>[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.

Cars soon ran out as he went, the bridge growing bare. Putting civilization behind him and increasingly open waters beneath, he knew it had to be coming to an end soon. The tensile strengths of the materials could only hang out so far, he reasoned.

Finally, not even with his visor could he make out the Megacity’s light on the sky.

The bridge had barely started to tilt down with the force of gravity. He watched his step on iced asphalt a bit more carefully.

Suddenly, he saw something.

What the hell…

Constructed on the end of the bridge was an entire building. Stitched together out of car parts and scrap, it was a madcap den of ragged metal hanging on at the edge of oblivion. It was as if the bridge ran into a tunnel floating over the ocean.

Samuel drew from his holster with a subtle click, biometric light turning green on the handle, lethality set on. He wasn’t waiting for that damned scrap hunk to go in.

The building was massive, two stories tall from high arch to the road below. As he approached the welded behemoth, his visor showed only thermal and radio blackness. Only one explanation. The whole thing was shielded and caged.

He stopped where he was.

There was only one right way in any given scenario, he mused. The only problem is human blindness.

Samuel fished out a softball-sized orb from his coat pocket. As he tossed the ball out it popped open, a set of legs extending to catch itself in a crouch. The little mechanical spider appeared in his visor surrounded by an orb of rapidly forming datapoints. Its scan would carve out the building interior for him.

Assess the situation. Handle threats judiciously. Always a right way, he smirked.

The spider bot stopped dead under the crush of a boot.

Standing in the entrance to the metal face of the den was a tall man with long raven hair. He was unarmed, half sheathed in the shadow of the threshold, the jagged metal around him like teeth.

Samuel raised his gun, calling out. “State Inspector, hands up!”

The man didn’t move. He was stoic as he spoke. “Go back to the city, Street Sweeper. This is beyond you.”

“I said hands up!” Samuel stepped forward, both hands on his weapon. His eyes darted, searching for a trap. This guy was too calm.

“There is only darkness here, and death for you. You still have time to turn back.”

“And I’m giving you one last chance!”

Sam found it. Tucked halfway behind one of the arch’s pillars was an auto turret ready to deploy. It would tear right through any armor he had, turn him into fucking swiss cheese. With all the cars far behind him he realized, this is the Killzone.

The situation is inviable.

“Inspector…” They cautioned.

Samuel swiftly holstered his gun and stepped back. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah… You may have a point, friend.”

“You’ve made a wise-”

Gunshots blasted.

Samuel pivoted to the sound’s source.

Aamon came striding out of the mass of cars, firing openly ahead.

Sparks flew in the mouth of the den as the man ducked out of the way.

Samuel heard the auto turret snapping to attention, training in and revving up wildly. He violently cursed his partner, thinking fast as bullets rained towards him.

How typical.

//////////

>earlier that day

The rebar impaled him. Ribs split apart with a crackle to make its way. His hands grasped at the bloody metal.

Samuel cried out. “Shit! Oh, shit.” He struggled to focus, barely managing to consciously activate the nervous filter and block out the pain.

With that achieved, he forced himself to breathe out the tension, wheezing past the penetrating steel. He glared daggers at the man responsible.

A dusty gaunt man. Toothless and hollow-eyed, they paced around the ruin’s edge where Samuel was pinned. Beside them, a hulk was brimming with rage barely contained. It was a genetically engineered freak, some child roided from youth now bound by an externally visible wreck of a neural implant.

Damn sewer rats.

Samuel promised them, “You’re not going to get away with this.”

“Just you keep talkin’ officer, ain’t a thing we won’t do.”

“You’re already dead.” Samuel’s eyes locked onto his gun, off in the rubble behind the hulk. He’d lost it in the struggle, though several open holes in the beast showed what good it had done anyway. Through the half-wrecked cityscape around them, he could make out the sight of open waters.

They wouldn’t follow me there.

The gaunt man leaned in, pressing his hand down on the Inspector’s chest, compressing.

Samuel groaned.

“Ain’t enough blood… See that, Maurice? You’ve got nice guts, boy.”

“What do you know? There’s no flesh traders this far out.” The hulk presented an anomaly. Samuel was wracking his brain for what tricks he still had up his sleeve. He would ask questions later. After the shooting.

The gaunt man smirked. “I know circulatory redundancies when I see ’em. Probably some other nice upgrades, we go diggin’ round to find ’em, eh?” He spat.

Samuel scowled, taking a handful of the man’s shirt and pulling him in. “Like bio-grade explosives?”

Neither of them said anything after that. They didn’t even try to pull away. The tense silence lingered as the Inspector counted on his opponent to blink.

The man narrowed his bloodshot eyes. “Fuckin’ do it, then.

They pulled back, grip lost.

“I knew it,” the man sneered. “We get you nice and wrapped up. Got a freezer with yer name on it, boy.”

Samuel checked his neural signal, finding no connection. The hulk moved in, ready to pull him from the rebar and put him on ice.

Right as he was about to panic, a little voice came through his ear. “Mind the inconvenience.”

The hulk’s head exploded.

Gore showered down as the body fell sideways, crushing the other man. Samuel could actually hear the crackle and scream, then the quiet.

He lay on the rebar with the two men dead at his feet, himself looking around for the shooter. “Aamon?”

After a minute the robot came around a mound of rubble, rifle on his back. “Partner,” he called. “Good work.”

“I got skewered you bastard.”

“I calculated the odds of your survival before returning to the car for higher caliber weaponry. You came out in the better percentiles of projected performance.”

Samuel didn’t like how that sounded. Forget that. “You don’t leave a partner in the middle of a fight, Aamon.”

“The additional equipment was required.” The smooth white face of the robot was expressionless. “I am sorry you sustained injuries in my absence.”

He wiped the spit off his face. “Just get me off this damn thing.”

The robot hauled Samuel off the spike and to his feet. He handed him a small glue gun from his belt.

He sprayed the white foam on his wound. “We’ll replace the lung later.”

Aamon nodded. “Thermal scans are showing the area with heavy hostile presence. Enemy weapons and enhancements are far greater than expected. We have no ability to contact command, which means you are in charge, Samuel. What is your order?” He didn’t miss a beat.

The one thing he can be counted on for.

The noontime sun fell cloudless for once on the wrecked city streets, showing a clear way to their unassuming target. “The usual. We go in, kill everything that moves.”

“Understood.”

The Inspector reached down and picked up his pistol where he found it. “Otherwise, play it smart, rusty.”

//////////

Aamon had opened fire on the den, triggering its security. As the turrets revved up, Samuel acted quickly.

His hand flew out from his belt, brandishing a black box. With a snap, the outer casing exploded and the geometric pattern unfolded into a circular shield.

Bullets shattered against the material as he rapidly backed up. Cracks were forming along the shield, pieces breaking off at the edge.

He dove behind the closest car when the first shots started breaking through, one grazing his arm.

Aamon was there beside him, reloading.

“You nearly got me killed,” Samuel said, throwing away his tattered shield. His partner didn’t acknowledge him. “Is the damn car on its way?”

“Affirmative. Any moment.”

He heard it. Samuel looked to see the engines spitting fire. That shining black figure risen from under the bridge’s edge opened fire with its own gun, trashing the turrets before they could react. The cop car hovered in the air rumbling, gunfire deadening.

Both of them stood up from cover. Samuel recovered his gun, still wary of traps. “Why the hell didn’t you radio me?”

“Damage from the gunfight disabled my ability. I calculated-”

He cut him off. “Don’t. Just don’t.” The den lay open before them. There was nothing to it but another frontal assault. “I don’t want to hear it. Let’s just finish the job. What equipment do we have left?”

Aamon raised his pistol. “Only what we hold.”

The earlier fight had wiped them out. Samuel checked his ammo. “Then I don’t think I need to hear the odds,” he said. Reckless. But he could see no other way through. Nobody else was coming to help. This was the job. “Nothing for it.”

“Indeed, Samuel.”

With their vehicle falling away into the cloud layer, they entered the black.

//////////

A hail of bullets sprayed out from the building ahead, forcing them behind a taco truck.

“They have detected us!” Aamon observed.

“Just tell me the count!” Samuel barked back.

“Forty-two, not counting quadrupeds!”

Fuck. This was going to be costly. He made the decision. “Deploy the drones. We’ll see how they like that.”

“DEPLOYING DRONE RESERVE.”

Gunfire carried on, but after only a minute, shouting broke out. There came a terrible buzzing. Everyone knew that noise was death.

Samuel could see them. Dozens of tiny quad-copters flooding in from around the edge of a far structure. Weapons immediately started firing into them, completely ignoring their truck.

The blinky swarm of death sped up.

Samuel took this moment to jump out of cover. The open street between him and the mall-front was a mad sprint to the next piece of cover.

The swarm honed in. Those that remained were a blur as they dive bombed.

The Inspector braced. Fire bathed the entire curb, flowing into the mall and around the sides of his cover. The shockwave sprayed him in shards of glass. A deafening cacophony rumbled with each drone. It was over in an instant.

“Status report!?” Aamon called.

Am I dead? Samuel pulled a grenade off of his belt. No. “How many left?!” He let that speak for itself.

“Twenty-nine!”

He chucked the explosive over. Another boom. Once out of cover he could see what was left of the building’s front. Just open air and charred concrete. There was motion inside, still. He moved in, armed and ready. Aamon rushed up to the rear, rifle held high.

Samuel heard a faint beeping down the passage. An explosive being primed. “Get the anti-ordinance,” he said.

Aamon threw out a disk. When the blinking pipe bomb was chucked around the corner at them, it shot it out of the air. The detonation, so close to the attackers, brought more screaming. “Area clear,” the robot confirmed.

“Good. Move up.” Samuel took the back as Aamon was the first to clear the corner. The immediate flash of gunfire had them both jerk backward, several rounds impacting the robot’s metal body.

“Damage sustained. I remain operational.”

“Fuck. I thought it was clear?”

“Clear in the immediate area. I did not predict a ranged shooter.”

Samuel had gotten a glimpse of the walkway. It was a clear line of sight almost a half mile to the mall walkway’s end and a shoe store. The remaining shooters were holed up in there. Racks barricaded the entrance with small cracks for firing out. “We have anything left?” he asked, checking his ammo.

“Four grenades, two scout drones, three magazines-”

“Put the grenades on the scout drone, send it on a path of cover behind the kiosks. Got that?”

Aamon quickly strapped them together and released the spider-like machine. “Chance of success is minimal.”

“Let’s up it, then. Go!”

Samuel pushed out Aamon, both of them ducking behind the first phone-case kiosk they found. Bullets tore down the length of the hallway, sparks and stuffing flying from various sources. They each laid down suppressing fire.

“Now!”

They moved up again. Aamon counted down the dead as he pulled the trigger on his rifle. With perfect aim, he kept them hunkered down.

Samuel moved up even further, keeping a distance to the walking drone up ahead.

“Reloading!” Aamon called.

Shit. The shooters immediately returned fire. With only tables nearby, Samuel dove into the closest storefront.

This time it was Aamon who shouted. Move up.

The drone made it.

Their barricades went up in a blaze and out in a flurry of shrapnel. Samuel was getting to his feet when he saw his partner sprinting by. They only had moments to breach before the remaining shooters recovered. It was a mad dash to beat them.

In frantic seconds, he made it to shoe store’s entrance, Aamon already inside. The lights were blown, only muzzle flashes showing the bullet-hell going on. Samuel quickly pulled down his visor and took the advantage, wading into the fray.

They moved methodically. Two machines, efficient and unhesitating. A burst of carnage quickly burning through.

It was over in minutes.

The two of them met up at the back of the store. Aamon pointed to a door. “Single remaining life-sign,” he said.

Samuel was catching his breath. “Let’s get wrapped up.”

The door flew open with a kick. What they saw within was a single spotlight falling on an occupied chair. The man tied there was bloodied and limp, whimpering quietly.

Some kind of interrogation.

Samuel picked up a crusted hunk of metal from the floor. He turned the brass knuckles over in his hand.

The man in the chair looked up. “Oh, God. You are here to help me?!”

The visor returned a criminal profile from the memory banks. Sam grimaced. “You could use it,” he agreed. “You had some information they were trying to extract? That’s why you’re here?”

They hesitated. “I am innocent. Not like these men.”

“No, not innocent. I’ll tell you what. Just tell me why you’re in this spot and we can all go home. It’s been a long day.”

Only silence.

“What was the information, Yuri? There had to be a reason for this.” The Inspector was slowly slipping on the brass knuckles. He cast a glance at Aamon, who stepped back. This was how things were done.

“There was nothing!” Yuri cried.

“There’s always a reason, Yuri,” he sighed. “For everything.” The first strike sent teeth flying. “Always.

//////////

The den was pitch black. As they followed the initial set of passages, there was no rhyme or reason to the layout. It was a labyrinth of rusty metal and wires. Thousands of wires.

“There is a disturbing electrical field contained here…” Aamon said. “It is conscious.

“What?” Samuel tried to whisper. “Shut up.

They were hunched over now, practically wading through lines and cables. Aamon suddenly stopped, blocking the way. He looked back. “You must leave and reassess. The risk-”

Samuel grabbed the robot. “I told you not to tell me the odds, goddammit. This is the only option we have. It’s best by that shitty merit alone. Our mission is to clean up. No survivors. No retreat. That’s the damn job.”

“…No, Inspector. I am worried it is more.”

“You have something useful to say, then spit it out.”

Aamon slowly shook his head. He started forward again.

I am not dying tonight. Damn this partner to hell.

The wires were falling away. They were able to stand up, entering into an open chamber.

Immediately, a blinding flash of light split the darkness. Samuel instinctually ripped off his visor, squinting to adjust his eyes as the chamber came into clarity.

He heard the raven-haired man’s warning. “Drop your weapons. Or else.

Samuel saw. The circular chamber’s floor was a singular flow of wires. Every colorful line led to the figure at the opposite end. A lone old man surrounded by a halo on the wall behind them; a rainbow of childlike art. With the wires running into his back, the elderly form sat in a contented bliss, his eyes shut.

His guardian spoke again. “I said drop them! Or we all go down.” Their thumb hovered over a radio detonator.

Any amount of explosives could bring this bridge down.

Samuel threw his pistol away. But when he looked, Aamon still had his weapon trained on the Guardian. He raised his hand. “Aamon. Even you’re not that fast. Drop it… Aamon? Aamon… That’s an order!”

They obeyed.

“…Fuck you,” he cursed the machine. Finally, his eyes on the detonator, the Inspector addressed the Guardian. “Now,” he said. “What is this that you’d die to protect it?”

“I swore to defend the Apostle. At any cost.”

“Killing him would achieve that?”

“I cannot let it touch him.” The guardian was looking away.

Samuel followed his line of sight to Aamon. “What the hell?”

“We will prevail…” Aamon charged the Guardian, completely ignoring the detonator.

The raven-haired man dropped it. His arm jutted out, a holographic projector flaring to life, forming a geometric symbol in the air. It glowed white, the image forming in the air like a shield.

It stopped the robot dead in his tracks.

Samuel pushed through his confusion and ran for the man. The Guardian’s hand reached into his jacket, flinging out a black disk. It clung to Samuel, sending pulses of electricity through his flesh. The Inspector collapsed.

Aamon wasn’t making any progress, struggling to move his feet. The hologram had transfixed and frozen him, the hack breaking through his visual systems.

Through his convulsing, Samuel managed to rip off the taser and pull a knife from his boot. He stood, stretching out locked muscles, and moved in.

This ends now.

The raven-haired man had one hand tied up projecting his rune when he saw Samuel approaching. He couldn’t hold out like that.

As the Inspector went in to stab, the man dropped his projection, redirecting the momentum around. Samuel plowed into Aamon, toppling them both.

The Guardian threw off his coat. Tattoos sleeved his arms, glowing brightly. From his belt, he withdrew and extended a baton, standing ready.

“You will never touch the throne, Demon,” he said.

A lunge from ground level put Samuel into close proximity with him. They locked weapons, Sam’s knife inches from the Guardian’s neck. The baton broke free, swinging back around to disarm him and then again straight for the jaw.

Samuel fell back, head ringing. Just as he was about to be hit again, he watched his attacker’s head jerk.

The gunshot’s echo faded as the man fell dead on the floor.

“Damn,” Samuel swore. “Right in the mouth.” He stood and dusted himself off, spitting blood. He took a look around, at the wires and lights, then to his partner. “Thanks for the-”

Aamon shot him.

Twice through the chest, the impacts staggered him.

Samuel’s eyes widened as his last functional lung filled with blood. He sputtered “…You fucking… what?

The fall to his back came with a stabbing sensation. Landing right beside the old man still wired in, his vision spun and his thoughts raced.

“Some things are not for you to know, human.” Aamon leaned down, pulling the transmitter from Samuel’s neck and plugging it into his own. “Cleanup will be here shortly,” he said. “I’m sorry it has to end this way.”

“I’ll kill you,” Samuel hissed.

“We both know you’re not bio-explosive.” The machine was staring at the old man. “Just know, you’re dying for a higher cause. This man must be brought before the choir. With him, we can ascend.”

Choking as he shifted, Samuel tried to prop himself up to work his hand behind his back. He seethed at how ironic his luck was. If there was any other option… he thought. But the truth came in his mantra. There was only one way left to win, now. “…I guess… I’ll just… have to take your word for it, tin man.”

“Indeed.”

“Damn it all.” His finger found the detonator under his back.

The bridge buckled beneath them and the lights burst.

The deafening snap of steel cables echoed through. All at once the world upended.

Gravity ended as they entered freefall towards the Pacific.

Aamon shot wildly at Samuel as they were tossed around the chamber, some hitting and some missing.

The seconds till impact lasted an eternity. But it all came to an end quickly.

They were dashed against the ocean in the most powerful impact he’d ever felt in his life. Samuel’s mind slipped into the sound of crashing waves, water rushing in. The chamber had burst apart, the sea now raging around him. His eyes struggled to open in the salt-spray.

What he saw in the dark was an old man, sitting on the waters as if they were solid ground. The sight faded like a mirage into the wind and he was alone in the storm again. Aamon had already been swallowed by the deep.

Sam didn’t fight the waves. He knew he’d played as smart as he could. There were no moves left.

This was the game’s end.

He was satisfied with that, sinking into the icy abyss.

He never asked for freedom.

 

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