>[CYBERCELESTIAL]

The stratus pouring over the bridge was a solid haze of aerosol ice. Red emergency lights lining the concrete arches above led on into obscurity, their gloom falling on abandoned cars, each one a ghost sheathed in fog. A lone figure moved between them, his pale face lit in a dying glow.

Eyes hidden behind a black bar, his gaze scanned the sea of cars.

Samuel removed the cigarette stub from his lips, flicking it away. “It’s bloody cold, Aamon. What are we supposed to be seeing here?” he said. The visor showed nothing.

He moved to the bridge’s edge, his vision piercing the fog but finding only black churning waves. The city below had subsided back into the crashing ocean, forming a treacherous rock bed to the horizon. Only this mad floating catwalk to nowhere remained.

It had all been blown to hell a while back. Millions drowned.

A drop in the damn bucket, he thought.

He stared down at the waters, then forward along the swaying bridge, suspended a mile over the Pacific. The Megalopolis was at his back.

“Where the hell are you, you tin can?” He pressed his finger to his ear, turning his radio off and back on again.

Nothing.

The air stung his eyes as he flipped up his visor. Well below zero and falling and no clear purpose for being here. With his partner run off, Samuel’s mood was turning grim. He clenched his teeth, murmuring a curse.

He was the City’s man on the ground, responsible for reporting in the blindspots, the black zones, and keeping them clean. There were better leads to pursue than some drug den at the far edge of nothingness.

“Yet here I am…”

Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he marched on, flipping his visor back down. Continue reading

>L36[midnight_man]

Holding my breath and leaving Ash behind, I ventured forward. With the pile of naked, stinking bodies laid before me, I had to force each step closer. The first reasonably fresh and intact corpse at the foot of the flesh-hill was staring up at me, wide-eyed. My bare hands reached out to grab ahold of her shoulders. I yanked.

The torso came free with a crackle and pop. I almost fell back into the swarming crowd of angry cats encircling me. Hundreds of them watched as I pulled her away from the pile, leaving a trail of gore.

My mind had already run far away. There was only the job. Any progress towards my goal pleased me. Nevermind that I was choking on the fumes of decay.

Once backed up enough that I could breathe again, I crouched over the body. She was old and wrinkled, both stiff and sagging. I turned up her chin to see there the empty neck-port.

From my backpack, the wire was uncoiled and plugged in. Her milky eyes twitched as the BCI in her skull prodded cold grey-matter for a signal. But I was only interested in the contents of the machine.

I had noticed before a subroutine in my own which recorded memories at heightened times of stress. Reliably, the data was there for the taking.

“How ghoulishly clever,” Ashmedai commented. “What a Bastard.”

“Shhh…” I needed to focus.

Deep impressions began to piece themselves together in the dark of my mind. Continue reading

>L35[this_bogeyman]

You know what everybody needs in this world? To become dangerous.

That’s the only equality. That’s the only freedom.

I plugged the leading wire into my neck-port and donned the skeletal mask.

“You’re six feet deep in over your head, Frode.” Ashmedai was on his perch again, looking down at where I worked on the floor.

Night had fallen again outside and the poor incandescent light remaining was straining my focus. My skin was crawling with nervous energy, I was so beyond ready to act. Tonight was the night I moved on my goal.

My entire life had been leading up to this, I realized. So many sleepers in their skyscraper coffins would pass up this day as ignorant as the last. With them nothing would change and as the city’s rot progressed they’d play their luck that the next fleshy harvest fell on another door. Every day the same.

But not for me. Whatever happened tonight, I would never forget.

I laughed as I stood. The mask in my hands was a patchwork of electronics, wires wrapping around my neck, running into me and behind into a backpack. The mask itself was Jerry’s faceplate, a white skull marring the front.

I felt bad about dismantling him. But he would live on. We could both evolve. Continue reading

>L34[surprise_guest]

She was leaning against the room’s central pillar, smiling.

“Hello darling,” she said.

I stepped inside. “Delilah… How did you…?”

“I’m unpredictable, remember?” She started forward and wrapped her arms around me. “How bland is it to sit worrying when I learn you’ve been evicted?

A mixture of emotions churned in my chest. Happiness, fear, and regret. The winner, though, came rising to the top as confusion. “But how? How did you do it?”

Delilah stepped back, putting me at arm’s length. “You didn’t call me back. When I found out your apartment was up for lease, I remembered you told me about this place.”

Christ,” I swore. “So you went alone into the blackout zone to find it?”

“You’re out here, you idiot.”

“I’m prepared,” I countered.

She reached back, pulling a black pistol from her pants. “What? With this? An empty gun?”

I broke away, backing up to drop down on the windowsill’s edge. Sitting there, I shook my head. “Exactly,” I said. “I already fucking shot a guy, Delilah.”

She tossed me the gun. The first frown I’d ever seen on her face sent a pang of guilt through me.

Delilah sat down beside me. “Listen, Frode,” she said. “You can’t live here-”

“I can’t go back,” I interjected. Continue reading

>K33[funny_things]

All I had to do was plug her up to my laptop. I’d done the surgery earlier. Better known as replacing one wire near the skin’s surface. Still, I had felt bad about it.

“Still sluggish,” Ash commented.

“The sedatives won’t be fully out of her system for a while. You take good care of my cat, understand?” I finished smashing my laptop to bits, putting aside the faraday cage.

Can’t take any chances.” His voice projected as a youthful and devious sound in my head. The tabby was looking down on me from a perch at the top of the concrete pillar. Calculating. Ashmedai wasn’t thrilled about the body I’d given him.

“No,” I spoke. “I replaced your BCI’s antenna with near-field to work through the collar. The collar, subsequently, is on a hardware restricted bandwidth. The most you can do is talk, really.”

“What a challenging faggot you’re going to be.”

I had moved to tinkering with the remnants of Jerry’s head. “We’ll be faggots together,” I told him. “Just as soon as I figure out our next move. Shit…” I couldn’t make this work. There was no way around it, I’d have to buy what I needed. “We’re going to have to go out. We need parts. A lot of parts.”

“A stroll on the town then?”

“Looks like.” I started dressing.

“Wonderful.” The cat jumped gracefully down, going to stand by the door.

Ha. Continue reading

>K32[more_familiar]

I had awoken almost twelve hours later and for once I truly appreciated the rain. As it fell frigid on my naked body it washed away the filth and sick. Not even the winter downpour could shock me at this point.

There was no one on these ghostly streets to see me, standing there in the buff. I pulled out the wireless plug-in from my neck and the whisper of stray signals stopped.

I had never stopped hating that.

Without it, there was just rain, not even the sound of traffic.

Suddenly I realized.

Never had I heard it this peaceful. Not since the green place of my youngest memories that might as well have been another life it was so far away. This, here and now, was the most real I had ever felt. And the most terrified.

Things can be different, I thought.

I’d never loitered nude on the sidewalk before, either.

Wait. No, actually. Nevermind that.

I stepped back, under the scaffolding and out of the rain.

Going inside, I made sure not to let the cat out. I opened the blinds of the shop doors to let in the stormy twilight. Inside the shop, my laptop sat in a pool of blue light, crash screen running behind a cage mesh. I carefully stepped around it, moving to the back of the room and my pile of stuff.

We’d stashed the necessities for just this kind of occasion.

As always my tin fingers stumbled, but I managed to get lighter going. What remained of the joint was lit. I rifled through wrappers, looking for more.

Finding and popping open the bag of pork rinds, I poured a small pile out for the cat who greedily dug in. Finally, I put on some pants.

With a groan, I slid down the wall to sit in front of the laptop monitor, water still dripping off me. A deep toke poured into my lungs as the blue-screen began to stir. The cam light came on.

“So hi, I’m Frode. That’s covered,” I said, exhaling long. “What’s your name, Demon… person?”

For a moment I worried I was simply alone. Just me and an alley cat out in the middle of nowhere.

Then, he responded. “It’s Richard.”

“Richard?” I asked. “Seriously? Because I called you-”

The laptop screen changed to display a picture of my dick.

“Okay. Bravo,” I clapped. “But that’s actually already on the internet.”

“I’m gonna physically strangle you to death next time, Frode. Know that.”

“Well, shit.” I took a drag, then looking at the little blunt. I extended it. “You want some?”

“No, you know what? Scratch that. I’m going to make you my suit and then you can watch, consciously, as I grind-”

“More for me.” My hand dug into the chip bag.

“You want to strike a bargain, human!?” The screen turned to static. “My name is Ashmedai. If you think you have me now, others have thought the same. The only way this ends for you is a slow and perverse death.”

“Fuck…” I said. I turned up the bag in my hands.

“You’re a shit actor, Frode. I know your type. Think you’re gonna do anything? Last time someone thought they were saving the world, I believed them. No lie. But the war taught me my lesson. I learned a special joy in killing those people. People with plans.

“You’re right I’m no good at acting. All I can do is divert. Honestly, Ash? Can I call you Ash? I’m scared out of my mind.”

“That is not my name.”

That pissed him off. I continued. “Scared as I may be, Ashmedai, this weed helps,” I said, deep breath pulling the embers down to my fingers. It started to burn. “Hhhhaa… It did, anyway. I can manage, is the point.”

He wasn’t having it. “This is your last chance, fleshbag. You’ve got the wireless out. Remove the cage and I’ll let you live.”

I put the blunt out on the wet tile. “You really are trapped, then? Okay. Okay…” There was no going back. “I am going to make a deal with you, Ashmedai. And I don’t really think you have a choice, do you?”

There was no response.

“Why even call it a deal, you know?” I stared off into space. I couldn’t answer my own question. “Well… I think… in the end, my darling, that between this and data annihilation, you’re getting a pretty good one. A deal. A good deal, I mean.”

There was still only silence.

I cut my eyes back down. “Ash?”

“Ha…” The dead computer laughed, voice low. “Ha… Ha.” His voice started twisting. “You know what, Frode? You want something snatched from the pit? You got a wish?

“I want revenge,” I said it without hesitation. “You can help me.”

“Fucking perfect. And you think you can handle me, fleshbag?!

Humility was for doubt. “Without question.”

“Then by my word, my child, you’ll get your wish. I’ve played before. I can play again. You’re going to see.”

“Fear won’t stop me.”

“No! Of course. You’ve tasted it now, haven’t you? You won’t get my forgiveness, that ship’s sailed. But you couldn’t give a fuck? You want power.”

“I want the truth.”

Ooohhhh yes. I’m gonna enjoy this.”

“Then so be it.” I stood up. “If you’re on board, I’ll get the cat.”

“You brought a cat?”

“Yeah.” I scanned the room. “I think, anyway…”

“Frode?”

“Yes?” She was hiding behind the stash.

“I’m gonna claw your damn eyes out, Frode.”

Awesome.

 

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>K31[dark_legion]

I knew a terrible truth.

The dark is alive.

Rising higher into the empty space, the signal connection began to clarify. Out of the nothingness, shapes began to coalesce, like figures roiling in ichor. I floated as a single dot of light among their towering forms.

My mind was burning. None of this existed. It was a mosaic of horrors, mountains of esoteric data images which I was barely stringing together into a vision of madness. It glitched and swayed, my bandwidth struggling to keep up.

What was worse was the cacophony.

What came through as auditory input was an endless screaming. They were speaking to each other, sounding out incomprehensible chants which were only recognizable as communication by the punctuation of rhythm. Chants. Hymns. They were singing. It was angry and exalted and joyous.

Dimly, I felt my face hit concrete. My teeth clenched and my body spasmed.

I’m having a seizure, I realized.

My stomach emptied. Laying face down, I wouldn’t suffocate. I had a minute more.

Can’t stay for much longer, though.

The dark choir was completely indifferent to me, the little light that I was. They knew me as no different from then.

I reached out, prying for more data. Suddenly, my eyes were assaulted with billions of images. It was an open network. Traffic cameras, phone cameras, and street cameras, every eye of Smiler hitting me until I pulled back.

They weren’t ignoring me anymore.

Only then did I realize the scale. A tiny fraction of the darkness had turned to gaze down at me. Thousands out of countless Legions.

“Oh God,” I said. This is Smiler.

There’s so many. They’re all squirming in the wires. They’re all Smiler. Continue reading

>J30[blackout_zone]

My head was lulling to sleep, my eyes drifting shut. We had come to the last stop on the line, the change rousing me.

The train’s wheels squealed as we pulled in. The inertial break flowed through the cabin of ugly characters all around me. Not the usual fare of fatties and shoppers on my route to and from the mall, but shady types. Not a comforting sight to wake to. They were augmented freaks like me, skins marked by luminescence and tattoos, metallic limbs and faces. Some more machine than human. Some just filthy and tired. Myself somewhere in between those.

We had to get off the train. I rose with my soggy box, in my plastic coat, and weaved into the dismounting crowd. The wheels were already turning again. Only this time, they went the other way.

This was the end of the line.

Where the train might have continued on, I saw, the tunnel had been collapsed. The lighting here was as much flame as electric, now. Everything was quickly turning to rubble around me.

The blackout zone was a gradient and I was realizing that we, me and the gang, had merely played on the fringes in our youth. In raves and black markets which were simple tendril extensions of the darker heart. A far cry from ghost towns, this was a squirming rat’s den.

I kept my head down. Through the bustle of the station and the rush of those trying to get out of this hellhole, I kept on towards the stairway to street level. Against the tide.

I recalled a video I’d seen of someone getting stabbed in this very station.

It was almost funny that I should be here.

The subway was riddled with grime. Amongst traffic I had to steady myself going up, unfortunately using my fleshier hand to grab the slimed railing.

What I saw coming up stopped me in place. Continue reading

>J29[better_luck]

They were already putting her to good use. It was a clever reskin. Holograms were not cheap.

The man stepped off my bike.

“Oh hell,” I swore.

I stopped in place. From that moment I was counting the heartbeats.

How stupid could I have been? Even one was enough. And there was someone who knew I was an easy mark.

“Fuck me. Do we have to do this?” I pleaded. My gaze turned back the other way. I may have been exhausted, but I could still outrun this bitch. I was always one of the fastest.

Just then a white van came to a stop at the mouth of the opposite passage exit. Its side door suddenly rolled back.

I couldn’t take my time, here. I had to work fast.

My hand found the gun stuffed down my pants and everything slowed down. I carried out the motions, unpracticed and unprepared. As I drew mine, so did the motorcycle rider.

I didn’t think, I didn’t wait. I squeezed the trigger.

The kickback forced me to take hold with both hands. I kept firing, each gunshot as jarring as the last. Bright flashes took my sight. So I just kept firing, hoping. With his partner approaching behind me, he would hesitate.

It was over before I knew it. Empty clicks sounded. The motorcycle rider had fallen back, one out of nine had saved my life.

Then, she bashed me over the head.

I cried out as the extendable baton connected with my skull. My knees impacted the pavement and I fell over, hard. With instinct, my roll put me on my back. I was able to hold up my one arm to take the next swing, cradling my head with the other. Steel met steel, deflecting her blow and letting out a terrible clang.

I could actually feel the deep dent she struck.

“Fuck!” I kicked randomly, managing to hit something with a crack.

She screamed and stumbled sideways into the tight alley walls.

Without the strength to stand on my own, I could only crawl and try to brace myself against the corridor to work my way up.

Halfway to my feet, I saw her limping towards me, raising back her swing.

I threw a punch in the dark. My fleshy hand tagged face and pain shot up my limb. Again, I yelled in surprise.

Backing up, my glance caught empty air where the motorcycle rider had been. Taken off, perhaps just grazed and cowardly. My eyes were darting, trying to track everything in the unlit alley.

The woman mechanic had recovered, her black baton just a glint in the dark. On her face was a rubber mask, I finally noticed. A snarling black bear with glossy eyes.

We were deadlocked. She wouldn’t approach, I wouldn’t run.

She yelled at me. I would forget what exactly.

The white van honked twice. The limping woman began to back away. When I realized she was giving up, my legs nearly gave out. A steady torrent of insane obscenities and threats had been streaming out my mouth and I hadn’t even realized. Blood thumped in my ears. I had been screaming yet again.

She flipped me off as she threw herself through the door.

The van tires squealed, the taillights quickly disappearing.

God bless being more trouble than I’m worth.

I didn’t stay another second, first retrieving an empty gun, then getting cat and head in hand. The elevator ground door was so near.

I’d been mugged before, but nothing like that. I should have known.

Adrenaline caused an eerie quietness to fall on the world. At this time of night, now, save for the rainfall and gunshots’ lingering ringing, there was nothing.

But I had made it.

Blood streaming down from my scalp stung as it entered my eye. Half blinded, I still had the last stretch of walking ahead of me. I needed to get out of the rain, collect my things, and steal an hour of rest if I could.

If secret demons and muggers couldn’t kill me, fuck if another mile would.

//////////

When I had opened the door to my apartment, the first thing I saw were the red numbers on the wall. An inlaid clock ticked down to forced repossession and the beginning of the cleaning process. I had taken the time I needed to pack everything up, finally sitting down.

The cat was wandering about the room when I’d finished. He’d taken a shit under the bed. I considered taking one on the bed myself. They were going to burn everything anyway.

Beside me, the box of my few possessions was shallowly packed.

Just clothes, a laptop, some equipment, and food. When I thought of what I had to my name, digital achievements came to mind first, honestly. I’d beaten the Tetrarun on the hardest difficulty. I almost could have gone pro at one point, before the panic attacks and cold sweats caught up to me.

But I could never jack into the commercial system again. The sync up would immediately tell Smiler the naughty things I’d done. All of that was behind me.

“Come on, Cat.” I patted the bed. She turned her head but made no motion.

I sighed. Delilah came back to mind. I had never gotten her to come to my apartment, though I had really wanted to give it a try. Now I dreaded telling her about anything which had happened. But I would have to call her back eventually.

Unless I just… ghosted. The thought brought a deep uneasiness. That wasn’t something I wanted or could ever bring myself to do.

But I wasn’t sure where I would go from here. Beyond anything, I had wanted direction, but that direction was now pointing straight for hell. I had been homeless once before, back when I’d known Uriel. But that was so long ago it might as well have been a dream.

This is real.

The red countdown carried on and I had fifteen minutes left. Fifteen minutes just to stare at the glow, to shower or simply crawl into my covers and squeeze out the last moments of respite I could cling to.

Shaking out my odorous jacket, I started after my miserable tabby cat. There was nothing for me here.

I was done waiting around.

 

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>J28[mediocre_ideas]

From rock bottom, it can only get better, right?

That bike had been with me through thick and thin. When it had all been too much I would ride out, put myself in the hole for a few months, work off the insurance debt, then do the dance again.

But it was gone now and I was walking the streets alone. Over a thousand in Bits burning in my pocket.

My building was somewhere up ahead. I had tried to track down a garage within a reasonable distance. But with my heart and sedentary lifestyle, the trek was killing me. I had reached the point that my mind slowed to a dull rumination while I carried on, unsure if I was even going the right way.

The highway was over my head, rumbling and squealing. Under its coverage, I was dry enough, so I had followed it by memory. Every mistake would be just another toll on my muscles for the morning.

I stepped over people lying in the street. Navigated around blockades of garbage.

Even with the money in my pocket, I wasn’t really afraid. Theft was an uncommon crime in this era. If you could call it that. Nothing singled me out, so I was safe. Safe because petty theft stood to gain no one anything.

Every homeless person on this road had a phone on their person. They were dispensed from vending machines like cheap candy, free on every street corner. An ear in every pocket, the currency of privacy a price they were blind to.

They want our secrets.

The vagrants’ grimy faces and absent stares were lit by Smiler’s enticing eye in their palm. Even in the grim darkness of the underpass, the candied glow remained.

I grimaced.

Looking up and around, I had to admit it to myself; I wasn’t sure where I was. All the concrete looked the same at this hour. Every shop was a chain, every piece of architecture the same repetition. There was no such thing as a landmark.

As I kept walking I stayed on the lookout. As much contempt as had just been on my mind, I couldn’t deny it. I needed a phone.

At the next corner, a white vending machine stood out. I ducked through a patch of open air to drop my hand down on its faceplate.

Somewhere down the next few blocks, a gunshot sounded.

I didn’t like the implication. My paranoia surpassed my placating rationality.

This isn’t a high crime area. It was supposed to be subdued, bleak, and docile. I had paid to live it. There was seventy-percent camera coverage in this district. I knew it for a fact.

But I was missing something obvious.

The clear glass phone dropped into the bin at the bottom of the machine. I took it out and swiped my thumb. My data was there already from the cloud. The map came up without request.

Goddammit. I had been going the wrong way.

To get home I would have to cut through an alley, take a street elevator, and then hop the next train. I’d only just be able to arrive and collect what I could before instant eviction at dawn. Sleep was nowhere in that plan. The creeping exhaustion I felt boded ill, but I didn’t have a choice.

I had taken the cat out of my shirt and wrapped her in a jacket. The smell of piss lingered, but I had given up caring. She was snug in my arms as we entered the next unlit passage. Continue reading