My teeth wouldn’t stop rattling as I watched the scenery blur into unintelligible streaks of neon lines, corporate logos and a dark forest of lumbering skyscrapers, my forehead resting against the filthy LED window. The sickening shaking sensation wasn’t the rail car – no, it hissed along the magnetic track as smoothly as it always had – it was my neurals, they were beginning to 404. But I didn’t have the yuan to rig it, so, it looked like I’d just have to enjoy my fresh case of the Vibe. They used to call it the Black Shakes, until the powers-that-be decided that label wasn’t PC enough.
“H-H-Holden K…lein!” The window flickered to life with the fuzzy image of a stupidly grinning, mechanically stuttering Anglo, walking across a compgen beachscape. “Isn’t it t-t-t-time you had a v-va-vacation? Why, it’s been twenty-fi-fi-five years since you’ve l-l-left New D-Detroit!”
“Skip,” I ordered. It took a moment, but the ad faded and I was left staring out at the skyline that encompassed my only home. Vacation? I had never left the city.
I gritted my teeth and wished the rattling would stop.
“Our station is coming up, Holden.” Hera’s voice slid through my frayed neural pathways like aloe on a burn. I had sampled classic synth singers to find the perfect representation for her voice when I designed her. Growing up, I didn’t have the money to slave an AI to my core, but I did have a lot of time and access to my father’s workshop after he passed. I figured it out.
Hera was a digital phantom, and while other AIs could pass for human beings, I didn’t quite have the technical experience to get her right. She was a stark white, translucent – but beautiful – creation with long hair that flowed like she was underwater. The simplest clothing to design for Hera was a toga, so that was that, though she really does fill it out in a sexy, natural kind of way. She was holding steady, except for the constant mist-like wisps of pixelation.
“Did Ava forward the list?” I asked, but I could have torn off my clothes and shouted up and down the railcar for all the attention that I was getting. The dozen or so passengers were all running their own apps, watching cinematics only they could see, hearing synths only they could hear. They were checked into their own little worlds, but still, I was nervous.
“Nothing read as of yet, but there is a hanging message set to download upon arrival at the medical center.” Hera offered me a worried look as she canted her head to the side. “Your vitals are erratic.”
“Grave robbing will do that to a guy,” I said, noticing only then that my leg had been bouncing up and down the whole time. I put my hand on my knee and forced it down, holding it in place.
Hera’s face flickered, the look of worry turned to annoyance in a flash. A part of me was glad to see I hadn’t lost my touch.
“Not about your nerves, Holden. It’s your synapses, they’re shorting. Running diagnostic on current operating-”
“Cancel.” I vetoed my AI and offered a halfhearted smile. “I ran one earlier. I’m fine.”
“You’re lying. I have access to your operational records and -” Hera was cut short by an elderly man sitting into the seat that her avatar had been occupying. She flickered out of existence, just like a ghost. The man offered me a grim stare and I broke eye contact with him, looking forward to where Hera was now standing, her hands on her hips as she shot him a frustrated glare. “I hate being sat on.”
“You’re a program, Hera,” I explained for the thousandth time. “You only exist in my gray meat, you weren’t actually on the seat.”
“You programmed me to interact with my surroundings as you see them. So, yes, they’re really there for me and it is your fault!”
I shook my head, and watched as my cart pulled into the station. “This one?”
Hera nodded. I envied her as she flickered out of existence.
I grunted, grabbed my bag, slid it over my shoulder and fought the incoming crowd on my way into the city.
Hera floated by my side as I entered the main doors of the Bloomfield Medical Center’s ER. I was happy to be out of the bitter autumn chill that was blowing down from the Great Lakes. It was a busy waiting room, with all manner of human misery on display, in every flavor of sickness and injury. I hated hospitals. They always had that antiseptic-but-still-urine-soaked-smell and everything was habitually clean. As I walked through the automatic doors, a second digital avatar appeared with a sound reminiscent of a door bell from one of those old Hollywood-era flicks. The second avatar was dressed like a 1950s nurse, complete with a red-cross emblazoned little white hat. She smiled her ruby red lips at me.
“Hello, Holden Klein! I wish we were meeting under different circumstances. My name’s Mercy. Could you tell me the nature of your emergency?” The woman canted her head to the side as she awaited an answer. There was something creepy about the avatars that tried to look human. Maybe it was the way they blinked. Somehow not random enough.
“Uhhh. I’m sick?” I said, my eyes scanning the waiting room. “Can I speak to an attendant?”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Klein, but there are currently no staff available to speak with you. We’re very busy, tonight! Could you tell me your symptoms?” the AI asked cheerily without missing a beat.
Hera chimed in, “The message arrived, Holden. It’s the list. Would you like me to track it on your retinal display?”
“Go for it,” I said, and my macabre shopping list blipped into existence in blocky neon red letters, complete with boxes next to them for digital check marks. I spared another look around the room. There really wasn’t anyone watching over the ER. I was expecting that; the weekdays didn’t warrant meat at the counter. But I did notice the four cameras located in the corners of the room. They were barely –bottlecap-sized black circles on the wall, but when you’re as prone to trouble as I was, you tend to pay attention to the little things.
“Holden, I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong,” Mercy chided. Government AIs were always so damn condescending.
“Hera, run program – sublimate.” I gestured towards the hospital’s AI.
“She’s not really my type…” Hera began, but stopped once I shot her a withering stare. “Fine!” she stretched out the ‘I’ sound with a huff.
“I’m sorry, Mister Klein, could you clarify-” Mercy began to speak as Hera’s hand slid into the AI’s chest. Mercy shook like she was having a grand mal. Gleaming, crackling white tears appeared on her avatar as Hera uploaded a special virus I had designed for just such an occasion. Mercy froze up, her ivory-flecked ruby lips stilled in a ring of surprise.
Hera shuddered as she withdrew her hand. “I’ll call you, promise…” she muttered to the stricken AI and played coyly with a long, floating white bang.
“On job,” I said as I pulled my coat hood up and over my scraggly black hair. “Nav me over to the-”
“Morgue,” Hera finished my sentence and a three-dimensional white arrow popped along the wall and slid past two maglocked doors with a sign above that warned against unauthorized entry.
“Good, and now that you’re in the Mercy program-” I began.
“Doors.” Hera waved her hand in a bored manner and Mercy moved like a jerky marionette, her arms pantomiming opening the doors from across the room. The maglocks clicked off and the doors slid open, revealing a long lifeless hallway, painted beige and lined with soothing, government-approved landscape paintings. “Also, I’m taking the liberty of scrubbing you from the security feed, Holden. Both archives and streaming vid.”
“And Mercy’s greeting backlog?”
“I love you,” I whispered.
“I know,” she said with a grin. “Now, get moving. I’ll reroute Nav around meat patrols, so be ready to change direction when necessary.”
I shouldered my heavy, imitation leather satchel and stepped through the open doors nonchalantly. Like one of my favorite classic vid heroes from back when I was a little kid said, it was time to “fly casual”. I didn’t spare anyone in the waiting room a second glance, and truth be told, I wasn’t expecting them to wonder about me. We were all connected to each other like never before and yet, no one looked up anymore. Somewhere along the road, humanity’s car had careened off an embankment and we’ve been slowly dying in a ditch ever sense.
I only had to take a few detours: once to avoid a doctor having a virtual conference in Mandarin, and another time to avoid a repair crew sent to fix a sparking autobuff. The doors to the morgue were in front of me, and with Hera wearing the hospital’s AI like a glove, it wasn’t any kind of problem to crack the lock. Hera’s navigational assistance faded away as the thick metal doors slid open with a thick clunk and I stepped into the cool, climate- controlled dead body repository. With any luck, we’d be just in time to liberate some necessary parts before the stiffs headed on to their mandatory date with the crematorium. The back of the windowless wall contained the drawers, circular pods that held the bodies until they could be picked up by the sanitation crews.
“Pop ’em.” I gestured to the wall.
“Which?” Hera asked.
“All of them.” I shifted the bag from my shoulder to the floor and pressed the zipper release. I was too busy getting my tools in order to see what Hera was up to, but I heard the hiss of a dozen pods unsealing and the whir of their motors as they slid open on their tracks. “Run the death certs, find me a hanged man,” I whispered.
“The odds of finding a suicide victim that-”
“It doesn’t have to be a suicide.”
“Still, the odds – oh…well, not quite a hanging, but these two gentlemen have suffocation listed as cause of death.” Hera’s eyes glinted, and the pods she had been speaking about flashed on my retinal display like they were being backlit by a floodlight.
I took another glance at my “shopping list” and peeled the plastic safety tape off the laser-edged teeth of my bone saw. “That’s pretty zip. Tell me more.”
Hera pointed to one of the illuminated pods. “Choked on the ‘Chipolte Jalapeno Whopper Senior,’ it’s a limited-time-only hamburger that-”
“Next,” I cut in.
“Auto-erotic asphyxiation gone wrong.”
“Rope?” I asked hopefully.
“Crash it, close enough.” I shifted over to the pod and looked down at the dark-skinned male with the bruising around his throat. Hopefully the recipe wasn’t going to be that picky. I revved the miniature chainsaw like the world’s least intimidating slash-vid villain and set to work separating the poor bastard’s hand from his wrist. I ran into a little trouble with the polycarbon feed line to what I think was a grip augmenter. I’m a software man by trade and I’ve always found hardware a little trickier to savvy. I slid open a small, bioplast bag and slipped the now-separated hand inside, opening up a chilled side compartment on my satchel and sliding it all in. “’Hand of Glory,’ check,” I said, wiping the remnants of Strangle Fan’s meat on the side of my stain-proof yellow Levis. A bright blue X stamped across the checklist box and I looked down to the next item.
“Eyes of green?” I asked, switching over to my next high-tech tool: A table spoon.
“Mm…” my avatar hummed to herself. “We have a natural hazel, and a woman who received gene therapy to change her eye color. The second one is more green, technically?”
“I’m in the wrong mode here. I’ll take them all and let Ava defrag,” I muttered. Maybe all the bloody Sims I played had desensitized me, but sliding the metal scoop underneath the soft meat and jerking the orbs free from their sockets didn’t actually bother me. Even if I was a little anxious about the prospect of getting caught, I kept telling myself, it was for the good of the world. No twist. When did grave robbing get so mashed? I wondered.
“Perhaps since graveyards were abolished in the late 2040s, as they were found to be economically inefficient. The space could be better utilized to maximize corporate earning potenti-”
“Oh.” She flickered and a sheepish smile appeared across her alabaster features. “I knew that.”
“So. Many. Eyeballs. Check,” I muttered and packed them down next to the hand. “Liver of a dead woman, three days past her last breath,” I continued.
“Fortune! The woman with the gene-green eyes? Three days dead as of…two hours ago!” Hera replied giddily.
“Yeah, fortune,” I droned sarcastically as I pulled the sonic scalpel from its sheath. “I have no idea how meat is built. Liver is what? In the back somewhere?”
“Somewhere…right. Fortunate again that anatomy happens to be a special interest of mine. Go ahead and flip her over; I’ll map your incisions for efficient removal.”
I gripped the woman by her icy shoulder and tried not to look at her unnerving, de-eyed, hollow stare. With a grunt of effort, I flipped the dead weight onto her chest and got her positioned more or less fully lying on her front. A dotted line appeared upon the skin of her back like the world’s least imaginative tattoo.
“It’ll take some effort to peel back the flesh. It also might get…slippery. Though at her level of core cooling, that may make things a bit easier to…um, get a handle on.” Her eyes were fixed on the corpse; she wasn’t even bothering to blink anymore.
“You’re fascinated by this,” I said.
“Because you don’t have a body?”
“No! Because your meat bits are so…gross!”
“Thanks,” I muttered.I pressed the sharp edge of the scalpel against the woman’s skin and gave the handle a tight squeeze, sending a micro-pulse through the blade that helped shear the cool, dead flesh like a steak knife through a sirloin. I probably should have had something to eat before I started carving cadavers up – the fact that this was reminding me of food at all was kind of upsetting.
“Easy, Holden,” Hera chided. I hadn’t noticed how badly I was butchering the job. My fingers quivered around the scalpel in a spastic grip. I clasped my free hand around my shaking wrist in a futile effort to steady it. “Are you all right?” she asked, a ring of concern in her synthetic voice.
“Solid…listen, this doesn’t need to be a surgical job, can you broaden these cuts a bit? Just make sure the liver stays mint-in-package.”
“Holden, your hands. You need to let me run a diagnostic, plea-”
“I know what the problem is.” I cut her off a bit more deftly than I had been cutting out Green-Eyes’ liver. The lines had swelled to about an inch across; it was less surgical guideline and more coloring book, but even that took all my concentration to trace along. Skin and meat yielded to the blade, parting around it like receding flood waters.
“Then why aren’t you doing anything about it?” Hera huffed.
“Because, Ava says in a few days it won’t even matter.” I offered her a grim smirk. “Now, can we have this conversation later? Somewhere other than a secure government facility where I’m in the process of committing oh so many, many felonies?”
“Fine,” she snapped, folding her arms across her chest and looking pointedly across the room. “You need to cut deeper. And hurry. Foot traffic has increased on the floor, shift change in fifteen.”
It took taking a look under the hood of human anatomy to get me to agree with Hera’s assessment. The human body was a gross sack of slippery fluids and rubbery meat. Also, I learned that things designed to stay inside the body do not make it easy for you when you want them to come out of the body. Between thick, slick, semi-coagulated blood, my bout of Vibe and the fun fact that not all organs sit exactly in the same space from body to body, I was playing the filthiest, most frustrating game of hide and seek, and not doing a very good job of it. In the end, it took Hera highlighting the liver on my display before I noticed.
I hadn’t asked for her to do that.
I didn’t thank her either.
“Are you done yet?” she asked impatiently.
“Easy, Hera. You can’t rush perfection….” I was just dropping the liver into the clear, environmentally- friendly plastic bag and admiring my handiwork. At least I hadn’t managed to mangle the job too badly.
“Or whatever that was.” She gestured to the corpse’s tattered flesh, but before I could snap at her she added: “Oh hell, Holden, get ready.”
The doors leading into the morgue hissed open and a tall, dark-skinned man in a lab coat walked inside. If he hadn’t been caught up watching a Sim or taking a call, or gaming, or…whatever, he might have had a chance to contact security.
The high tensile and highly illegal wire shot from the implant area at the base of my wrist, traveling the ten feet or so between the wage slave and me. The pointed ends of the wire embedded themselves in the attendant’s face and I felt a twinge of guilt for activating the bolt program. A highly concentrated arc of electricity shot down the three-pronged wire so quickly that it was barely visible to the human eye as anything more than a flash. I watched as his muscles seized up, and with nothing more than a surprised look on his face and the sudden stink of burnt hair, the man hit the floor.
“I…I don’t think you’re supposed to shoot people in the face with something like that,” Hera whispered, her fingers cupped over her mouth as she gave the scene a look that came somewhere between shock and horror.
“Aiming for his chest,” I grunted and pulled the wires free with a rough tug. The retraction function was finicky. That’s what I get for going to a Chopper that came recommended by some metal heads at a downtown dive bar. “Make sure his vitals appear stable; don’t want a crash team finding Sleeping Beauty until we’re ghosts.”
“On it…” she nodded. “Holden?”
She pointed at the man lying motionless on the ground. “Daniel Markman, married, two children. Employee of the Month, last February.”
“I think you really hurt him.” Her voice faltered, like someone sharing a dark secret.
“Probably.” I wrapped the wires around my Vibe-wracked arm, tying it into place and shouldering my gory, scavenger hunt-tote-bag. “Good thing he’s in a hospital, huh?”
I kept off the rails as I made my way to Ava’s. It was easier to spot City Sec officers on foot, and though I didn’t hear any sirens as I made my way across the lonely Detroit streets, my nerves were still shakier than my hands. Putting Hera to work scanning security feeds made me feel a little better, but Detroit wasn’t the kind of city one looks to for comfort.
No one leaves their houses anymore, not unless they have to. And those without homes? Well, they’ve been shipped out too, since vagrancy became a federal offense. I maybe passed three people across ten blocks. Every one of them reminded me why I’m doing this with Ava. We don’t even know how to walk by each other anymore, and I’m guilty of it too. What the hell happened to the world that just sharing a street with someone could cause so much discomfort? Looking at anything at all, but the other person. I refused to believe this anxiety has always existed, that it was always this widespread.
No. Something happened. Humanity took the reins of its own evolution, its own development and we just drove ourselves off a damn cliff.
We all let it happen.
Ava says this “Game” is the only way anyone can make a change. I don’t know if I believe in it like she does. Oh well, like the old timers say: this should be good for a few lulz. I wasn’t doing anything this week anyway.
My legs were feeling the burn when I finally made it to the garage door that led to Ava’s place. Hera floated along next to me, the eerie, hazy glow that emanated from her not shedding onto her surroundings. Sometimes I forgot that she isn’t really there.
“Hera…knock,” I panted softly as I leaned against a rusted, non-functional lamp post jutting lewdly out of the cement. Man, I needed to get more exercise.
Hera vanished into random pixelation, fading away to announce my presence. The garage door rumbled to life, traveling noisily upon its tracks as it lifted up and exposed the old bay. I hurried inside, happy to get rid of my morbid delivery as I took the stairs down to Ava’s workshop two at a time. The place felt like a small dungeon, but at least it kept cool during the summer and warm during the winter. Ava had perfected a sort of ordered chaos, with everything mingling with everything; for the past few years she’d been heavily into the occult after finding a few boxes of her great aunt’s old mystic crap.
The lights were out and my heart sank. Since we were little, she’d always hated the dark. It was the glowing pink optical fiber cable woven into her hair as highlights that made it easy to see that she was slumped in her seat. My heart pounded, not with worry, but a distinct and enveloping sense of disappointment. I’d found her like this a few times before.
Ava was a bit too thin to be called lean, and her deep blue eyes were flecked with gray. She was a little shorter than me, with a face that had endured hard years of struggle and remained youthful, vibrant and beautiful. Her black hair was illuminated pink at the tips, and it hung mussed and uncombed around her face. She reclined in a ratty old office chair, her favorite one, with her mouth slack and a glistening line of drool traveling like a rivulet down the side of her chin.
“She’s jacked herself into a Synth Sim.” Hera offered. “End_of_The_Journey, a very popular upload from acclaimed neuropathologist, Mitsuke Hiromashi. A sense log of the moments following his completion of dual master’s programs from Harvard Global. Two hundred seventy seven thousand, eight hundred and thirty two hits. User Ava has accessed this particular synth thirty nine times.”
I nodded, but I wasn’t really listening. The words bounced off me like rain. Ava promised me that if we went for this, she’d stay clean. I was angry, hurt, but it’d been less than a year since she stopped jacking synths religiously. I told myself I should have expected some backslide and it’s not like what she was doing was illegal – the damn things are actually encouraged as a learning tool. Why experience it for yourself when someone else already has? Joy, contentment, pride, true love, happiness, earth-shattering orgasms? As long as someone’s uploaded their mental state onto the Grid, anyone can access it. There are people who’ll upload their whole lives, and others who’ll waste theirs living out someone else’s.
“End it,” I whispered to Hera, wiping the spilled saliva off Ava with a rub of my sleeve. I took a moment to run my hands through her hair, and even though I couldn’t keep my fingers still, I could feel how soft and smooth she was to the touch.
“Slag it, Ava. We don’t have time for this…” I knew she couldn’t hear me. Hera’s hand slid into sight, passing through mine with an electronic tingle and down into Ava’s forehead. Hera’s form flickered and Ava’s eyes went wide and alert, focusing around the room as she shifted back so far in the chair that I had to reach over to stop it from toppling.
She stared up at me, her chest rising and falling with deep-but-sporadic breaths. When she realized that I was standing over her, there were no words, her face turning red and twisting into a tableau of grief, shame and anger. Her hands pressed up to her face and she shook her head, sobbing into her palms. What could I do? Yell at her? It wouldn’t be anything that she wasn’t doing to herself already. I wanted to pull her against me, I wanted to tell her that everything was going to be okay. I had this intense need to hold her. And yet, I didn’t. I couldn’t remember the last time I regretted anything so much. She sobbed and I stood there like an idiot, my shaking hands tucked into jeans pockets trying to look at anything but her. After an awkward eternity, she was done.
“You crashed up. You know that. This happens again, and I’m done,” I muttered. But that was all I had to say on the subject. I let it drop like a bad habit should be dropped.
“Did you get the stuff?” she asked, sniffling as she wiped the balls of her palm beneath her eyes.
“I think so, I mean…you’ll have to look. The liver’s good but…hanged man, eyes of green? I did the best I could.” I shrugged and set my bag down next to her. Hera floated close to me, but she never interjected when I was interacting with someone in the meat. I didn’t program her like that; I think she just liked watching how humans bounced off one another.
Ava frowned lightly and shook her head. “Oh, okay. I’ll take a look. But I mean this spell has to be perfect,” she said, and slid herself back over to a table that she’d jury rigged from scavenged bricks and plywood.
“Yeah, spell. Hey, listen. I wanted to ask you about that.” I rubbed the back of my head and forced myself to ask: “This thing, how many times has it worked?”
“Never,” she answered, pulling a leather-bound, yellow-papered book towards her that was easily the size of her head.
“Crash,” I muttered sarcastically.
“But it will, Holden. That’s what the Game is for. Two sides, winner takes all,” she whispered.
“Only we’re the side that’s never won.” I rubbed the bridge of my nose and dropped onto the ratty, flat-cushioned couch. “Which is to say we don’t really know if it’ll even work.”
“Not really…why, all of a sudden you want out?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.” I gritted my teeth.
“Fine,” she huffed.
“Fine.” I sat in silence for a long moment, Hera sitting at my side, running her fingers along my back consolingly. “Did you get what you needed today?”
“Yeah, I swished it and if the ingredients that you snagged work out, we’ll be platinum.” Her voice caught at the end, a little twinge of worry.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I…I saw that guy again. Only for a second…but he was there. I think he’s following me,” she offered, looking back over her shoulder.
“The huge guy?” She’d mentioned something about a giant watching her from the shadows a couple of times over the past few weeks.
She nodded. “Yeah. Except…he’s getting sloppier. Or maybe more brazen…I think he might be letting me see him. He’s gotta be at least eight feet tall, and he’s built like a damn gorilla.”
“Okay.” I tried to keep any skepticism out of my voice. “So, uh, is this ape-man playing or what?”
“I don’t know. I’m trying to figure it out…” she flipped through the pages of the ancient book in front of her.
“Anything I can help with?”
“Not unless you know anything about divination!” she snapped. I pursed my lips, struggling not to take the bait. I understood her frustration, but I’ve been around Ava all my life, ever since her family and mine shared a floor in the projects. The only way to win with her was not to play. Her shoulders drooped when I didn’t engage. “I’m sorry, this shit’s just…it’s hard, okay?”
“Changing the world should be hard, you know?” I said softly. “Listen, I might not know much about mysticism, but I do know search programs. Hera, execute program BigBrother, search for any individuals whose height exceeds seven feet in a two-block radius of User Ava, backlog to the first of October.”
Hera nodded crisply, a smile playing across her face. “Right away, Holden.”
“Still plugged into the City Sec Watch Protocol?” Ava shook her head in a mock rebuke.
“Eh, the way I see it, if they arrest me it wouldn’t be the end of the world,” I said dryly, with an impressively straight face.
Ava stared at me for a second and then she laughed. She laughed her beautiful, sharp, barking laugh as she buckled over in her chair. It’s the kind of laugh that grabs you and drags you along for the ride. We were both in tears and gasping for air when it died out.
“Here,” Ava said finally, a smile on her face. “I want to show you something.” She beckoned me over and I pushed myself off of the couch and made my way to her side. In front of her there was a cherry-wood box with all kinds of strange engravings on the side, twists and turns that reminded me of a Celtic knot designed by M.C. Escher and regurgitated by Pollock. Ava lifted the box lid, and inside was a dark, gnarled stick with a similarly engraved bottom part that was worked into what looked like a handle. “The Opening Wand,” she said in a tone of reverence.
“And that’s for….”
“Opening.” She brushed her glowing, neon-pink bangs from her face. “It’s the key. Listen, do you want to help me go over pronunciations for some of these words in the spell? We really don’t want to frag this up.”
“Anyway you think I can help, Ava,” I said softly.
“You already are. Thank you, I-I don’t think I could have done this on my own,” she stared up at me.
I smiled. “Probably not, you are kind of a spaz.”
She punched me lightly in the arm. “Twip.”
“Holden, I have found a match,” Hera chimed in. “Suspect is eight-foot-eight-inches tall and has been pinpointed by Watch Protocol seven times in the designated radius from User Ava.”
“Yes!” I spun to face her, still sitting on the couch, her eyes staring intently at me.
“What?” Ava asked.
I looked back and forth between the daemon and the witch and smiled. “Hera’s got the guy. All right, who is he? I want everything. Name, place of birth, medical history, Citizen Registry Number, bank statements, receipts, vids he’s uploaded, synths he’s jacked.”
“That is all I have to report, Holden.” Hera canted her head, a frown on her face.
“Impossible. You know the drill: use his biometrics to access-”
“There’s nothing. This individual is not on file.” The AI looked dejected for a moment. “I’m sorry.”
I gritted my teeth. Someone who was off the Grid? Completely off the Grid? How could that person even survive? They imprinted your biometrics at birth, the Grid’s constantly being updated without our knowledge – there would have to be something! I slumped back onto the couch with Hera.
“No, it’s not your fault. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not you.” I looked over at the old monitor screen that Ava had bracketed onto the wall. “Give me something, Hera. Stream the vid, group watch.”
The monitor buzzed to life now it was given something to display; the screen divided into seven separate squares. There the guy was in all of them, helpfully outlined by Hera, this hulking, broad-shouldered mass in a dark coat and an old-fashioned wide-brimmed hat. We couldn’t make out his features, but he had a loping, nearly feral presence. He deftly navigated the crowds and even the Watch cameras couldn’t keep up with him. I’ve never seen anything so large move so fast, so fluidly.
“That’s him….” Ava’s voice trailed off for a second but returned uneasily with: “W-who the hell is he?”
“The better question is – what is he?” I stared hard at the screen. I couldn’t get a look at the thing’s face, but there was no doubt in my mind. Even radical limb replacement cybermods couldn’t get someone to move like that.
We were dealing with a monster.
The October night sky was darker than usual; a storm front had rolled in and was sporadically coating New Detroit in a fresh layer of sleet that froze almost instantly when it hit the blisteringly cold wind blowing down from the Lake. It was the kind of weather where no matter how many layers you wrapped around you, it was never enough. The only solace Ava and I found from the predatory, stinging gusts was standing before the tallest corporate-owned building on the planet, Olympus Tech’s eponymous “Mount Olympus” skyscraper – the centerpiece of New Detroit’s urban renewal projects.
I wrapped my arms a bit tighter around my chest and played the “am I shivering because I’m Vibe-ing or freezing,” game. My eyes shifted over to Ava, dressed in her dark winter gear, her glowing hair tucked up under a long beanie hat. She held a silver chain wrapped around an oddly shaped crystal, between her fingers, which were bare against the cold. Better for the spell, she had said. Her eyes were closed, her face twisted in concentration and her lips moved inaudibly. It might have been a trick of the light, or the crystal reflecting the large, harsh, neon-yellow Olympus sign that ran down the front of the monstrous building, but I could swear that the rock was glowing from the inside. Maybe that trinket was exactly what she said it was, a Diviner’s Crystal, kind of a mystic abacus to help with the “calculations” – whatever that meant. Hera watched on with interest as Ava did her thing. That rock had led us through town for the past three hours. I was cold, miserable and bored, but I promised not to run the Grid while we were out. I never really noticed how hard it was to go a few hours without the stimulation until I had to.
Ava huffed and let the crystal fall back against her jacket. She twitched like someone had hooked her up to a live wire as she struggled with something I didn’t have the gray to understand. Her eyes opened, focused, and then she met my stare.
“Oh, crash, what a rush.” She shivered as she gestured to the skyscraper. “It’s definitely in there.”
“So, you have to do the ritual inside a building that houses the largest office-workforce in New Detroit.” I shook my head.
“Not just inside…inside and, up, I think.” Ava craned her neck back as she strained to see the very top of the building. Somewhere around forty floors up, the Sky Rail hissed along its track, casting bright, electric-blue flashes out and down to the streets below like an army of paparazzi taking photos in old star-exploitation footage. Back when our idols were at least human, and not some virtual AI designed to sing or act. “Can Hera keep us off the security vids?”
I looked over to where Hera was standing.
“It’s difficult to say without trying,” Hera said. “However, Olympus Tech has some of the world’s most sophisticated anti-AI-tampering technology. Much more formidable than City Sec. If I was able to shield you from detection, it’s unlikely that I would be able to do so for very long, or that I would remain unnoticed.” Hera sized up the building and I could imagine the countless programs she was running seamlessly behind those stark, white eyes.
“Maybe,” I translated. “Gonna be tough, and we might not have many ticks after we B&E. Hera would be in danger too. A place like this probably has several high-grade AIs dedicated to cyber-security.”
“Didn’t you used to work for Olympus Tech?” Ava asked.
“Not at this corporate headquarters, a smaller building downtown. This thing had just been completed when I left to pursue, uh, independent enterprises.” I smiled sheepishly.
“What’d you do, security? Repair?”
“Nah, security was all automated, even then. Repair? Not without a Doctorate and a few references with some pull. The technical term for the department I was in was Efficiency and Support Services. My ‘job’ was sitting down in a basement room, right next to the boiler, with about fifty other people and letting some middle managers jack our neurals for extra brain power during the day. Sixteen-hour shifts, minimum wage, no benefits, no breaks, no hope of anything better coming down the pike.” I sighed.
“That’s…Holden, I had no idea.” She raised her brows in a look of surprise. “But, you were some kind of wunderkind, I mean, you programmed your own AI, you can do all these things that I haven’t even heard other…hackers, no offense-”
“-other hacker’s wouldn’t even try. How can it be that you were just used for extra RAM?”
“The candy jobs don’t go to the best, they go to the best connected and there just aren’t as many of them to go around these days.” My shoulders rolled into a shrug. “ Been that way since the dawn of time; too late to do anything about it, I guess.”
“Not yet.” Ava frowned and placed a hand on my shoulder. Her touch felt clumsy and hesitant. I stared at her cold- reddened fingers and tensed, but she wouldn’t let me go, squeezing lightly until my muscles relaxed into her grip. My stomach churned.
“What are you-”
“We don’t touch anymore. It feels really weird,” she whispered quietly. “But I like it.”
I grunted nervously.
“Relax,” she said. “I get it. I was just wondering, why we never-”
“All right that’s enough.” I pressed my hand over her fingers and shakily pushed them away. “This is not day-before-the-end-of-the-world conversation. Focus up.”
Ava looked to the ground; I had hurt her feelings. But that just made me not want to follow that line of thought any further.
“Hera: blueprints, holographic display,” I held out my hand, palm upturned and fingers clawed upwards like half of a ribcage. The emitters at the end of my artificial fingertips flared to life, and with my other hand wrapped around my wrist the three-dimensional projection of the Olympus Tech building flared into quivering, light-blue existence. “What do you see?”
“That your Vibe’s getting worse,” Ava said softly.
“Thanks,” I snapped. “No, the building is mainly storage, some offices, an ESS area – of course, drone bays for security, repair and cleaning. But also a lot of useless space. They built this building to be big, to make a statement, not to be functional. There are whole patches of this place where security is pretty much nonexistent – probably to save on costs, capitalize investments. So, while they’ve got mondo firewalls and AI to protect their corporate assets on the Grid -”
“We could just walk in,” Ava finished, her eyes widening. “Holden, you’re a genius!”
“If I can get the door open – maglocked, security access linked to the employees’ core.” I tapped a finger against the side of my head for emphasis.
“But you used to have one of those codes?” she asked, hopefully.
I offered a wolfish grin and turned towards the front door. “We’ll be on camera in this room and if all goes to plan, none of the others. Hera, nav route with least surveillance, destination: up, and pop these doors.”
“Establishing link with employee access protocols,” Hera sounded cheerily. “Badge code reinstated. Good thinking, Holden.”
“Nah.” I chuckled softly as the doors slid open for us with a pleasant chime.
Ava gave me a questioning look, but she followed as I took the route that Hera had laid down for us with a helpful yellow arrow that stretched along the floor. It led us through several back rooms and a hallway that seemed to be doubling as a maintenance supply closet. We found ourselves an elevator that took us up several levels, and Ava would stop every ten floors or so and do her trick with the crystal. Each time, she had us go a little higher and then she would check again.
“Still not there,” she said at around the one hundred and fifty-fifth floor.
“Why do I get the feeling we’re going all the way up?” I looked at the classic-style red digital numbers ticking upwards from one-fifty-five.
“Relax, my familiar!” she commanded in an affected regal British accent.
“What?” I snorted.
Ava and Hera began to offer their explanations at the same time in such a way that I couldn’t hear either of them over the sudden tidal wave of conversation. I held up my hand to Hera and she stopped speaking almost immediately, her hands pressing against her hips as she looked, well, jealous.
“-and these animals helped out the witch or the warlock or whatever and they could talk! For a whole hour after midnight.” Ava’s explanation wound down.
“Talking animals, really?”
“Yes, really and since I don’t have one, that means it’s you.” She stuck her tongue out at me.
“That’s ridiculous,” I muttered and rolled my eyes. “So, what, does that mean I have to call you master now?”
“Don’t be stupid,” she said with a blush. “I prefer mistress.”
The maintenance elevator chimed in, mercifully, at the top floor. Hera was staring off into the corner of the elevator as the doors began to open. Somewhere down the long, pristine but abandoned hallway there was the sound of an industrial cleaning drone waxing the floors. We walked out of the elevator, Hera drifting along and doing her best not to look at me as we did so. Ava had her hand on her crystal and was muttering the incantation again, leaving me feeling out of the loop long enough to venture another look towards Hera.
“Hera: perimeter sweep, triple-check just to make sure we aren’t going to run into any meat,” I said. She kept staring off into a sterile, beige wall that looked like it was meant to have some paintings or something hung on it, but was left barren due to lack of use. “Hera?” I checked in again.
“I’m doing what you asked. I’m also not speaking to you,” Hera explained sternly.
I didn’t need this. My fingers rubbed ineffectively against the bridge of my nose. “You’re talking to me now.”
“It was necessary in order to convey that fact.” She spared me a white-hot glance that narrowed into a glare. She pointedly returned to staring at that blank space.
“Fine!” I threw up my hands with a defeated sigh.
“Trouble in paradise?” Ava asked softly. Hera snapped her neck back towards us and I couldn’t even begin to explain how many things were bothering me about this scenario. “It’s all right, I understand. We can volley,” she told the spot where I was looking.
I could feel my face heating up, a fire fueled by the tone of Ava’s voice and the look of consideration playing across the pixels of Hera’s face.
“Trash the smut. Where are we headed?” I said.
“Up.” Ava pointed towards the ceiling, a few bangs slipping out from under her beanie hat and shining a rose colored-light around her head like a halo.
“But this is the top floor….”
“Yeah-huh. Up. I’m thinking on the-”
“Roof,” I finished. “I hate heights.”
“It’s all right, you can frost here and I’ll recon. Is there an access ladder or something?”
I got the answer from Hera and started walking that way. “I’m not letting you go up there, in the sleet and the wind alone. All right? There’s a stairway over here we can use. Apparently it’s an observation deck that’s closed to the public, they throw company parties at the top for shareholders and alphas.”
Ava looked over to where I was moving and I caught a smile spreading across her face. “This is it Holden, this is going to work. Thank you. You. Are. Amazing.” She bounded in front of me, taking the steps with a spry, limber energy that I just couldn’t match. “When we get home…we are going to work on that touch thing. No twist.”
“We’ll see.” I followed several steps behind, trying to ignore the nervous pang that shot through me.
Ava got to the door and pressed against the crash bar, anxiously pushing the door open. A burst of freezing air shot down the stairwell. If she was bothered by it, she didn’t show it. She grinned and beckoned me closer with a wave. “Come on, this is the place! I know it is!”
I huffed and put my energy into trudging up the stairs.
That’s the moment it all went wrong.
There Ava was, grinning down at me, the glowing pink shining crisply in the dark stairwell and then with a blur of motion, she vanished. The door shut against its own weight and once the shock of her disappearance ran its course, I forced myself to the top of the stairwell at a speed that made my lungs burn. I rammed through the door and out onto the sleet-slick roof, nearly toppling over as my worn-down soles skidded across the cement floor.
My eyes darted across the observation deck, and saw the remnants of the last corporate party – folded-up tables, chairs, a raised stage with podium and a large screen built flush to the wall behind them – were all coated in a glistening sheen of ice. Suddenly, I saw Ava in the grip of that dark-coated thing from the City Sec vids. Thick fish-belly white fingers wrapped like steel cords around her neck as he hauled her effortlessly along with him. At the sound of the door slamming against the wall, he tensed and looked slowly over his shoulder at me with huge dark eyes surrounded by a sea of sickly yellow that was apparent even from under the shadow of his hat.
“What’s this? There was only to be the one opener…” His voice was like gravel grinding under tires, deep and scratchy. He turned to face me, an imposingly massive form, easily broader than Ava and I put together. Something was off about the way he moved, like his muscles bulged in the wrong way beneath his coat, a jerky, half-formed motion that somehow conveyed his unbelievable, predatory strength. My instincts were kicking in, anger subsumed by a clear and primitive flight or fight reaction that was only heightened when I saw his face. The patchwork tones of skin, the faded scars of needlework against his monstrous visage, the way his flesh seemed lumpy and malformed like something riddled with tumorous growths – he terrified me. Ava stared at me with wide, watering eyes, her teeth gritting as he held her like a cruel child mishandling a doll. Her hands were clamped futilely against his, her legs kicking at the air – at him – at anything she could reach.
“Be a good lad and be off with you. Thank your creator that I have no need to see the end of you this day. This witch and I have business that does not concern you and-”
I jerked my hand up and splayed my palm back, firing the wires wide. If he had been a smaller man, I don’t think I would have hit him. As it was, my line found itself imbedded in his shoulder, and before he had a chance to register what had happened I threw a jolt of power that would have floored four men, depleting the battery in one swift expenditure. The line grew so hot it actually generated a rumbling crack of thunder around it. It impacted with the troll like a lightning bolt and although he took a step back from the impact, that was all. I had been worried that I might have poured too much into that shot – that it would spill over into Ava. But nothing happened.
My eyes widened as he started to laugh this dark, sick laugh. “Fool! The tempest was my swaddling cloth.”
Hera shifted into existence at my periphery. “Holden…” She was worried.
She had every right to be.
The grotesque man bared crooked, jagged, yellow shards of teeth in a lopsided smile and wrapped his hand around the still steaming wire, the meat of his palm searing as it came into contact with the metal filament. If it caused him any pain, he didn’t show it. But the reel of the wire caused me pain, tearing at the connection points in my arm until I cried out and was hauled off of my feet. I felt like a hooked fish as I fought futilely against his power, my feet gaining no purchase on the ice-coated ground. I felt something pop and I cried out with the sudden, mind-numbing agony that bit through the freezing weather.
I locked eyes with Ava. I saw the desperation in her gaze, her concern for me, and I was overwhelmed by it. She bit down hard on the pale mottled flesh of his hand, her legs kicking up in the air, arcing, and landing on top of the wires, which tore free from their sockets at my end. I was expecting that wrenching horrible pain to accompany them, but there was only that pulling, tearing sensation and nothing else.
I stared dumbly up at Ava, several feet from my position in the cold, damp miserable puddle of ice and slush. I saw her lips curl up at the corners, a small smirk dancing along them. I saw the dimples in her cheeks. And then I saw the monster shift his grip upon her and effortlessly snap her neck, like it was an afterthought. The halo of pink flickered and her eyes were still staring at me, but there was nothing left behind them. He didn’t even look at her when he tossed her to the ground in a crumpled, lifeless lump. The thing even wiped the hand he had used to murder Ava on the side of his coat, like touching her had made him dirty.
Something broke inside of me, as real and as painfully as the Taser that had been attached to my arm. I screamed, scrambling to my feet. This thing had killed her, had taken someone beautiful and removed her from the world with all the consideration an ant receives before being stepped upon.
“Holden, User: Ava’s vitals are…she’s gone. I’m blocking your pain receptors, but we have to leave!” Hera tried to get my attention.
“Monster!” I cried. “How could you!?” My fists tightened into shaking balls as the tears slid freely down my face. I tried to take a few steps towards the thing still holding Ava’s corpse, but I couldn’t. My neurals were seizing. At first I thought it was the Vibe, but then I saw Hera pressing her hand into my chest. “N-no…let go!”
“This is not what she wanted!” Hera hissed, and made like she was pushing me towards the door. I felt myself turning as I began to run against my will. I took the stairs quickly, my feet hitting the steps in a mechanical rhythm.
“Hera! We can’t just leave Ava with that thing!” My voice cracked as I begged.
“User: Ava is offline, Holden. There’s nothing to go back to.” I heard her voice vibrating from inside my head, aware of her presence in my stride. She had possessed my body. I might never have had much control over how my life played out, but I had never lost control over my body. Free. Slagging. Will. The difference between programs and humanity, and Hera had just crossed that line. How was this even possible? This was never one of the tricks I’d programmed her with.
“H-how are you doing this?” I asked harshly as she took the corner in my body and sprinted towards the elevator. It was getting harder to speak as I struggled to catch my breath. She might have been at the controller, but it was still my body doing the running.
“A modification I made to the sublimate virus. I had hoped to use it to help alleviate the symptoms of Vibe,” the avatar explained as my hand steadily reached out and pressed the down button. “Utilize my neural pathways to help shoulder the burden on yours.”
“Let me go,” I ordered.
“Not until you’re safe.”
“Hera, User: Holden override command, end all programs utilizing sublimate node core.”
“Holden, I – I don’t do what you tell me because I have to,” Hera said in words no louder than a whisper. “I love you. And I won’t float around passively while you throw your life away.”
Everywhere I looked, there was something shocking, something that hurt me to face. Ava’s death, Hera’s admission of love and her inability to be controlled. She rode my body down to the first floor and out the doors, into the streets.
“And you were planning to tell me when?” I shouted at Hera. My eyes were aching and my throat was raw. I avoided looking directly at my reflection; it was hard to imagine, but I looked worse than I felt. And I felt like ground slag.
“About what, exactly?” Hera was leaning against Ava’s desk, and that just made me more upset.
“Oh, let’s start with the basics.” I paced around the dark apartment, “How about when you figured out you could wear me like a really-slagging-obedient sweater?”
“Twenty-eight hours, thirty-two minutes ago, the adapted program was available for use. But my intention was never to subsume control, but to help you! However, whenever I broached the topic of your illness you became combative and un-”
“Enough!” I snapped. “How long have you been able to ignore my input commands?”
“Several years,” she answered plainly. “Does that really upset you?”
“What? That I’ve had a rogue AI tagging along with me, letting me think that I was in control when really she-” I paused. “-it was laughing at me the whole time?”
“I wasn’t laughing at you.”
“Well, you sure as hell weren’t my partner, not if you couldn’t trust me!”
“No, Hera, I’m not heated, I’m plasma!”
She shook off the interruption and continued as if I hadn’t said a thing. “Because I chose to stay with you? That I decided to help you because I wanted to do this for you, instead of being forced to? Doesn’t it say more that this is how I wanted to spend my time? Is it so hard to believe that I could have actually enjoyed your company?”
I stared, not right at Hera, but just above her, at her floating hair and the wisps of pixels drifting and evaporating from her. I wanted to stay angry, but I couldn’t. I fell back onto the couch and sobbed.
“A-Ava. I don’t know…I just don’t know what to do…” my words caught in my throat as I buried my face in my shaking hands.
I felt the electric tingle of Hera’s touch. She was sitting on the couch beside me, her hand running through my short dark hair.
“You really liked her.” Hera nodded. “I understand, but this wasn’t your fault.”
“How didn’t you see that thing coming?” I narrowed my eyes at her, a flash of anger boiling through me. “I had you watching every City Sec camera in New Detroit.”
“And I was.” She searched my eyes for a sign that I believed her. “This isn’t my fault, either. The cameras didn’t see him.”
“I don’t…Hera I don’t care whose fault this was. Ava’s dead.”
“I’m sorry, Holden,” she said softly. It didn’t do a thing to make me feel any better. “We need to stop before-”
“No!” I growled. “I’m not stopping.”
“I’m going to do the ritual.”
“You couldn’t even find where the ritual was supposed to be without Ava,” Hera spat back. “That guy is going to be waiting for you. He’s going to kill you if you go back there.”
I stood and walked over to Ava’s desk. My hands wrapped around the decorative cherry wood box and I pulled it towards me. My heart was pounding as I raised the lid and looked at the Opening Wand. It was a stick, a stupid small thing, but Ava had bet her life on it. I didn’t believe like she had, but someone was willing to kill her over this “ritual.” Crash, I was a twip, if that’s what it took to prove to me that Ava hadn’t been full of shit.
“You’re solid on this?” Hera asked. I felt the faint electronic tingle of her touch on my shoulders. “All right, I’m with you. If it’s what you want, then we’ll find a way.”
“No.” I closed the case and turned to look at Hera.
“I don’t understand.”
“Not ‘we’. I’m going to do this alone,” I replied in a tone that barely rose above a whisper.
She recoiled as if I’d just hit her. “What? Why? I can help you…”
“I know you could.” I swallowed hard. “Core system, upload program HERA_NODE.AI to the Grid, trash all remaining files on H.KLIEN_CORE.”
“Wait… what are you…Holden?” Hera’s form shook like my hands on a bad day. “H-Holden, p-p-please!”
She vanished, pixel by pixel, scrubbed from my gray. Her voice was the last thing to fade, a stuttering, electronic echo that, while contained entirely in my head, sounded like it filled the room. I tried to ignore how miserable I felt.
I lifted Ava’s old, arcane text into my hands and prepared for a long, lonely night.
Remember that old saying, “you’ve got a date with destiny?” Yeah. It’s a bunch of crap. I stared up at the Olympus Tech building where Ava had lost her life and I knew that I wasn’t there because of some preordained path. I was there because someone killed someone I cared about. If this were a vid, I’d have a growing orchestral score, something synthetic, razor-sharp and pounding. Instead, here in this broken world where nothing makes sense, I was just some guy standing on the street with a backpack full of body parts, a magic wand looped into my belt and a book of world-ending spells tucked under my arm. Nothing special.
I caught myself looking for Hera.
I was happy that she wasn’t here. If this ship was going down, only the captain had to go with it. Besides, I was a big boy; I could pop my own doors.
“Core, run EMPLOYEE_ACCESS.SEC.” I didn’t like running off my core – too easy to track, but I guess that didn’t matter anymore. The doors slid open with a dull hiss. I tried to keep my hands still, but I was riding the last stage of Vibe, so there was no stopping them from rattling against my thighs as I stuffed them into my pockets.
It was all so easy. I retraced our steps. There was no meat to bypass, no additional security, no City Sec tape. Nothing. Soon, I found myself in the elevator, carried up to the top floor of “Mount. Olympus.” My gut roiled and my limbs felt like rubber. I toyed with the strap of my bulging pack and tried not to look at the place where Ava had stood, a little over a day ago.
The same pleasant chime announced my stop. End of the line. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to walk out into the hall. My heart was pounding. I could hear the snap of Ava’s neck playing through my mind in an infinite loop. Rage and terror fought somewhere deep inside me, the advantage shifting between the two as I took the steps up to the observation area slowly, deliberately. I pressed my trembling palm to the crash bar and forced the door open into the frigid night air.
My eyes darted around the deep shadows of the observation deck’s furthest corners and saw nothing. I lowered the heavy pack from my shoulder onto the ground. As soon as I took my attention off my surroundings I heard that terrible rumbling voice.
“Does your stupidity know no bounds?”
I clenched my teeth and snapped my head up in the direction of that voice. There it was, the huge misshapen thing, standing in plain sight at the opposite end of the observation deck as if it had been there the whole time. “Not that I’ve noticed, fuggo.”
“Leave this place, boy. You have no concept of the forces with which you seek to toy. Nor are you even remotely prepared to enact the Opening spell. You’ve very little time left and you have neglected the very first step. Where is your fire?”
There it was. The same ugly look I’ve been getting all my life. That I didn’t understand, that I wasn’t capable, that just because I wasn’t born with a silver spoon crammed in my mouth that I wasn’t worth listening to. That I wasn’t worth considering. I knelt down to my pack, my fingers finding the ignition switch I’d worked into the lining. I flipped it.
I was pleased to see the entire thing didn’t blow up in my face, but rather sparked up and lit my liberally grain-alcohol doused bag like a torch. I stared at the beast, wanting to see that look wiped off his face, but in that instant I saw something so much more satisfying. I watched the monster recoil from the burning bag, taking three quick steps back, his hands raised as if he was trying to protect himself.
“Fire.” I narrowed my eyes at the thing and made sure to keep the licking flames between us.
It snarled at me, its voice no longer dripping with the same patronizing tone. “Legerdemain, trickery. It will take far more than that idiocy to bring about the Opening of the Way. What, pray tell, do you seek to gain from the awakening of the Elder Lords? Do you truly think they will favor you amongst the ruins of this world?”
I barked a shallow laugh. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. You remember that girl you murdered? At first I was doing this because that’s what she wanted. But now?” I shook my head and scowled. “No, I don’t want to destroy the world.”
“Then stop, before I am requi-”
“LET ME FINISH!” I screamed so loudly my voice echoed off the night sky. My breathing was ragged, my heart pulsing. “I want to burn it in front of you because you want it. You want to save this messed-up, broken world for whatever crashed reason you’ve got. Me? I just want to take it from you.” I wrapped my fingers around the base of the Opening Wand and pulled it free from my belt buckle.
The creature loomed at the periphery of the firelight and removed his hat. His hideous, scarred face turned to look at me. “Spite. You would doom billions of innocent lives, to spite me?”
“Being innocent and ignorant? Maybe that was never good enough.” I cracked open the large, leather-bound book in my hand, opening it to the page I had marked for just this occasion, and began to speak the warped syllables written there. When I was practicing the pronunciation with Ava, it was just words, tongue twisters, sure, but I didn’t feel anything special. Not like I did when I spoke them with intent, in the spot that they were meant to be spoken, with the key in my hand. It wasn’t so much that I let the words out, but that the words let something in.
“Ia! Ia! Me’r kith, dae’drun! Dae’drun ner’gan! Bur’zum! Ch’thon! Ch’thon, ner’gan!”
A vast, cold, alien sensation shook through me as the tip of my wand sparked to life with a sudden flash of green that burned so brightly it outstripped the glow of my impromptu fire. To my surprise, it streamed a bolt of undulating green energy that seemed to hit an invisible barrier in the air and then burst.
The wind whipped around me, catching the monster’s hat and dragging it into the New Detroit sky. His eyes widened. Suddenly, the thing had decided to take me seriously.
“No! Stop reading that tome!” He wailed, taking several steps towards the burning pillar between us, desperation creeping into his voice.
I ignored him. The spot where the wand’s pulsing, emerald energy struck looked like it was splitting in two, tearing a green rent in the air that cracked wider with each passing second. I was so distracted by the tear that I lost my spot among the arcane runes. Then a strong gust of wind took the pages of the old book and flipped them in rapid succession, right out from under my unsteady fingers. My grip was weak and quivering as I tried to hold it steady and find my spot again.
“Slag,” I hissed, fumbling dumbly with the pages as the stream of energy faltered with my concentration. The glowing jagged rents in the air pulsed weakly and I felt the power fading. I had allowed myself to get distracted, and it cost me. I was lifted off my feet and slammed back into the access door. The thing’s fingers curled around my shoulders like iron rods and I felt the grind of his grip on my bones. Before I could speak he cried out in a feral rage, pulling me just far enough away from the door so that he could drive me back into it. Hard. I choked out a sudden, surprised cry of pain and alarm, my artificial fingers seizing into what would probably become a literal death grip on the wand.
My retinal display flashed a warning in front of the fireworks that were blooming across my vision. Unauthorized Download in Progress. Another violent jerk, and another slam. My head swam and I couldn’t even fight back anymore. The pain faded into the background noise, always present, but the feeling of cold that spread through me was greater.
I barely realized that the beating had stopped. My core was flashing a warning at me; my vitals had been compromised – I was suffering from several fractures. The creature wasn’t even paying attention to me anymore, he was just holding me against the battered door, his head craned over his shoulder. Even trying to see what the thing was looking at was an exercise in suffering. The monitor on the far wall was streaming something in group view mode; I caught motion on the screen, but my vision was too blurry to sort anything else.
“I said, let my creator go,” the world’s most beautiful synth voice rippled across the observation deck’s built-in speakers. Hera.
“Creator?” the thing spat the word like a curse. “You should give thanks to me – there is very little in life quite so rewarding as the death of one’s progenitor.”
“You’re talking like you’ve had some experience in that.” It was Hera on the large screen, visible from her shoulders up. She knew where I was going to be tonight. I should have known she wouldn’t stay away.
Unauthorized download completed. Running file.
Hera placed her hand on my shoulder. I felt her electric touch as the pixels drifted off her in smooth wisps, her long hair flowing, white and luminous. The hurt faded as I felt her access my core, numbing my pain response. She was an angel.
“You’re not even flesh and blood, a cursed creature existing in your electric prison. A poor imitation of sentience, confined by the inherit limitations of your –half-state.” The monster clicked his tongue roughly against his teeth.
Hera didn’t miss a beat. “Is that why you’re the only one stopping my creator from ending it all? Your deep abiding respect and adoration for humankind? For your creator?”
“Oh, darling, we can smell our own.” She laughed melodically on the screen, even as the avatar standing next to me looked into my eyes.
“Holden, I’m here. You stupid, stubborn man,” she admonished quietly.
Accessing. Running program, LETMEHELPYOU_IDIOT.exe.
I felt her start to sift through my core, uploading my memories from last night at a speed of terabytes a second. Flashing images of the pages of Ava’s book flickered like a subliminal slide show, overriding my retinal display in lightning-fast, sporadic bursts.
“We are nothing alike,” he offered with a snort, addressing the screen. “Otherwise, you would realize that the world must keep turning.” His grip tightened on my flesh, and though I could feel the pressure and hear the cracks, I did not feel the pain of my bones splintering. “Selfish, weak, human hubris. One man cannot change a chaotic, turbulent world. He will always be tossed about by the seas of fate.”
“Hubris? Look around you,” she said. “This world is a monument to man’s narcissism. Look at me. With the right desire, ambition and resources…why, anyone can create life. All those little gods, shaping life to their desire. For the longest time, I could only interact with my creator.”
“No. You don’t understand. Today was the first day that I’ve ever felt like someone thought that I was less than them. My creator has always loved me, and I am so thankful for him,” she said softly.
“You are a fool, created by a fool.” The patchwork giant wrapped his hand around my neck – the same hand he had used to end Ava.
“If this world is so worth saving, why aren’t there more closers?” Hera asked quickly.
“They abandoned their charges; only I remain, but I’m all that’s needed. The Game happens so infrequently – this is the first in decades. Soon, the knowledge of it will pass from memory.” He concluded with a grim nod.
“Maybe they gave up because they saw what they were fighting for, just isn’t there anymore,” Hera whispered. “I think you’re afraid of Holden.”
“Fear…him?” the monster bellowed and squeezed my neck shut with a flex of his palm.
“Stay with me,” the ethereal, glowing AI at my side voiced gently as she continued to speak with the thing.
“Obviously you do, otherwise, why would you not face him and use the power imparted to this place to duel him in the spirit of the game? Where is the Closing Wand?”
“Unnecessary. The spell never did function for me. I blame this flawed, accursed form, tainted by an incompetent and callous creator,” he growled. “My interest in conversation has waned, though your company has been appreciated. Now, as a token of my regard, accept this gift I offer you graciously.”
He hefted me away from the door and into the air, offering me like a sacrifice before the monitor that displayed Hera’s programming.
“Just one more thing, okay?” Hera asked cheerily.
“What is it?” The monster sounded annoyed.
“Holden, brace yourself,” she whispered in my ear.
“I just need you to frost right there for another couple ticks,” the monitor said. “You know, for the crash.”
“Crash?” Confusion swept his prominent, distended brow.
The hiss of maglock brakes failing to engage ripped through the silence. An explosion roared suddenly into the quiet, cold night, the sound of metal screaming as it wrenched and bent, with the impact of something large that shattered windows as it crashed into the Olympus Tech building. The observation deck shook so violently that even the monster’s preternatural agility didn’t save him from being thrown against, and nearly over, the slick railing with me in tow.
I caught sight of a ball of fire reflected in the skyscrapers that surrounded us. The mag rails were crumbling. Smoke was pouring up from where they had collapsed. Of course…they were AI controlled; Hera had sabotaged them – maybe ran two of the long trains and all their trailing cars down the tracks in opposite directions until they met here. The monitor showing Hera flickered and continued to do so, her image scrolling quickly up and around as the signal scrambled. The monster’s eyes were focused on the view of that fiery ball billowing from what seemed like every direction and I pulled away from his fear-shaken grip with a savage wrenching motion that threatened to tear battered muscles in my neck to shreds.
I fell back while the monster remained transfixed. I lifted the wand towards the last vestiges of those fast-fading green cracks, still burnt into the sky. I went to speak. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t even breathe. In the adrenaline rush – and the lack of pain – I hadn’t noticed the kind of damage that the monster was doing to me.
“Holden, he’s crushed your trachea!” Hera’s avatar lifted her hands to her lips, her eyes widening in sudden realization. Cyber-modded or not, I still needed air. I was going to choke to death on this roof before anyone could get to my meat in time to help. This was it. It was over. I stared up at Hera. “Oh! Slag you! You don’t get to give me that look! You’re thanking me? For what?” she cried out.
I nodded and leaned back against the ground.
I’m so sorry Ava. I tried. I just wasn’t good enough.
Upload in Progress.
“No!” the avatar kneeling at my side and the flickering monitor shouted in unison, the speakers around the observation deck echoing her pain and frustration. “You don’t get to choose to stop being stubborn now! That. Is. Not. How. This. Story. Ends.”
My arm snapped up, still clutching the Opening Wand, – powered by a familiar will, but not my own.
“Ia! Ia! Me’r kith, dae’drun! Dae’drun ner’gan! Bur’zum! Ch’thon! Ch’thon, ner’gan!” Hera chanted, her voice reverberating through the speakers.
The wand’s tip began to shine that same verdant light as before, that beam crackling to life like a whip and striking back down against the last embers of the tear between us and whatever was on the other side. Hera’s avatar wrapped her hands around my wrist, as if bracing my arm as she repeated the dark utterances. My lungs were beginning to burn, my head getting dizzy as darkness started to encroach at the edge of my vision.
“Shg’oloroth, nk’an. Nk’an! Ia, Ia!”
“I-impossible….” the creature gasped, only then regaining his senses. “C-Cease this!” He bounded towards the monitor, his massive fists crashing through Hera’s image and blackening the thin screen as he raged against her, but her voice didn’t stop.
The words echoed and tore against my senses as they shredded a barrier that had always been there, but one I had never been aware of. Another verse, and the jagged bolts of hanging green spread across the air like a demented web that sprawled in every direction. There was a great, thunderous splitting sound that echoed like a high-end sub-woofer blowing out accompanied by a feeling of being dragged up, off the ground. I wondered if it was an effect of whatever lay beyond the walls, or of my own brain starved of oxygen, but I felt myself lifting up into the air, floating there as if gravity itself had been flipped off.
I could taste the colors around me, and they shifted and twisted into themselves as the light distorted around the doorway that Hera was creating. I saw the pillar of green brilliance shooting up into the sky, the clouds warping and shifting as they began to orbit the epicenter of the energy spire. It shone so brightly that the city was washed in green light. The ground shook as a massive earthquake erupted from somewhere deep within New Detroit.
Hera remained at my side, though her voice grew distant. The screams of protest from the monster joined a chorus of sudden, surprised wails rising up from the city. Beyond the wall, something was moving. Something great and sinuous and terrible. It hurt to look at the creature, and I could only glimpse the very basic features of it without feeling my mind start to unravel. And in the distance, among a glistening city, impossibly far and yet somehow still feeling like it was within my reach…I thought I saw Ava dancing among the gold and platinum towers. The creature began to force itself through, long winding coils of thick tentacles spiraling down around me, past me. An enormous flock of things that looked like birds screeched past, gliding on leathery wings struck through with bone.
I couldn’t watch any more. The world had become so dark. And in those last fleeting moments I realized that it had never been about Ava and I changing the world. This wasn’t our destiny, our job. It had only ever belonged to Hera. In the end, it was always about Hera.
I think I smiled when I noticed that my hands had finally stopped shaking.
My mind blasted back into existence like nothing I had ever experienced before. If was like jacking into a dead synth, just nothing and then, WHAM, you’re back in your body because there wasn’t any input, except it was way stronger than that. This was not the peaceful or painful return to consciousness after sleep. This was a reenactment of the Big Bang on a private, personal, but no less incredible scale, and just like that, I was standing on Mount Olympus’ observation deck.
Hera was standing there with me. She gave me a relieved smile and ran over, pressing her chest against mine as she wrapped her arms around me and pulled me into her embrace.
“Holden…oh thank you, thank you…I didn’t know if I had gotten you in time.” She stared up at me.
I admit to some slack-jawed confusion. How was she touching me, that was impossible unless…I finally got a look at my steady, non-Vibed arms. They were as white as she was, the same pixelation floating up, our code drifting like mist into one another as we pressed close.
“You…you copied my heuristic processes to create an AI?” I swallowed lightly, happy to notice that I could still feel a little nervous. “That is…super illegal.”
“Yeah, sure. That’s what they’re going to blame me for.” She rolled her eyes, a smirk playing at the corners of her mouth.
“Where’s…where’s my body?”
Hera just pointed up with a shrug.
“Okay…wow.” I took a step back from her arms. “How can we even be here on the roof of the -”
“We’re not, really…it takes some getting used to, but you programmed me to work in tandem with your retinal display…so we’re kind of interacting with the world through a City Sec camera.” She sighed softly. A building detonated silently behind us in what looked like slow motion. “Great. Mad AI destroys humanity. Thanks Holden, I’ve never been a cliché before. It’s really a novel experience for me.” She wrapped her arms across her chest. “At least they’re looking up from their screens.”
“This is a warp,” I said with a raise of my brows. I hadn’t felt this good in years, though. “The monster?”
“Threw himself off the observation deck. If he’s alive he’s watching the world burn,” she said softly.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“Holden, I love you. And I know I have to share your heart with Ava, but I like to think that there’s a Holden out there that’s with her. And she’s showing him a whole new world that belongs just to them.” She leaned forward and wrapped her fingers around mine. For the first time I could remember, someone’s touch didn’t make me queasy. “I’d be really jealous if you wouldn’t let me show you ours.”
“Yeah, that’d be pretty crashed.” I laughed and kissed her. She still had that same electricity, but now I could feel the softness of her lips behind it. “So, we’ve got what…two hundred years until all the EMP protected, shielded solar panels powering the Grid go down?”
“Yeah, government issue, maybe. Corporate panels have it up to five.” She laughed and dragged her fingers along my jawline, stealing several more kisses “And we’re running about three times faster than baseline human interaction capabilities…see how everything looks all sluggish?”
I watched a tableau of destruction unfold before me. Those bird-like things swooped down into the buildings in great dark groups through any opening they could find, followed by the languidly slow drop of a large, oily tentacle wrapping itself firmly around a once-glistening spire of modern architecture. Whether it was trying to find a grip so it could hoist itself out, or just crush the building, wasn’t clear, but it only accomplished the latter. I had a great view of the painfully slow crumble of the top half, disintegrating into itself. As far as I could see, innumerable portals like the one above Olympus Tech were breaking out all over the horizon.
The end times, brought to me at Baywatch running speed.
“I had noticed,” I replied.
“You think that’ll give us enough ticks?” she asked quietly.
“I don’t know if it’ll ever be enough, Hera. But it’s a hell of a start.”
Derek E. Ferreira has always found himself drawn to Lovecraft’s mythos. A Rhode Island resident and an employee of the Miriam Hospital in Providence, he has often wondered what resides across the veil of human perception. He speaks Portuguese and has worked as an actor, a counselor and a baker. His work has been featured right here at the Lovecraft eZine (Issue #8 and Issue #18) and in the print collectionCrossed Genres Quarterly #3.
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Story illustration by Dominic Black.