Databases shear past me, slashes of white light against the plastic emptiness. The sensation of endless freefall always accompanies diving. Like a waking dream. I smell the connection I need, it stinks up the void like burnt hair. I seize it – lights spear through the gaps in my fingers. Blue lodes materialize from the nothing, throbbing with marine light. Tridents of lightning fork from the morphing, ethereal avatar. They smell like uncut amphetamines, an acrid, medicinal odor that unceasingly infiltrates the nostrils.
“Connection established.” When it speaks, its voice is a cacophony of tones boiled into one. “Declare your identification.”
“Octopus. Two sixty-three fifty-four X.”
An instant’s pause.
“Well, well. You answered our summons,” it says. “After last time, we weren’t certain you would.”
It’s an odd feeling, talking to someone that only refers to itself as we. “Man has to eat,” I say. “My dad always said so.”
“Wise words, no doubt.”
“I’m as surprised that you contacted me.”
“Reliability has its own intrinsic value. You’ve completed clean, efficient work for us in the past. Time cures whatever minor oversights you’ve incurred. We’re prepared to offer you a sizeable amount for the completion of this assignment. One that requires your specific abilities.”
“Who’s the one in need of mortality?”
“There’s no balking once you start this assignment. If we disclose even the basic parameters, you’ll be crossing the Rubicon. We will only say that this operation will be exceedingly dangerous. Your pay will be suitably increased. Will you comply?”
They’ve never said anything like this before. “I agree,” I say.
“Your target is the EUG’s neural network. You will apply a self-activating virus to it.”
“What kind of virus?”
I can hear the intrinsic click of corporate calculation. “You should listen to your father’s advice, Octopus. How hungry are you?”
It’s pure violation when a stranger uses your parents as a fulcrum against you. Most galling of all is when they’re right.
“The window of opportunity is miniscule,” it says. “A contact will ensure your infiltration point and escape. Half the amount will be transferred to your account now, the rest upon completion.”
Resentment concocts an insane plan of taking the money and making a run for it, either for Iconium or New London on the near side. All of this has been worked out before I even got the call, every word of theirs and every potential response has been weighed and measured ahead of time, all to lead me to their preferred conclusion. It’s too easy to slip into paranoia when you work for Kiss-Horvath. They own the Zagreb Sprawl. I figure that’s what this is about, they want to cull EUG’s influence here.
They drill me with the particulars, an excruciating morass of names and places and coordinates. I let the auto-ROM soak it up, I’ll review it later.
The void folds around me like a tumbling house of cards. I pull the nodes from my forehead and retch into a bucket while my senses reorient. I pace and work out the cricks in my neck and back. I stop at my father’s kabuto, a super-aramid helm and face mask dripping with burnt circuits. Burn-scars gouge the polymer plates in a dozen different places – he got good use out of it. Fangs were etched into the polycarbonate face mask. I lift it from the pedestal and set it on my head. Bio-connectors drill into my skull, but it doesn’t hurt. I’ve done this a hundred times. He cultured me, raised my embryo in his homemade chemistry kit, did the cellular divisions, the gastrulation all by himself. Someday I’ll have saved up enough to do what he did. That’s a reality if I complete this gig. I suit up and head out of my insula and onto the street.
Workers fill the domed sky, fluttering on tensile carbonate wings, welding, fusing, building, moving from structure to structure. Drones haunt the streets. The electric-blue lights of their bio-scans trickle down the street then jerk back, repeating in an endless typewriter motion. The chromatophores in my skin bend the light around my figure and I pass undetected.
Two opposing towers rise above the acne rashes of light pulsing from the monolithic city. Trillion candle-power beacons circle from the featureless, titanic walls of the EUG and Kiss-Horvath citadels. Spinning, cylindrical pinnacles pierce the dome and strain into space. Hives of sublight dusters and lunar runners cluster the shipyards. Holoboards assault the city from above with salvos of morphing, rainbow lights, obscuring the brown thumbnail of dead Earth as it scratches over the horizon. I cross the sterile alleys on my way, passing through the Laz-district, where all the Earther refugees are waiting to die.
I turn a corner and a plaz-launcher presses the back of my skull. The cells whine, I smell the skin on the back of my head sizzle against the radioactive heat. “Don’t move,” a voice says behind. “Nice and slow now. You Octopus?”
I whip my hydrostat limbs around and knock the plaz-launcher aside, using my primate arms to draw the eight-watt Masamune from across my shoulder. My finger hovers over the switch and I ram the tsuba against my attacker’s chest.
A saturnine chortle emits from arid lips as a subsonic slug projector taps against my stomach. Ersatz compound eyes quiver over my body. “One, two. . . Eight. If you’re not Octopus, this is one hell of a coincidence.” He holsters his projector in slow motion. “The sword, please.”
“You’re my way in,” I say, withdrawing the blade.
“Yeah,” he says. “Name’s Sobos. The heads over at Kiss probably told you all about me.”
They had. Every detail, including his torpid shape and crude grafts. Sobos is a typical merc, a patchwork of random biological elements and bone-fused weaponry. There’s no practicality in his ungainly body, even less artistry. Nothing could be further from my anatomy, designed by my father.
“Probably wondering how you’re getting in there,” he says, pointing his plaz-launcher at the EUG tower. “I’ve got a cipher on the inside, he’s set up a phase-pad in the data shafts.” Sobos snorts, scraping the stubble under his nose. “You’ll have to travel a few clicks from there to get to the mainframe. You can’t touch the floor or walls in the data shafts while they’re in use or the superconductors will turn you to ash, so you gotta make sure you. . .”
I’d been told all this before. “Where’s the virus?”
Sobos hands me a steel canister. “Metamorphic, polymorphic. This is some nasty shit, my friend. You get any of this on you, you can forget it. Kiss isn’t playing with this.”
I swipe it from his hands and hand it to one of my cepha-arms. The suckers attach to the smooth surface with unyielding kisses and it disappears within me. Sobos shrugs, activates the phase pad and tosses it to the ground. “What’re you gonna do with the money?” When I don’t answer, he keeps talking. “I’m gonna get girls. And boys. And I’m gonna buy a nice flop somewhere and fuck and eat and fuck for months.” He grins, his compound eyes glimmer. Virtuous men like my father are in grave dearth.
I step onto the phase pad. Blue light wells inside of me, expands, consuming me atom by atom until I don’t exist.
I reatomize by pieces, a sensation like having your limbs wake up one at a time. Matrices of ice-colored lights burn in symmetrical grids along the round silver-plated shaft. When I close my eyes my location appears on the uploaded schematics of the EUG compound as a red dot.
“Get moving,” Sobos’s voice grunts into my ear over the comms. “Next cycle’s in eight-point-two minutes and you’ve got two clicks to cover.”
“No, four,” I say, launching into a sprint with my arms, legs and cepha-limbs up the constantly sloping tunnel.
“Goddamnit,” Sobos mutters. “I told him to set the phase pad himself, not to toss it down.” An anxious pause. “Seven-point-five minutes.”
Sequences of light blur past as I gallop forward.
“Five minutes, Octopus.”
The lights swell, a temp-monitor fires in my circuitry, blaring warnings into my retinas. WARNING: TEMPERATURE EXCEEDING ONE-THIRTY DEGREES FARENHEIT.
“Three-point-five. Jesus, go.”
The ground cooks my skin as I run for my life.
The lights blind me. I keep running, scorching my hands on the frigid-hot walls.
“You’re out of time!”
I tumble into an open service hatch and slam the valve closed behind me. The iron walls shudder as the matrices flame, filling the tunnel with unfathomable energy. Pustules of my skin bubble and pop until my systems recalibrate and cool. Nonsensical monitors and indescribably complex panels growl with electronic voices. A cramped maintenance tube leads out of the room, I can only fit into it by sprawling on the ground stomach first.
The Kiss-Horvath schematic warns I’m approaching a security bulkhead. In the briefing, the Kiss brain trusts had warned that EUG security wasn’t limited to government issue street drones. I peek out of from the tube with the cybernetic eye in my father’s kabuto, it relays high-speed layouts to my CPU. Alternating beam grids, motion-turrets, daruma-killers.
The ceiling is the only way. My CPU finishes proofing the grid’s equations. I yank myself out through the tube and up the smooth wall, scaling it with the suction kissers in my cepha-limbs. I think of my future child. She’ll be just like my father, just like me, a bionic work of art, a perfect sequencing of DNA into a living masterpiece. The bounty for this job will pay for the kits, the zygotes, the grafts. A shudder of anticipation rumbles through me as I swing down into the next shaft through circling laser nets.
“How the hell’d he get through there,” Sobos mutters to himself. I hear it anyway.
I’m standing in the EUG bio lab. Fetuses and raw grafts hover in simmering vats of viscous fluid. DNA sequences spiral on humming monitors.
“Octopus. Hey, Pus. Why’d you stop? Where are you?”
I see all of the things I’d need to grow my child. Unused receptacles line the walls in perfect uniformity. Clusters of zygotes, embryos, nutrients, drift between conduits. Easy. It’d be so simple to take all I need and go back the way I came. I could head to any of the crater-states, Chiba/Chiba’d probably be the wisest choice. Kiss-Horvath probably wouldn’t bother coming after me.
But then my daughter’s life would begin with a lie. I’d be knowingly poisoning her future for convenience’s sake. Having a child shouldn’t be easy.
“Pus? You there? Shit.”
“Yeah,” I say, willing myself to walk on.
“You’re almost there, should be the next room.”
I step to the door, press my hand to the scanner. The sequences Kiss-Horvath provided me work perfectly and the steel portals sprawl open. Fragments of ice splinter and plummet from the neural core’s cylindrical bulk. Blue lightning lashes from its frigid exterior, wiggling and then disappearing. A circle of gravity wells line its monstrous shape, each throbbing with implacable energy.
“This is you, Sobos,” I say. I pull the virus from the grasp of my cepha-arm’s suckers.
“Negative energy surge should drain the EUG generators. Network’ll compensate by readjusting power distribution. The gravity wells should weaken and you can toss the virus through.”
Two barbed prongs spring from the canister’s tip.
“How long is the window?” I ask.
“Three tenths of a second. Maybe. Throw on my mark or the gravity’ll just suck the canister down. Got it?” A pause. “Here it comes, on three. One. . .”
The lights in the chamber wheeze and go dark.
“Two. . .”
Sweat condenses and drips onto my lip.
“THREE! Now, throw it!”
Before he even finishes, I let the virus fly. It sails over the wells just as the gravity shudders and momentarily deactivates. The spikes pierce the core’s frigid surface. The virus applied. Money in the bank. Flawless.
Alarms grind overhead. I turn and run, but electromagnetic nets sink around me. My Masamune cackles with power as I draw it from across my back and cut through the fields. The steel doors bolt shut but they come apart like paper under the stroke of my sword.
“Sobos,” I say into the comms. There is no answer. I am betrayed. My father would never have been so foolish.
My only chance is to make it back to the data shafts and to find the phase pad. I run, never ceasing even when a plethora of daruma killers hobble towards me from the security bulkheads, cybernetic eyes fixated on me. The combat-state obscures my sight, blurs my memory as predictors and processors assume control of my body. I roll under plasma pulses, dodge laser shots and lead projectiles. I hack them to pieces, ignoring the warm spray of cybernetic fluids and the slap of severed pieces. They don’t make daruma that can compete with me. My father’s programming allows my computers to make ten million adjustments per sec.
I charge down the data shaft. Six minutes until the next rotation, plenty of time. The distance is easier, quicker this time, the tunnel’s sloping downward. As long as the phase pad isn’t destroyed, I’ll be free.
Sobos blockades my passage. Light winks across the surface of his polygonal energy shields. “Sorry Pus,” he says. “Business. I didn’t think you’d make it this far.” The combat-predictors wail like lunatics in my skull as the barrels of his lazguns start to glow. Annoyed, I turn them off.
“But Kiss knew,” he says. “They knew you’d make it. Never bet against the brains over there, they figured all this out beforehand. All this. Goodbye, Octopus.”
Spectrums of energy flood the shaft. I vault to the side, but there’s no dodging it, the blast severs half of my cepha-arms. Spasms of pain register but I ignore it, launching forward.
One minute until the data shafts rotate. One of us is going to die.
Sobos drops his cannons and draws two ion repeaters. I ignite my Masamune and carve a swathe of the metal floor up, ducking behind it as I scramble forward. Fire erupts through the shaft, ricocheting off my makeshift shield.
“Shit,” Sobos bellows, ripping a Yoshitsune blade from its scabbard. Sparks flare from his shield generator as the heat melts its circuits.
Our blades cross once and his torso tumbles from his waist.
I step onto the phase pad. Thirty seconds remain as the superconductors fire all around.
“Pus.” Sobos drags his severed torso towards me, coolant spurting from the knotted tubes of his bowels. “Kiss paid me to kill you.”
The phase-pad dissembles me.
I reatomize where I began, outside of the EUG building. I destroy the phase pad so no one will follow and sheath my Masamune as my skin appears to flutter and go transparent.
Sobos told me what I already know. Kiss-Horvath relied on my ability to apply the virus and counted on us to kill each other. They only wanted a corpse. EUG will find the residue of his corpse. Maybe they’ll accept that the intruder to their compound is dead, maybe not. Perhaps there never was a virus. Maybe my mission was simply an assertion of Kiss-Horvath’s power – it doesn’t matter.
“Well done,” the corporate voices say into my ear. “It is unfortunate that Sobos attempted to kill you. You don’t believe what he told you, of course.”
“No,” I say, the word tastes like battery acid.
“Good. Your pay has been deposited. Your service will be remembered and considered in the future.” The voice dies.
I pray that they do. Producing a child is an expensive undertaking, I’ll need all the money I can get.
Kristen Lee Knapp is a 23 year old graduate student at the University of North Florida. Though balancing grades and writing is sometimes difficult, his award-winning fiction and poetry has appeared at dozens of websites, books and journals. You can follow him on twitter at http://twitter.com/kristenleeknapp or check out his occasionally updated blog at Life From The Slush Pile.