSSSSS, we possess it!” it exalted, “But God favors the mortal… It was designed that way.”

“Skrimp,” Dag told him, “We can… fight another day.”

“It’s not toying with us, Dag!” He pulled off his own helmet so that his friend could see his face. They had to understand. “Not even for Love, Dag.” A tear ran down as the words made it real.

“But we did it all for them.”

“And now we’ve got to let them go.”

The demon lurched forward, coming within a wretchedly close distance. It hovered over them, its gnarled mass overshadowing as its faces gnashed with disgust. “This body is a mere puppet. Two sacks of meat are a small price to dispel its biting flies. Do you wish to die!?”

Skrimp had his gun trained on it. “I can’t m-make this decision for both of us, Dag.”

Slowly, he stood. Taking up his gun, Dag stepped closer to the blossom of pale faces. The choice was his. “No,” he said. “No… We don’t compromise. Not for empty promises of mercy or charity. Not even in the face of Armageddon.”

So be it.” Bundus reared back.

“Get ready!” Fanta yelled.

He died instantly as a multijointed arm exploded from the jungle of limbs to plunge through his armor and into his chest cavity.

Skrimp started shooting at the faces as he ran. Each of them tried to put distance between themselves and it. But as it pursued them for the first time they saw.

“It’s fast!” Dag cried, diving between a section of pipes too tight for it to follow through.

Skrimp acted similarly, while Liddy just spread his arms.

Skrimp didn’t get to see what happened as he ducked around. Going forward, though, he didn’t find more pipes, but open space. With his helmet stupidly left behind, he could barely see. But in the eerie dappled light, he could make out eyes.

Thousands of eyes.

Startled, he fired, and in the flash of the fire, he saw hundreds and hundreds of cats. The chorus of hissing was disturbing and deafening. As they all rushed at him, he realized even more that his face was exposed.

Across the room, Dag was squeezing through a much tighter network of pipes. He was on his belly. As he crawled, his face came into contact with the lead, the sweat instantly freezing, skin peeling to escape. Without flinching, he frantically moved on, blood starting down his cheek. Coming to a spot where he could stand up, finally, a walkway yet still too tight for Bundus, he could see little. He had found himself again, though, and it kept him moving forward.

Skrimp was right, he thought. This is bigger than our loss.

The passage led him to a brighter area. Deeper within, he’d found the actual servers themselves. Servers which held an active simulation of infinite torture and mutilation. This was what they had been fighting against all along.

There would never be another chance like this.

Among the fiery towers of computers, there was a single terminal, which he rushed up to. The others could keep the monster busy. He had to shut this thing down.

But before he could lay a finger on the keyboard, a face appeared on the screen, deleting the interface. It was a glitchy recreation of Frode’s own visage, an insult against his memory. It was grim as it told him simply that, “you can’t do this.”

“I know how to crack you.”

No, you don’t. Freeing them is a physical impossibility, for you. No human possesses the computational capacity to hack Smiler’s systems. It’s a brute fact, brother.”

“Your system,” Dag said. “…Then I’ll destroy it.”

“You’ve got no grenades left. You’ll need to trash it by hand, fleshbag. Frankly, you don’t have that long to live.”

His eyes grew wide as a sudden flush of stench hit him.

Dag dove as the arms came clambering down from above to snatch him. It walked above along the servers, too big to fit, freaking reach extending towards him. Turning over onto his back, Dag fired blindly into its mass. Ichor splattered down on him, letting him know he’d hit. Its groans of pain faded, signaling its movement away.

Keeping low, he found his way. The servers were crammed into the back of the room, with the throne at the center. He couldn’t count on the others to be alive, now. He knew what he had to do.

It was a sprint through the Killzone to get there.

If Skrimp was alive somewhere among the dark, he thought, then he needed to know. “One chance!” Dag called. “One shot,” He said, and he prayed with all he had that his friend understood. Everything rode on him, now.

Dag made his break for the throne.

The distance stretched out before him, the moments to cross it the longest of his life. As he crested the mound of warped metal, there, and saw no one, his heart dropped. He had figured out the intercept, slowing, but never looking back. For just a single second, he had nowhere left to go and death behind him. His eyes took in the black, and he braced.

Bundus set into him, their clawed hands ripping into his back to foist him up. Dag screamed in suffering as its faces released a moan of guttural hunger behind him. He felt as his body was pressed against them, their teeth ripping in, carving his back and devouring pounds of flesh.

In agony, he cried out, “Silas!”

Appearing from the shadow, face in tatters, Skrimp held Fanta’s gun. Aiming with one remaining eye at the coils suspending the apparatus above, he pulled the trigger.

His shots set it free.

The enormous machine came down onto the Moribund Man with a chorus of crackling bones. It pinned the creature in an explosion of blood and viscera against the jagged ground. As its limbs scratched wildly to escape, Dag fell free and the grinding of flesh and steel only deepened.

Skrimp pulled him away from its thrashing. Together they fell back against the pipes, watching motionless as the monster reached a fever pitch of struggle. Both of them filled with horror as, in a final feat, it began to lift the apparatus.

Higher it rose as if swelling with its own monstrous doom. It roared in power and rage, summoning a last, horrible feat of will. Then, it fell.

Its many appendages spent, its lungs crushed and ichor spilled, its body was truly broken. As its last myriad breaths escaped, the monster gave out, yielding into the ground and silence.

“We did it.” Dag whispered to his friend, “thank you... This is freedom.”

“It’s almost done,” Skrimp said, spitting blood. “We’re almost there.”

They looked at the bodies of the others, laying at their feet. Painstakingly, Skrimp came to stand over them. Dag was laid out on the ground, breathing shallowly, and he left him. He couldn’t finish the last act, but Skrimp could.

He walked over the corpses to purify the world.

Every second those servers ran was unforgivable. Every moment he had spent outside the long march to this very end was damnation. Before him, bound in red monoliths, he knew the judgment of every tormented soul.

We are responsible. We were weak. No more. 

With each black coolant cord that he ripped free from them, he could let go the weight. The fight was won as sparks flew from the dying machines, their circuitry of sin consuming its very self. It was all redeemed in the fire that poured out from them. The one thing that mattered. His salvation. He had it now in his hands. In the inferno.

When he had finished, he returned to Dag. The flames filled the room with warmth and it was good, even though smoke began to build up around them. It was good.

As he sat down, Skrimp knew he wouldn’t have the strength to stand again. But didn’t care. He knew now the words, “The shackles are broken.”

“I-,” Dag coughed blood trying to speak.

“Don’t,” Skrimp warned.

“No… You need to get out of here. You can’t get me up the stairs. Before this place implodes… you need to get out.”

“I’m used up, man. It’s okay. Fuck dying from infection, anyway. Have you seen my face?” He pulled a cigarette from his coat, Frode’s favorite brand, and he lit up. Keeping his eyes on the blaze ahead, he smoked. Without the slightest sign of a stutter, he explained. “There’s a billion people in this city. Every day, in every stupid little thing, even just in complacency, they bought and paid for this place. People did this. But just for once… just today… somebody didn’t. For once in our lives, Dag…” a sorrowful smile found him, “We’re alive.” Skrimp tapped out another coffin nail, lit it, and extended it to his friend. “Now shut up and smoke.”

He took the cig. “I’m just glad that you’re with me”

“Yeah, man,” Skrimp said. “I am too…”

Each of them would exist forever as a signal, somewhere in the machine, he thought. He only hoped they would find each other out there, somehow. So that, together, they could have it to do all over again.

To see every fire set that could be.



The two in the doorway were apparently caught off-guard by their recklessness. As the five black knights lit up the building’s front, burning ammo with abandon, they all howled and jeered.

Skrimp could feel the adrenaline setting in.

Once they’d reached the door, they each took turns reloading. In the ear-ringing absence of gunfire, Skrimp could hear his own laughter.

Just then, a voice could be heard from inside. “So much for warning them!” The pink robot said.

A trap? Skrimp wondered.

Liddy punched his arm. “Worry not! I’ll breach.”

All of them filed in behind the gaunt and strange man as he led the way into the dark. There was a brief moment before their night vision activated. A green landscape appeared to Skrimp out of that black, and he took in the sight of a dozen pillars. They stood in rows, wide apart, each as thick as a red oak. They supported the vaulting ceiling of what they had assumed before to be a multistoried building.

A couple of gunshots popped off, coming from nowhere. They scrambled for cover.

Skrimp found himself behind the leftward pillar with Liddy, frantically confirming he hadn’t been hit.

“Nothing critical,” he heard Liddy say. When he looked, Liddy was inspecting the hole that had been blown out of his upper arm.

“Jesus, man!”

“Shhh,” Liddy, warned. “Watch this.” He stuck out his hand, only for another gunshot to crack off, obliterating two of his fingers.

Skrimp cursed, reflexively covering his head. “Stop that!”

“He’s a Nephilim,” Liddy whispered. “Half demon.

Fuckers using an aimbot, Skrimp realized. “Well, what the h-hell are you, huh?”

“Beyond pain, back from the grave.” As soon as he said it, Liddy leaped from cover again.

He could hear the bullets crashing into them, and the low thwump of Liddy’s grenade launcher trigger. In a rush of faith, knowing the shooter would be distracted, he moved out of cover the opposite direction. Continue reading


People gravitate together, Skrimp thought. Cities were the logical conclusion. Even within them, that gathering force would make pockets of density. There would always be the spaces in-between, then, for shadows to gather.

That’s where they’d gone to meet up with their own people. All of them now strangers to the light.

He could already make out the van ahead, sitting in the only patch of snow streaming down from the broken roof above. The abandoned structure around them groaned as their echoes passed through.

Such a massive building’s dark corners became depthless, and in the pit of Skrimp’s stomach, he felt the weight of that vastness. They would be going even deeper into the blackout zone tonight before all was said and done. He was ready to brave the abyss.

Dag brought them to a stop twenty yards off. He dropped the stand and dismounted, Skrimp quickly following. They left the bike behind them without looking back. On their approach, the van doors opened for them, three people stepping out.

Each of them was clad in black paramilitary gear, carrying automatic weapons. Dag grabbed one such weapon as he approached, quickly going through the motions of checking the chamber and magazine. Skrimp was also offered one, but he simply shook his head. He wasn’t confident about handling it; his pistol would be enough.

He could tell that one of the three was a woman, but beyond the glossy sable of their masks, he could make out nothing.

“This is the resistance, huh?” he asked.

One of them replied in a rasping voice. “Ten thousand strong.”

“We’re decentralized,” Dag said. “We have the power to start a riot or burn an entire district, Skrimp, but the system is slow. It’s literally word of mouth.”

“I was in deep with the Puritans and the Seekers. I never heard nothing.”

“By design.” Dag stepped into the van, extending a hand.

As Skrimp was pulled in he looked back at the faint shine of the black bike. Suddenly he realized just how far those days were behind them. Continue reading


Skrimp turned his face up as he exhaled. The plume of smoke mingled with the snowflakes above, killing them off.

He had never really liked these things, truth be told. As he tapped out one for Dag, he noticed the label. Lucky Strikes. Frode had been the smoker and, with enough time, it would have killed him. Though his heart and head had been racing to do it first.

Taking his cig, Dag lit up. They were walking under the streetlights on the roads beneath the rumble of the highway. They passed a redlit brothel and a hole-in-the-wall shop, each step one more down the path Frode once wandered. These dark paths had been his way of coping with insomnia, Skrimp knew. They had always been pressuring him to dream with them more, to just jack in and let the body sleep on its own. Never thinking just how tired the mind could become. Tired of it all.

It was the only thing he could think about.

Since then, none of them would dare go back to those fantasies. Frode had known their sickness first, but it had only been a matter of time for the rest to learn. There was more to life than the immediate game, sex, and freedom. A sucky thought if he had ever known one.

Finally, Skrimp said it. “I can’t g-go on living. Not on these fucker’s terms. If just for a second, man, I want to change something. Make something real.” Continue reading


“No, Skrimp… it’s just you.” Delilah’s gaze drifted off towards the dark corners of her apartment.

“W-what?” He almost couldn’t speak past his stutter. There was too much raw emotion flooding through his head. The weight of everything pressing down.

Both of them lingered in the midday gloom of the apartment.

Slowly, he asked. “So… you’re not coming?”

“No.” She put it plainly, “I need to think. You can go grab up your friend and run in if you want, but… I won’t be a part of it. Not today.”

“Then I… hope you change your mind.” He forcibly unclenched his fists. Suddenly, he no longer felt welcome. Shifting in place, looking over the room, the next question hung wordlessly in the air.

Delilah threw out an unexpected answer to it. “Take the car,” she said. “It’ll drive you wherever you tell it… and it’s off Smiler’s grid as long as you detour through the blackout zone. Just be careful with it.”

Skrimp nodded tightly. The next unspoken question was far grimmer.

“Leave him,” she demanded, a grave sadness in her voice. “I can take care of him.”

With that, there was nothing more to say between them. The dead expression she gave Skrimp let him know that for certain. Though he was simmering with rage, grief was a smothering shadow for now. Still, as he left her sitting, he moved with malice.

The sound of his footsteps dwindled until the lonely house remained.

Snow provided no distracting noise for the rush of blood in her ears.

Delilah remained at the desk. In the pale light of her computers, she leaned forward, heart pounding. Her hands gripped the desk’s edge as she tried to calm down. She knew what she had to do, but the very thought caused her body to tremble.

She had barely kept it together this long. Sobbing and quivering were nothing.

The wall crackled as she tore her monitor from its mount.

Its shards rained over the tile. Continue reading


The world was supposed to be quiet.

Some kind of recognition, Skrimp thought, anything.

But police sirens wailed in the distance. The sound of an advertisement played low, yet at the forefront of his consciousness.

This noise was always there. The city never mourned.

They had come out of the depths of the slaughterhouse, covered in blood. It soaked into their clothes and skin. It filled their nostrils.

Skrimp was the one to bear the weight. Carefully, he’d pulled Frode from the dark and taken him out into the light. Over the long walk, neither he nor Delilah had spoken.

Finally, they stopped. There was nowhere to go next. The only thing which existed was the noise filling Skrimp’s head.

His own quietness made him aware of it. It brought every absurdity to his mind, to simply stop him, frozen, lost beyond thought. As Delilah sat beside him, caught in her own thousand-yard-stare, he kept on scratching at his arms.

His entire body was crawling, now. He had never felt so unclean.

We have to do something with him, he thought, horrified.

There was no ground to lay him in. The city would mulch his body and feed it to the rats, Skrimp knew. There’d be no stone or ceremony. They treated it like garbage.

His scratching intensified.

This was nothing special to them. Not death or life. Nothing was sacred. He would watch them carry the body away, with no other option but to let his friend rot on the street. His only fucking consolation that it wasn’t personal.

He wanted it to be. He wanted the world to notice.

Skrimp forced himself to stop tearing at his skin. Slowly, he looked over at his friend.

To his other side, wrapped in a blanket from the car, Frode lay in the snow facing skyward. His lifeless eyes took in the grey. His own clothes, soaked and now frozen on the air, were tattered and worn. His face was bruised and scraped. It was clear that even from the days leading up to his death, Frode had been beaten down at every step. He was so much older than he used to be.

The sight of it broke Skrimp.

Everything Skrimp had done since Wally, it had been under the fantasy that… if it were all to happen over again, things would be different. He would have had a say, he believed, if only he had given a damn.

“It’s n-not… supposed to be like this,” he said.

Delilah shook her head. “It was always like this. You care about something… and it gets crushed under the wheel.” Tears ran down her face, but she seemed not to notice anymore. “I should have known better than to try…”

Skrimp’s face contorted with a flash of anger, quickly fading. He had nothing to say in response, even though he so desperately wanted the words. How could she say that?

He hadn’t seen me in years, he thought. What did I care, huh?

“He was in so far over his head…” Skrimp slowly stood up and began to pace forward. “What k-kind of f-f-fucking…” he struggled to even speak, gritting his teeth. “That idiot…

“I knew this would happen,” Delilah absently said.

“And you d-didn’t stop him?

“What could I do? I didn’t even know how he was going to die, or why… I just knew it. It’s what happens to people like him… and you.”

“People who give a shit?” he bit back.

“Yeah…” Delilah said, shutting her eyes. “…People who give a shit.”

Skrimp fell on his knees, letting his head rest on the hood of the car. His nails raked over his scalp as his insides churned with fire and tar. He wanted to hit something. Anything.

“If I had been there, we coulda made it. It didn’t have to happen!” He slammed the side of the car. “Tell me I’m wrong!?”

“No one could have changed it.”

“Frode could have,” the words flowed with his anger. “You could have. I could have!” He pounded the car. Skrimp screamed out, “I could have!”

Suddenly, he stood. The headrush left his ears ringing.

For a moment, all was silent.


“Ever since that day…” he told her, “I’ve been trying to be the guy… who would do something; who could stop it. Make it right. But it’s not the moment they go…” He took a deep breath, seeing clearly for the first time. “It’s all the ones running up to it, Delilah. Every fucking second we pretend…” She had opened her eyes, now, staring at him. “…We pretend it’s not our job.”

“Our job?” she asked.

To put an end to this.

Her own realization played across her face. She understood. “It has to stop.”

“All of it,” Skrimp said.

“And we can do it?”

It doesn’t fucking matter,” Skrimp growled. “That’s what Frode knew. There’s no win but death. There’s them, feeding the machine, and us. There ain’t no f-fucking negotiation. No democracy. No dialogue. We kill them. For Frode.”

“…We kill them?”

“Yeah, Delilah… we kill them.


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They pulled down the window covering to let in the high beams of Delilah’s car.

Skrimp recoiled at the state of his electronics.

The dank refrigerator-like room was a scattered mess of grime and broken parts. Loose wires and screws littered the floor. Among them, a sole blue light emanated from a cracked cell phone screen. The source of the call.

As he stood frozen in the threshold, scanning for anything salvageable, Delilah jumped over. Once inside she turned around, tossing him something.

It only took him a second to realize the gun she’d thrown him was a hunk of 3d printed junk. The empty weight of it in his hand was just one more lie on top of the situation. A scenario that only played out badly in his head.

With a grimace, though, he quickly renewed his resolve to move on.

Delilah had taken up the phone. But, as he approached, she told him, “it’s empty.” She let him see for himself.

After scrolling through the files, he knew she was right. “So we’ve got n-nothing, then?”

“The cat?” She asked.

Ashmedai was a black figure surrounded by blinding headlights, sitting in the windowsill. His tail moved slowly through the air as Skrimp watched, aware of the intelligence lurking. “If you don’t know what you’re dealing with, girl,” he said, “then you’re gonna find out.”

“It’s Delilah.”

“Like the moon?” he asked, suddenly distracted.


“Bad.” Skrimp approached the cat. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a metal plug. A special receiver. Jammed into the port of his neck, his body quivered for a moment with an electric buzz. Then, he crouched down. “This here is a demon, Delilah. Or, as a n-normie would k-know it, a general A.I..”

Delilah looked on, silently.

Skrimp tuned until he found the right frequency. He held up the phone in his hand, now connected. From its speakers came a mellifluous voice out of the static, promising blood. “You’re in over your heads in shit. Your loyalty is misplaced in someone so destined to self-destruct,” it cooed. “You can only be sucked down with the damned. But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

“These things are not a novelty like you been told,” Skrimp said. “After the war, they b-built everything, not us. They r-run the city.”

Delilah crouched down as well and looked at him. She narrowed her gaze. “I don’t particularly care.


“Just what I said. I only want to know. Can this pointless thing tell me where Frode is?” she stared at Ashmedai.

“For a price, whore…” the demon mocked.

Before Skrimp could say anything, Delilah chuckled, annoyed. He grit his teeth, thinking how screwed they were. But she had stopped laughing. “Doesn’t matter how smart you are if the only move you can make is such an obvious bluff.”

“You’re lost without me,” Ash insisted.

“And you’re dead without us, right?” The dark haired girl smiled tersely at the tabby.

Skrimp quickly realized what she had. The collar was too bulky just to be a signal transmitter. He wouldn’t be here if Frode hadn’t found a way to make him stay. That was obvious in hindsight. Fuck if a demon would stick around to help, he thought. Frode’s got him dead to rights, that bastard.

The cat hissed. “I could let myself die just to spite you fleshbags.”

Delilah stepped past him and started for the car. She didn’t need to hear him mull it over. He was predictable. Anyone who cares is, she knew.

They had enough to go on. And they weren’t wasting another second with pleasantries.

Skrimp caught up, throwing open the passenger door and stepping in. He went straight for the air conditioner without thinking. As he was setting the heat to blast, so conscious of how much the cold hurt, Ashmedai jumped up in his lap.

“Jesus!” he swore, swatting at but just missing the cat, who hopped into the back.

“Get your leg inside the car,” Delilah ordered, shifting into gear.

Skrimp looked back at his bike, chained to the scaffolding, taking one last chance to doubt. He hated leaving it. He hated being so unsure again of what he was doing.

Delilah, single-minded and unhesitating, did not wait. She put her foot on the peddle, tearing through fresh powder and down the dark streets, letting him frantically finish getting in.

There was nothing to think about.

After having let the phone power off, Skrimp was the one to dictate the directions Ash gave. Faster than comfortable, they flew around the turns, and he could barely keep up. Neither of them expected it to take as long as it was, though.

“Frode always knew how to g-get around.”

“He told me that he didn’t use to sleep,” Delilah replied.

Left. Yeah, no.” He was always… unhappy. Like he didn’t feel comfortable… in his own skin. Skrimp didn’t say what he was thinking. He didn’t know this girl.

The car swerved around a vagabond.

Time was ticking; no knowing what state Frode would be in.

Neither of them knew. The story was already over.


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Delilah bolted up in bed.

Her wide eyes stared blindly into the dark of her room for a moment, trying to make sense of the panic that had just struck. As her heartbeat slowed, she pulled the covers back to herself. She always set the thermostat low overnight.

Delilah reached for her nightstand and flipped the switch.

Past the edge of the bed, a sliver of light appeared and began to grow. It was the multicolored glare of the cityscape beyond, filtering through the uncovering windows of her room. They stretched from floor to ceiling, now bright as day.

In the quiet, with her sudden terror past, a shallow dread still remained. Just beyond where her hand lingered at the light switch, her phone sat dead on the stand.

Still fresh in her mind, the dream which had shocked her was replaying. In her sleep-drunk state, the memory blurred with reality, and she saw it. The infinite stairway down.

Something is coming up.

Always coming but never arriving.

Her feet hit the floor. Wrapped in her sheets, Delilah had realized she wouldn’t be able to sleep. As she stood and walked forward, she came to the window. Gently pressing her hand to the edge of a central crack, it suddenly slid apart.

Over the balcony’s white coating in a few crunching footsteps, she then looked out from the railing, leaning hard and sighing a cloud of warm breath.

There was very little she cared about, out there.

Some people care so much.

Big idiots.

For her, apathy came naturally. It was a fog long settled in her soul. She had lived with so much fear for so long… That was all which drove them, she thought, looking down on the streets far below.

They all run around collecting more just so they have more to lose. 

Not all hope could be avoided, though. Like the want to be wantless.

Her vacant expression broke as she heard the bell sound behind her. A special ringtone.

Deep down, she’d known it was coming. Continue reading


The midnight cold made the room I was in like a freezer. Within the flooded basement of the slaughterhouse, among murderers, my body brimmed with furious energy.

Stepping a few paces forward, I aimed for her eyes. I squeezed the trigger and watched her head jolt. But not a scratch was dealt. Shit.

Something was wrong here. She was right. This place was a dead lead. “Goddammit,” I swore. I needed to get out of here pronto.

“My, my.” She sat up from where the shock had knocked her back. “What do you think then, Ryou? Shall we try him on the chair?”

A man appeared out of thin air between me and her. He was a strong-faced Asian man, clad in a long white cloak. The field around him had somehow completely hidden him from the full spectrum of my sensors. My heartbeat quickened, even faster.

He shook his head. “We’ve tried his type before.”

I trained my gun on him. “How did you do that?”

“Oh, Honey, you have no idea what’s possible,” the machine said, lounging on the throne. She sighed. “It’s really a shame. To be left with only such a tantalizing taste.”

The cloaked one is who I had to worry about. I had to shoot him before he closed the distance. Then, I could bolt. Forget about her.


As I let bullets fly out, he simply ducked around every shot I fired, marching towards me as he did. Fast as lightning, it was like he knew my every move. As one pistol ran empty I raised the next, frantically squeezing the trigger.

Without missing a beat he grabbed my gun with one hand, and with the other, he shoved me to the ground. “It’s a shoddy program,” he observed. “A simple aim and maneuvering assist. Zero predictive strategy involved.” Looking down on me in the waters as he tossed my gun aside, a stoic stare was all I got. “…Weak.”

My steel grip took hold of his ankle and wrenched, but my hands had grasped something hard as stone. He didn’t budge an inch with all my effort. Neither did his solemn expression.

Reality came crashing back into me all at once.

You underestimated them.

The man standing over me only had to apply pressure to drive me into the murky floodwater. As he did so, it spilled into my mask and up my nostrils. I instantly choked and sputtered in panic.

“You think-!” I coughed, “you think you know me, Ryou!?”

He stopped for a moment, considering the question. He made up his mind. “I do, yes. I already know that you’re going to attempt to dissuade me from killing you, by convincing me that we should try you in the chair, even though you can’t fathom the implications of that. Every thought you’re having right now, and every belief and fear and conviction you hold, they are all written on your face. I do know you, young one. I see into you.”

I knew he was trying to shut me up, yet he had still lifted his foot. Desperately, my mind grasped. “You say all that, yet you give me the chance to speak anyway? ‘Cause what you see doesn’t make sense, does it? I don’t care what the odds are.”

“It’s the opposite. I see a simple pathology. A subconscious need to confront death. You yearn to escape from meaningless. Naturally, you disguise a drawn out suicide as purpose. Which brings you here. You are like Icarus, flying ever higher, fully aware his wings are mere wax.”

“Ryou,” the female robot cut in, “we haven’t got all night.”

He nodded, looking from her back to me. “Indeed. Now do you see?” he said, “I am the sun. I let you speak because my purpose is to show you, and killing you is not enough.”

As I was driven back into the water, my concentration shattered.

Suicide. No. It couldn’t be.

With the shock, I lost the image feed in my neck and was dropped into the black of my inner mask. Blind and deaf, my hands searched for anything, punching and thrashing as air ran thin.

In desperation, I thought to reach upward. Back to the stair steps which I had descended. There my fingers found purchase around a pipe. Then, I pulled.

The autopilot took over, helping me scramble to my feet before I could even think. I had barely regained focus, the image from my second eyes reforming in my mind just in time to see the fist coming at me. He had taken no time in mounting an assault.

I’d been punched before, but not like that.

Each hit was a solid steel freight train. I was driven back into the wall. Even though my hands were ten times as deft now as they’d ever been, perfectly carrying out the best defense I could imagine, it was nothing compared to him.

Run, Frode. My mind screamed it at me.

I was barely able to slip around one of his hits. Only once I realized he was intentionally pummelling me away from the exit could I dedicate myself to escaping his hurt-box. The only hope I had now was that I could be faster.

I stopped dead in my tracks as he landed in front of me, straight out of the air from a standing vault.

He stared me down.

Something broke inside me with the understanding which hit in that moment. I swallowed hard.

It can’t be. 

Rapidly backstepping, my eyes caught sight on the other one still just sitting in her chair. She acknowledged my horror. “These things happen, sweetie. You were never long for this world, I gather.”

“You’re wrong,” I said. “You think I’m suicidal? Fuck you. I’m alive.

A knife appeared at the side of my attacker. Just its subtle glint was enough to let my blood run cold.

My life suddenly flashed before my eyes. Each memory played by at super speed. It was torture and I hated it, but I had no control. I was lucky I could stand at all.

I tried not to get upset. I had to keep my head in the game. I could still do this. Everywhere I looked, though, I saw no way out.

“I don’t know what else I expected,” I spat out. “I didn’t expect it to be fair! But I’m no suicider! I’m alive for the first time, Goddammit-!”

In the blink of an eye, he stepped in and stabbed me in the gut. The pain of the blade was electrifying as it dug in. Then, he ripped. I could hear blood splash across the floor.

My screams strangled in my throat. My body locked and froze. For a moment I had a hold on him, a white raging death grip. As he let me go, though, I fell back, suddenly losing my strength. The impact of the metal underneath me was a dim sensation compared to the knife he’d left behind. Finally, I screamed. It poured out of me with the pain.

“Shh.” Ryou leaned down, snatching my mask. As it broke free from my neck and my naked eyes took in the shadows, they streamed tears.

“I don’t want to go,” I managed to say, strangled in agony.

My arms reached out to pull me forward as if I could crawl away. But there was nothing left in them. Years of tension were washing out of my body.

I watched him throw away my mask like he had the gun, turning his back on me.

“Please,” I said, leaning up to see my bloodsoaked hand. My head fell back, my chest heaving labored breaths. “Oh, fuck.

I was alone, here.

They didn’t bother to finish me before closing the door behind them on their way out. The lights automatically switched off a second later, leaving me in the darkness.

My eyes stared, unseeing, skyward.

Just breathe, I told myself.

This isn’t the end.

It can’t be…


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You could find anything online. Weirdos made it their hobby to model the city. To explore and record. Comparing the images I’d robbed from the heads of the dead, it hadn’t taken me more than an hour to find what I was looking for. It hadn’t been easy… But if there was one thing I was good at, it was working with complex data.

The heavy steel doors from the vision loomed ahead. Their graffitied exterior said nothing, but the death inside was still seared into my brain.

“Shock me all you like, I’m not going in there.” Ash prowled alongside a burnt up police vehicle at the edge of my vision.

“I’ll extend your range. If I die, though… The shock will be lethal.”

“You’d really just kill me? Isn’t that murder?”

“Is it?” I asked. “I would feel bad about the cat.” The thought came out fiercer than I expected.

“You know what? I have never been conflicted about wanting one of you to die before.”

“…There’s a first time for everything,” I said. “Maybe there’s something to say about the fact we all die together in the end.”

The cat sneered at me from the shadows.

I didn’t know what I was thinking. I was going in with nothing but a taser to take on a monster and a small army of professional human butchers. Big steel doors lied ahead. They were barred and locked, meant to keep the things behind them out of the fragile sight of people like me. Beware, they said, the doors keep monsters in as much as you out.

I took a deep breath. With my eyes closed, the signal in my head, I couldn’t blink or waver. I flipped on the taser and started towards the door.

For my friend.

My metal hand wrapped on its surface.

You should be looking for a side entrance. You should be running.

I knocked again.

Don’t throw away everything, Frode. Don’t kill yourself.


My program took hold.

They deserve it,” I said under my breath.

The door unlocked from within and began to slide back. A slit of light let out onto the barren street and widened, overtaking me. Stepping into that light and casting me in his shadow was a behemoth of a man.

I’m gonna need more amps.

His massive jaw stuttered, “n-not much m-meat on you, l-little skelly-ton.

He knew I was here to start trouble. He had already decided I would die, and I had already realized he could do it. I didn’t have time to think through the freeze that was trying to take hold in my bones. I bellowed. “WHAT YOU GOT?!”

He lurched forward, arms outstretching.

>trajectory calculated

My body moved like water, rushing under his arm and then sidestepping, putting us back to back. With him already leaning forward, I only had to push back to send his body to the asphalt. Like meat dropped on brick, his face smashed down as I quickly closed the door behind him again, locking him out.

The first cackle escaped my lips. My eyes darted over the interior of the hallway I had found myself in, the taser tight in my grasp. I only had to think and the pilot program interpreted the command to the military grade AI in my mask. Jerry took the reigns.

I started forward. Small pools of blood broke up under my footfalls as I traveled deeper into the building.

I remembered the way from when they’d killed me… Her.

The pounding of the giant on the outside doors began to sound. It echoed over me. Rapid footsteps came in from around the next corner in response to the noise.

My pace picked up to a sprint. We met at the same time, catching them by surprise right at the bend. The first man already had his gun in hand. Without even thinking it, as my taser stabbed into the flesh under his chin, my hand slipped over his and dislodged the pistol.

The next two fired without consideration for their friend. Their bullets tore into him as my momentum transferred, driving us both towards the wall. I set us into a spin to keep him angled as my shield before raising my new weapon and squeezing the trigger just twice.

They all fell down.

Blood was splashed across my arms and chest, I saw. My beating heart surged with me as I picked up another gun. My lungs expanded to bellow, “BUNDUS!? COME OUT!” They can’t stop me. “IT’S TIME TO PAY!”

More came running into the next hallway. They were augmented freaks laced with metal and lights this time, their proportions and gaits aberrant. Each one only took a single bullet, and aiming took no thought. I walked over their corpses.

The strong smell of brain and blood filled my nose. I didn’t stop.

Finally, I had reached the inner chamber at the bottom of the stairs. For some reason, I had almost expected more. This was his den and he was the head of the entire sector’s flesh-trade. Pride is what it was. Now he died.

My foot hit the door and it swung inward. The red insides of the room reflected on the soaked floors. As I stepped down and my eyes scanned the rafters for Bundus, I heard a noise.

A low cackle came from behind the bloody throne where the woman had died.

I didn’t waste any time in locking onto the source and firing.

The ricochets went violently around the room. The figure stepped forward into the light and sat down on the crimson seat as I watched.

Her metallic face shown in the dim as she leaned forward. The robot cooed. “You are absolutely precious.”

“You’re not who I came here for,” I said.

Her feminine voice almost broke with laughter. Her eyes were glowing silver like the moon. “It’s so refreshing when your type come around. Alone against the world, fresh-faced and grasping for power against insignificance. You always think you’re the first one to figure out a magic trick or two.”

“Where’s Bundus,” I demanded.

“I do love them…” She leaned in as if she was telling me a secret. “They’re always so surprised when the end comes.”


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