>M39[closed_coffin]

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.

Now.

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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>M38[six_deep]

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.

>initiate//:pilot_assist.exe

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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>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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