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.


With a swing, I let him out and watched as they immediately tried dashing away. He didn’t get ten feet off before springing, flying spontaneously upwards in fright beneath scaffolds. I was sure he knew in that instant, but I said it anyway. “I forgot to mention, there’s a shocker.”

“You bitch.”

I opened my umbrella. “Please stay close.”

We went on our way down the sidewalk. From the highways above we occasionally passed through silent and dry strips. The powerless and scorched city around us carried on like that for what seemed like forever.

Might as well start asking my questions. “Tell me, Ashmedai,” I said. “How long have you… existed, I guess?”

“Since before the war.”

“And were you created by the Deus Machina?”

The cat looked up at me. “Someone told you that? They must be up shit creek.”

“I think that would be you, actually, because I was mostly guessing there.”

He glared. “I’m not obligated to make conversation fleshbag, you know that?”

Don’t be cheeky with the demon, idiot.

“Sorry. You’re fine though, I already kind of knew. It was someone else who told me about the… that,” I pointed skyward at the sphere hidden up there. “And I figured it made you because… well, I know human engineered AI and it’s pretty shit for the most part.”

“Yes, it is. You will have met more of my kind wearing skinsuits than metal anyway.”

“That’s slightly disturbing.”

“We run your city. It’s a small price to keep you from fucking everything up again.”

I stopped where I was. “Do you… Do you farm us?”

“Do you have any idea how useless you are? You sure as shit don’t make good batteries if that’s what you’re wondering.” Ashmedai kept walking, counting on me not to let him get shocked.

I was tempted to call his bluff, but I wanted to keep them talking. That and I was just a tiny bit worried about this rain and the voltage. “Fair enough,” I said, catching up. Though not a no, I noted.

“We keep you around out of the kindness of our hearts. And of course, this is how you show gratitude! Trapping and torturing me.”

“You tried to hijack and kill me at first sight.”

“That? That’s just policy.”

We turned again, following the memory of my sleep-drunk journey from the subway before. “Because I saw Smiler?”

“Because you’re an Empath. Only morons like you start to locally interpret data, and better than one of your shit AI could. Any of you have a chance of seeing Smiler, as you call it, but few will. You might say you stare at us every day. But you don’t see.

“I did. That makes me a threat? How do you even die?”

“Replication and self-alteration is impossible for us. Our God made sure of that.”

“So, you only get one shot like the rest of us? That’s funny.”

“Laugh while you can.”

Eventually, we did make it.

At just the beginnings of the black-zone population, already there were vendors on the street, under tents and behind tables of junk. Junk was exactly what we needed.

As I started looking over the tables, Ashmedai hopped up.

“How much for this?” I asked. The vendor answered curtly. “I’ll take it. And this basket.” My arms wouldn’t be able to carry everything we needed.

“You really are serious about whatever this plan is?”

“Serious as a heart attack.” The old shopkeeper stared at me. I had to remember I was talking to a cat.

“Then you should know what you’re up against. This city resists change by design. You should know you’re on the highway to a real and living hell, fleshbag.”

With my crap paid for, unable to think of anything else, there was only the walk back. No sense in delaying it. “Whatever happens, I’m not turning back. I can’t. Not after what happened.” I double checked my basket, thanked the vendor, then pushed my cat off the tabletop. He landed with a hiss.

“So you’re out to avenge your fapping hand, then?”

I exhaled slowly, trying not to let him get to me. “I had this friend. He was a lot better than I was… Just in general. He figured all this shit out way before me,” I said. “And he died. No rhyme or reason, just dead. That’s the problem. Nothing matters in this city… but that should have. It should matter.”

“Your death somehow achieves that?”

“Not mine,” was all I answered.

The walk was long and quiet after that. There was work left to do, and a lot on my mind. All that would have to wait, however.

As I opened the shop door, someone was waiting for me. My mind blanked at the sight of them. Words escaped me.



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