>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.

In all my time on the deep shadowy web, I’d had a singular taste for raw cognitive input. It was what I’d trained myself on. Every piece was like a language of its own, a network of thoughts and contexts stretching beyond what could possibly be recording. But slowly you put it together. Slowly it made an experience of greater clarity than even my own. It was perfect consciousness. For this woman?

Sheer terror.

The recording picked up with her being drug out of her home. Two men, one tumorous and hunched, pulled her by the feet along the road. As she screamed, what few neighbors she’d had in the farthest slums paid no mind.

But it was as if the recording kept drifting. Even as she was horrified, she wasn’t thinking of herself. She was thinking of a purpose. It was some thing-of-importance which she would never see completed.

“I didn’t…” a cough broke me, “… I didn’t expect, but… She’s intelligent,” I said.

“None of you are, actually,” Ash replied.

“No, I mean… these thought patterns are too layered. She’s in too many places at once. The complexity… I wouldn’t have noticed if it weren’t noticeable…” I watched the recording dim as the kidnappers loaded me… her… into a trunk. Though adrenaline washed the experience in vivid detail, the system knew to skip forward. “They’re taking her somewhere. I just have to figure out where…”

“You call this old fleshbag brilliant as if you’re surprised she’s at your level. This dead hag. I’ve always been curious. Do you know just how pathetic your species’ intellect is?”

“You’re breaking my concentration.”

“Answer the question, faggot.”

“I don’t think of myself as smart…” I struggled to order the informational chaos with him talking. “I’m the biggest idiot I know, actually.”

Ash laughed. “You’re aware of your own limitations, Frode. And that awareness, deep down, I know it shows you. The truth is, they’re sacks of talking meat. They’re automaton drones of impulse no more complex than chemical reactions. Fucking semblances of conscious existence, utterly unremarkable and disposable, and you can’t even help your shock at the slightest exception.” He seethed with contempt. “I know even you’ve known it, with your meager light.”

I grimaced. “Just… Let me fucking work, okay? I’m winging it, you piece of shit. And I’d like to get the hell out of here.” Every breath was a struggle.

His following hateful cackle wasn’t enough to stop me. With my anger giving me the push I needed, I brought out the proper interpretation and found the image again.

They were dragging her out of the car. Her eyes darted over the empty streets, no different from any other blackout-zone roads. They landed on the heavy steel doors of the building which she was being pulled towards. Only, they briefly cut away.

Down the unlit road, she had caught sight of something. At the very end of the street was an old concrete park, swings jostling in the breeze. Barely making it out over the distance, it had carried her someplace. Dread mixed with fear and finally a sense of fate.  It all bottomed out at an understanding.

I almost ripped the cord from my neck. I had to catch my hand as it went for the line instinctually. The reality she had accepted overwhelmed my own. Nothing but sheer will pulled me through as she acknowledged and accepted her death.

The old woman was as silent as the grave as they brought her in. Down corridors and past slaughter chambers. She was taken a red-lit room in the building’s basement.

Saltwater flooded the floors leading up to a steel platform and then to what looked like an electric chair.

I could hear the familiar sound of the Moribund man skittering along the rafters above. He was there and watching. This was his den.

A whole chorus of voices sounded. Men and women, all in unison. “May this one be blessed. May she lead us to what is ours.”

I watched what I felt were my own arms be strapped into the chair. Over my head, a massive chamber was lowering down. Skin crawled at the damp and sticky texture of the seat.

The voices spoke. “Leave your flesh behind. It is naught but rot. Forsake its call for it is now slaughter-fuel. You rise as the lamb of the proud, Child.

I screamed. The chamber clamped down on her skull and I felt one of the men slide a knife through the soft flesh of my stomach. All the sensations were blending together.

The wires flew from my neck and I threw off my mask.

I was alone in the pitch black, unable to see more than a bare outline of crimsoned skin by the little moonlight reaching inside. Hundreds of reflective eyes stared at me further into the dark, startled by my scream. They waited and watched.

Collecting my composure took a long silence. When I had put back on my mask, I looked at Ash. “We have what we need… Come on.”

I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t going to die. Even in the face of it, I would never accept death like the old woman at my feet had. That set us apart.

Tonight I would face the grave and live.

 

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