We’ll Become the Stars
by Gabor Csigas ©2018 | Cyberpunk from a canceled anthology
The city lies sleeping. I can see it out my window, lights like diamonds spread randomly on black velvet. I don’t know what woke me, but as always, my first thought was about what happened that night. I swore I would take it to my grave, but it eats away at me. Haunts me, I suppose.
I remember everything. It all began with Atticus handing me the hollow face of a wolf.
Atticus hands me the hollow face of a wolf, then puts on his own mask, becoming a faded, dull red fox.
“We’re gonna have so much fun, James,” he says. His voice has a slight, artificial resonance. It must be the muzzle of the old fox, all those barely visible cracks in the plastic.
“I’m not so sure anymore, doc,” I reply, already sweating and losing focus.
“You can do it,” Atticus says, gripping my shoulder. “If I can do it, it can’t be a problem for you. You’re the veteran, remember.”
“You have no fucking idea what that means,” I’m telling him, going through a few cycles of shutting my eyes tight then reopening them. The world is still a blur. “It’s not what they feed you in all those bloody action flicks, doc. Not for me.”
“What, you’re afraid?” He lets go of me. My vision clears up somewhat, suddenly. It’s not because of him, technically, I know. But it feels so. He’s checking his gun now.
“We won’t need that.” I reach over and take it away from him.
“Come on, Mister Wolf,” he says, trying to get it back. “Do you think your lover’s alone? Do you think her hubby’s goons won’t be around?”
“It’s a damn funeral, Atticus. Won’t you calm the fuck down?”
“You’re telling me to calm down? Man, look at yourself,” he says, smirking, turning the rear view mirror to me. I’m still a blur. “You should get today’s dose. Your irises haven’t grown any less black, you know? And let’s not forget that it’s mostly for your sake that we’re doing this. It’s you who needs that extract, not me. So give me back my damn gun. And shoot yourself with this.”
He hands me a syringe out of a science fiction movie. It’s filled with an all too familiar, faint blue glow. Billions of minuscule machines are swirling inside, waiting to fix me up. My daily dose.
I give in, and a minute later I’m okay, completely. For a while, at least. That’s why Mr. Fox and Mr. Wolf are going to rob Svetlana. Robbing Svetlana is not a good idea. But I have no other option to give her enough money, money to buy her freedom from her husband, that is, my boss, Grigory. Yeah, it’s bloody complicated. And it could get literally so.
“Look,” Atticus says, “you know you must do it. Unless you want to pay for your survival supply with the money you’ve been saving for her. That’s the legal way, and you can choose that, but then you won’t have her, ever. The nano she’s smuggled in in his uncle’s corpse will be enough for you for years. And I do the extraction for you for a fragment of the legal price.”
“I know. But what if she finds out who we are? Or if Grigory does? And let’s not forget that after all it’s her uncle. It’s his funeral.”
“He’s practically a sack full of military grade, dormant nanotech. Twenty years of stolen future that nobody would look for in a corpse. Except for those who read her encrypted communication. That’s you, you lucky bastard. But it’s your call. What will it be, Mr. Wolf?”
“I should’ve gotten a rat mask. A laboratory rat, in a Russian hat.”
“Yeah, I know, you poor thing, our dear James,” the fox says, only its eyes telling that he knows he’s practically won this round.
And then we’re on the move.
Waiting for Atticus to show up on the opposite side of the mortuary, I feel like howling at the Moon, the plastic wolf skin on my face, the artificial blood in my veins. Atticus was right, of course. Svetlana hasn’t come alone: she’s brought along her usual muscle, a few lumps of now unconscious but otherwise quite tough flesh I often drink with in one of Grigory’s bars. I wouldn’t call them friends, especially not now, having just knocked them out. They won’t know, of course, that it was me. They’re not on the nano. At best, they’ve seen a werewolf only.
Svetlana is sitting in a chair beside the closed coffin, alone. She doesn’t know how alone she is. Of course, Atticus may have fucked up everything on the other side of the small, gloomy, Lovecraftian building. In this case, I’ll have about a minute to get out of here, then an hour or two to get out of London, and a day at most to get the hell out of England. And then about a month or two to live, without replenishing the nano. Of course, I might find other sources, and I would try to, surely. But there are no guarantees, and being on the run from Grigory’s people would not help. So I cross my fingers. “Come on, you bloody fox,” I whisper without a voice.
And he’s suddenly there, the dark trickster emerging from the shadows right when Svetlana lights a cigarette, a Silk Cut. Atticus, the Fox points his gun at her, and I curse myself for letting him keep it. Sure, he might have shot some guards, might have saved my hide with that gun, yet now I wish he’d just drop it. And I feel I should move out too, get there, take over holding her up and letting Atticus get on with the coffin, the corpse of Uncle Anton and the million nanobots, but my legs just don’t move.
Atticus looks at me, where he expects me to be, that is, and nods his fox head. I’m watching Svetlana. She doesn’t say a word. She knows it’s us, it’s me.
“Atticus,” I’m whispering. “Svetlana. Fuck.”
Atticus nods again. I can see his eyes. He’s suddenly afraid. Then his scent reaches my nanotech wolf nose. Yes, he’s afraid of the empty dark spot where I should be. And Svetlana is terrified as well. I think she thinks it’s me behind the fox mask. Who else would’ve known about Uncle Anton? We’re idiots. How could we have thought this would work? I don’t remember. I’m sure Atticus told me why it’s okay, and how it’s gonna work. He’s clever. Nobody gets to be a doctor of his standing without being able to plan. If only I could recall the details. If only I could stop staring mesmerized at the two of them and move.
“What do you want?” Svetlana asks after what seems like a day. “Who sent you?”
She hopes it’s not about the corpseful of nanobots. She hopes it’s about Grigory, not her. No, no, she must know it’s us. She’s just trying to give us a chance to back off, to turn tails and run. She doesn’t want to have to hurt me. To tell Grigory the whole story about us. That would hurt her too. A lot.
I reach into the pocket of my jacket, take out my backup syringe that even Atticus doesn’t know about, and inject it all. I can’t see any other way to fight off this block.
Atticus doesn’t answer Svetlana. He’s just staring at her, then at me. Maybe he’s seen me moving. Maybe he’s realized what I’m doing, and is now getting more scared than before. Yeah, that must be it, for he fails to notice the mobile slowly slipping into Svetlana’s hand from her sleeve. I should’ve told him she keeps a silenced one there. She presses “3” for a while, a quick dial. And my phone starts ringing.
“You idiot!” Atticus is shouting. He backs away a step from Svetlana, raising the gun. I’m not sure who he’s talking to, her, me, or us both.
“Atticus?” Svetlana asks, ending the call.
“I thought you were a bloody veteran! Stealth, tuned and boosted combat reflexes, cold blood, and all that shit!” Atticus keeps yelling. “And I thought you,” pointing the gun at Svetlana’s forehead, “had more wits than to make it necessary for anyone to shoot you!”
So, he’s talking to us both, and I find myself able to move, the panic gone. Now I’m just worried. Anxiety’s pulsing in my veins.
I walk up to the coffin, taking off the wolf mask. Only when I’m there do I realize they’re both staring at me in horror.
“What? We’ve fucked it all up, the three of us.” Trying to sound easy. I can hear myself fail, my voice betraying me. And they’re still staring.
“Give me the gun, Atticus,” I’m saying, and when he doesn’t move, I do, and take it away from him. Déjà vu.
“Your eyes, James,” Svetlana says. Atticus, the Fox nods.
“What’s up with my eyes?”
“Your eyes,” Atticus repeats.
“What’s with them?”
“Doesn’t it hurt?” Svetlana says.
“What the fuck is up with my eyes?” Now it’s me shouting at them. “The last thing we all should mind now is my bloody eyes! We’ve just tried to rob you of a fortune, Svetlana! We’ve possibly murdered a number of Grigory’s men, and we’ve got no other option but to kill you and perhaps ourselves as well, to escape his wrath. So won’t you fucking tell me, please, what the hell’s up with my eyes, and then let it rest, and find out what the fuck we’ll all do?”
“They are burning,” Atticus says. “Can’t you see the flames?”
“They’re red?” I say, having lost my breath.
“No, they’re burning for real! Flames and everything! Blue, not red,” Svetlana whispers. “Why aren’t your skin and hair burning?”
“He’s overdosed,” Atticus says. “Haven’t you, James? You’ve had another shot. I told you not to.”
“What?” I’m asking.
“Your eyes are burning. And it’s, like, getting more intense. Doesn’t it hurt?”
I notice they’re now standing next on each other, and are holding hands. I start laughing.
“So that’s why you’ve not been so much into me these past few weeks, Svetlana,” I say.
“What? That your eyes are burning?”
“No. That the two of you are holding hands. Played me nice, haven’t you two? So what’s this all about? Frame me, and have Grigory get rid of me, so that you can continue your fresh affair? Would I have been used just like Uncle Anton? Maybe this coffin here is empty? Reserved for me?”
Stepping to the black box, I raise the lid. It’s not empty. What Uncle Anton used to be is in there. I instantly recognize his thin beard. The upper part of his head is practically gone, though. Burned away, to the bone.
“What the fuck,” I say. Neither Svetlana nor Atticus moves. I’d see them even if they were behind my back. Smell the whirling scents, sense the currents in the air with my skin.
“Really burning?” I’m asking them, raising my left hand to my eyes, putting away Atticus’s gun with the right.
“Why can’t I smell it? Can you? Why can’t I feel it? See it? Atticus?”
“I have no idea,” he shakes his head. Scared. “Does everything else feel… usual?”
“Yeah.” I feel lost. “The usual nano high, at least. A bit sharper. Clearer, perhaps. Hard to say.”
“Weird,” Atticus is whispering. “Looks like your skin’s started burning too. Still can’t feel anything?”
“Nothing,” I say. “What the hell is happening to me? Am I going to die?”
I’m falling into a hole, the deepest, blackest hole. Yet there’s no pain. Just this utterly numbing fear. I step back, sit on the edge of the coffin, on Uncle Anton’s chest. And that’s when I start seeing the sparks. There’s millions of them, as if I were looking at the night city from above, or looking at the clearest night sky ever from deep below. All those tiny dots, they’re separate yet together they’re something else. Together they are, I’m realizing, me. I’m watching myself draining all the nano from Uncle Anton’s dead body, I’m watching myself flow out through my own eyes, eating away my own skin and flesh, because I need the energy released, I need it to be able to move, to get out of this ruined, old body of mine, to stay alive.
Svetlana faints, falling, hitting her head hard on the cold stones. Atticus lets go of her hand, turns around, and starts for the door, sprinting.
“I’ve been too old to do it, body and mind both, son,” says Uncle Anton, and for some reason I’m not surprised at all to hear him talk, in a weak voice, in my head, in my thoughts. “I couldn’t keep this up. So I’m giving it all to you now, son. With what you’re getting from me, you’ll have the critical mass of nanobots needed to move on. Good bye, son.” And then he’s gone forever.
I’m still here, in flames, but the fear has burned away by now. I’m at peace. I’m a zillion tiny stars in a blurred human shape, my consciousness floating above the waters that is matter, my once and future residence. Swirling, I cast a glance back, at Uncle Anton’s bones turning to the finest dust, then at my own charred corpse beside it. The nanocloud I have become starts losing heat, slowly, and I know that I must move forward now, preserve continuity.
I am sorry, Svetlana, love. You betrayed me first, anyway.
This all happened almost exactly a year ago. The city lies sleeping. Out my window, lights like diamonds spread randomly on black velvet. Inside my body, a zillion sparks, an universe. They are me, and I am it. The nanobots provide continuity. Now I’m living in the body of Svetlana, Grigory’s widow. I changed her name, my name, out of respect for her. Now I’m Louisa. In time, when needed, when the brilliant cloud that I have become has consumed too much of this body, I will move on. The transmigration of a soul carried on by immortal nanotechnology. I’m the first of my kind. But not the last. I’ll help you, the others. Everyone. One by one. You’ll see how maddeningly beautiful the world is. We’ll become the stars. The city in the heavens. Then we’ll fuse, maybe joining God as one.
I don’t know what woke me, but as always, my first thought was about what happened that night. I swore I would take it to my grave. Then I remembered that I’ll never have a grave. Or that perhaps the world is my grave. I’m having quite a nice afterlife. Without the original Svetlana, but not without her body. Without Grigory, but not without his wealth. Without Atticus, but not without his cunning fox mask. Without Uncle Anton, but not without all his nano. Without the face the world knew as James, but not without my soul. Not without me.
Yes, I remember everything.
About this story
Salomé gave us writers an opening paragraph that she herself wrote, and we were free to continue and build our own stories upon that as we pleased. No restrictions. Salomé accepted my submission to be included in the book — but then life happened, and the publisher had to cancel the project. It’s sad, but the silver lining is that I can show this story to you all now, for free, with Ghostwoods Books’ permission.
Thanks for the inspiration and for the first paragraph, Salomé. :)
Mind you, I also designed some book covers for Ghostwoods Books as a freelancing graphic designer.