NEON & CONCRETE — Story #05

Cigarettes & Dynamite

This is the sort of place you come if you’re prepared to die. If you’ve exhausted every other option, if you’ve got nothing left, other than the clothes on your back and maybe a skill or two that might be useful to the wrong type of villain, then you come here to Blood Moon.

Look, you got lucky, somehow, and you’ve had a moment to try to think about what your next move might be. You look left and see a suppression-collar bolted around your neck as you sit on the slave line in some underground workshop for the rest of your awful life. You look right, and your brain is jacked into the grid twenty-three hours a day, that little bit of computational power utilised to help the Corporation’s crypto-calculations.

There are a million and one unpleasant alternatives to dying in the metropolis, called Major Prime, none of them pretty. So, if you’ve made that decision, if you’re at the end of your rope, burnt every bridge, if you’re prepared to die overtaking some fucked up alternative, like me, then you come here. You end up at Blood Moon with the hope you might catch a gig that’ll pull you out of the dark, give you some option, and if you don’t, well, there are plenty of suicide rooms available, on the house of course, as long as they get to live stream it.

I’ve been here twice before, both times ready to bite the bullet, ready to give it up, rather than take one of those alternatives you’d barely call a life. Both times, something came along that got me out of whatever scrape I’d gotten myself into.

I turn away from the bar for a moment to breathe this place in, see what’s up, and maybe find a mark. There’s every type of person under the sun in this place. Everyone’s got their past; everyone’s got their demons. You’ve got the neo-yuppie next to the T>O<X addict, the hacker next to the gunslinger, old priests and young harlots. They’re here because there’s a chance they can escape the system or death. Very few ever get to make it away from either. Most likely, they’ll down themselves into oblivion and walk into a suicide room, the live stream of them ending themselves paying for the drink and drugs they’ve just hammered back. One in ten might find some work going in some misshapen outfit that’ll save them from having to jack it all in. Either way, the chances of death are high. I’d say I’ve been lucky, but to end up back here for a third time, I’m not sure if that’s luck at all.

I turn back to the bar, drowned in red light. The sound system’s blasting out some retro-techno, and the hard thumps of the baseline are vibrating through my chest. Another shot’s calling my name, so the android barman pours me a double. Hammering it back, the glass starts shaking across the countertop. Weird little action, vibrating along with the explosions of noise, doing its little dance, the same as we all do with life until it falls off the edge and smashes into a million little pieces, just like the rest of us.

I laugh, the android pours me another. I notice the credit sign in the peripheral vision of my retinal implant roll-up one more time, and I hit the next shot back and order up something more powerful. The blood-red of the lighting system shifts and swirls, making it hard to pick out the nuances of the particular type of clientele you get here, tough to try to find my mark, pick out someone that might have my gig waiting for me.

Everyone knows everyone’s welcome here. Everyone knows there’s always some shop for something, and usually, there’s a decent amount on offer. I point to the shot-glass, and the android comes over and pours another and puts down two capsules next to it. Cracking them open, I slip the powder within into the drink, shoot the drink, teeth gritting, fists balled at my sides, eyes bulging, the drug hits. Fuck this place, fuck all this. I rest my head on the bar counter and try to wish it all away.

“Ready to die, kid?” a guy shouts over the music, sitting down next to me.

I turn my head and sit back upright with a furrow in my brow as he orders up two more shots.

“Maybe,” I say, the drugs and booze having their effect, the lights throbbing with the music, euphoric rushes of energy, all the usual shit.

“I heard you got the gift,” he says shooting back the liquor, taking off his sunglasses, big blue eyes staring down at me from his huge head on top of a massive neck. He’s a big fucker, big as they come. He lights a cigarette and blows the smoke in my face.

Board on the shoulder, jacked arms, stim implants all over his shaved head, a thick black beard coming out of his jaw. I guess he’d be intimidating if I wasn’t already loved up on whatever the android just gave me.

“Oh yeah?” I say, “And what sort of gift might that be?”

“An exceptional one that’s in limited supply and that my squad and I could use for a job we’re putting together.”

“And who’d you hear this from, exactly?”

He tilts his head, grins, and says, “Why don’t you tell me?”

“Hm.” I close my eyes, try to block out the music, the bodies all around, and focus my mind onto him.

The control comes easy, I’ve done it enough times in all sorts of fucked up situations that I can bring the focus in, even here. Something simple, like finding out where he got this info, comes without having to dive too much in the first place. Which is just as well, because even though I’ve got the focus, I’m still only self-trained. Managed to avoid the government programmes, didn’t want to get caught up in all the Corporation bullshit and have somehow managed to steer clear of getting tethered by a gang. I’m a free-range telepath, got the gift, made a few runs in my time, got a bit of a reputation, manage to find work in the underground without too much hassle. Somehow, it still doesn’t stop me from ending up here, ready to take a suicide room.

My teeth grit, fists grip, the waves of thought pulsing through me. Then there’s a moment when I take the swim, nothing too deep, just looking for what he asked me to look for, and I know, if I can find this, there might be some work in it that’ll spare me a trip to one of those rooms.

“Well, Joe,” I say, opening my eyes and seeing a big grin come across his face.

“Relentless Joe, to you.”

“Well, Relentless Joe seems to me like you’ve been talking with The Artist. She knows what I’ve got, so that makes sense. Must have paid a pretty penny to find out as well or acquired some heavy debt.”

“We’ve been waiting for someone like you to pass through here for a few weeks now. The Artist, she knows we’re good for it, especially with what we’ve got planned.” He puts his sunglasses back on, stands up, and points at the bartender. “Put hers on my tab,” and turning to me, “Let’s go somewhere and talk.”

Beeple: CRYPTIC CUBE

We head into the Cube Room. I’ve heard it’s technically impossible to bug or otherwise intercept conversation or information in this room, but I’ve never had enough money or a big enough job to get inside. Knowing this guy has the cash or credit to get in here means he’s seriously legit, and that tingle comes running through my spine, the same way it does every time I land a good gig.

Walking inside, there’s the gigantic translucent cube in the middle of a huge, otherwise black room. It’s glowing white at its edges, people walking around in small huddles, all discussing, plotting, planning.

“Shit, I’ve never been in here before,” I say as we walk up to a small group of raggedy looking misfits.

“Access doesn’t come cheap. Privacy and security are a rare commodity these days,” Relentless Joe says as he directs me through the crowds. He’s at least two feet taller than I am and about a foot taller than most of the other people in here. “No one’s listening, and no one’s going to hit us here. That’s how The Artist makes her real money. Suicide rooms and the Blood Moon club aren’t exactly high yield investments.”

He stops and turns me to face him. “Look, kid; I’m taking you to meet the rest of the crew. These guys, they can be a little jittery, been through the shit, you know? Try not to offend them and do not read them. There’s some nasty shit tucked away in their minds that you do not want to have floating around in yours. You got me?”

“Yeah, I got it, Joe. Don’t worry.”

“It’s Relentless Joe.” He says as we walk up to the small group. “Now, gentlemen, my pleasure to introduce you to the person we’ve been looking for.”

“Don’t look like much to me,” a tall one in white Deacon robes says and spits on the floor next to me.

Relentless Joe stares at him. His jaw is pulsing, and he’s shaking his head before he leans over to me and whispers into my ear, “You know what I just told you not to do? Well, do it. Prove him wrong. Just don’t go too deep. This one’s more fucked up than most.” He pulls back and looks at the tall robed guy and says, “You sure you want to test her?”

“She ain’t got no gift. I can smell it on ‘em.”

Joe laughs as I try to focus. The drugs have worn off. The booze is still flowing, but it’s given me a nice bit of balance against the anxiety of being in this room, with some of Major Prime’s most notorious criminals, and being quizzed to the legitimacy of my ‘gift’.

I pull away from the moment, where we are, what’s going on around me, and push through and into this guy’s head. There’s not any good explanation anyone’s been able to come up with yet, why some of us have it, where it comes from, how we do it. The only thing we know is that it’s real, and the government and Corporation and gangs usually sweep up every one of us before we’re out of our teens.

There’s a flash and a scream. I’m in some church, and guns are ringing out, yellow beams of their barrels lighting the dark tomb of a building, blood erupting from necks and torsos and faces. Someone’s shouting, ‘It is through us that he lives!’ and I turn, and through the mist of blood and gun smoke, I see the tall robed man. He’s younger, faceless twisted, two laser-pistols raised in front of him, and he’s screaming for the children and women of the congregation to flee. He’s stood firm, a protector, opening up the beams from the pistols, slicing through those that were invading his space.

My eyes bolt open, the crystalline cube in the middle of the room still turning slowly, the white light catching the edge of the tall man’s face, each offset scar highlighted, a fleshy mound giving him this immense sense of time and being.

“You okay, kid?” Relentless Joe grabs my shoulder.

I shake myself out of it. “Yeah, yeah, I — ”

“See, she ain’t got it.” The tall man spits again.

“You’re a Deacon,” I walk up to him, I need to feel the scars. “You were a protector of the forgotten tech. You, and those like you, out on the frontier. Holy shit, you’ve been to Mars.” I lift my hand and, on my tiptoes, run my fingers along the scars on his face, the ridges of reformed flesh holding so much time and presence.

“Not bad,” Deacon says, lowering his head and looking me in the eye. “Joe, you reckon she’s got what it’s going to take to get us through this mess?”

Relentless Joe pulls me away from Deacon. “Do we have any choice?”

“No, not really,” Deacon says. “Don’t mean I’m happy.”

“You don’t have to be,” Relentless Joe turns to me. “What’s your preferred moniker?”

“Wild Cat,” I say as I turn to the other one I’ve not been introduced to yet.

“I am Horse,” an android comes up to me, the white light of the cube framing his robotic skeletal structure perfectly. The chrome and fibre optic cabling is almost hypnotic in the dull light of the room. “I hope you can accept my apologies. I’m in-between bodies after our last job.”

I shake his metal hand, and he stands straight up to me, just a fraction taller than Relentless Joe, coming in at something like seven feet, red eyes glowing. “I’m guessing you’re our hacker,” I say.

“That’s correct,” his voice is smooth, not entirely robotic but not human either. “I’ll be taking care of our hardware and software needs.”

Relentless Joe steps around and in front of me, lighting another cigarette, his big black beard glistening in the flickering light of the Cube Room. “And that’s our outfit,” he says, blowing smoke and furrowing his brow. “Thoughts?”

I tilt my head, poke him in the shoulder. “Relentless Joe, you’re the muscle. You got a hacker in Horse. Deacon here,” I turn and look at the torn and twisted man. “A protector, he’s one that knows the way of the forgotten technology.” I turn back to Joe and eyeball him.

“Right, kid,” he says. “So, why do we need a ninety-pound girl that looks like she’s just come out of a T>O<X coma?”

I give him one of my many disapproving looks, but I know he’s right. The streets haven’t been kind to me lately. I’m thinner and more alien looking than usual. “Some job, right? Something you’d need a psychic for, could be anythi — “

Relentless Joe grabs my hand and puts it against his enormous forehead. There’s a flash, and my spine straightens out, jaw pulsing forward, heart leaping out of my chest. Savage waves of brutal moments hammering through my mind. He’s opened himself up completely, letting me swim inside him, every part of him, and then he brings his level of focus, outside all the hurt and strife.

Outside the broken home as a kid, the countless times in the holo-prisons as an adult, serving decades and decades in an instant at the whim of corporate justice. Still fighting, still battling against the system. Sometimes trying to do good, most of the time having no choice but to do wrong. Over the years, the team came together. This band of brothers, connected at the hip through crime and horror, money and drugs, but there’s something else, the fight, the quest, to do something more, to help? Rejected by everything they’ve ever tried to embrace other than each other. They’ve fought against the system their entire lives and fought for each other whenever necessary. Never leave a man behind. Right, but that’s just what happened.

A big job, biggest they’d ever seen, most important they’d ever had, their crew coming together as one solid unit. Strong and with confidence that only comes from being good at what you do, and some said they were the best. But something went wrong, a snitch, a bust, a telepath? They miss it, whatever it was, and one of them doesn’t make it out.

Relentless Joe tearing tac-marines and corp-sec guards into piles of viscera. Deacon using the way of the forgotten tech to slice up reinforced concrete walls and three-feet thick titanium doors like they were sheet paper. Horse hacking secure lines, keeping drones and other androids off their backs, and then there was Battle…That’s him, Battle. He was their psychic, the team’s telepath; he missed something, too distracted by their primary goal, and somehow the corp-sec ambushed them. Hundreds and hundreds of corp-sec guards went down in that ambush, and the team got away with what they had come for, but lost Battle in the process. Now, the government has him, and they’ll eventually break him and turn him into a weapon to use against them and us all.

I snatch my hand back from Relentless Joe’s forehead, holding it to my chest, my lungs bellowing, sucking down the stale air in the Cube Room as I blink him back into focus. “Fuck.”

“That’s one way to put it,” he says, putting one big bear paw of a hand on my shoulder and slipping a cigarette into my mouth with the other. “Look, we know this might be a little above your paygrade, but we don’t have much choice right now, kid.”

“A bit above my fucking paygrade?!” I laugh from the gut, pulling hard on the cigarette before turning to the crew. Deacon stood there, white robes billowing lightly as people shuffle past him, the lines and scars on his face twitching in the flickering white light of the room. An android called Horse stood, skinless, his chrome skeletal structure shining, red eyes glowing, a nervous metal finger twitching against its hip. Relentless Joe, the big bearded scary looking motherfucker, stood between them, but there’s something in him, in the depth of his eye, in the pit of his mind. That floating idea that they’re trying to do something good. “How do you even know he’s alive?” I say.

“Excellent, so, you’re in,” Relentless Joe says.

“How do you even know he’s alive?” I say again.

Beeple: WARM BATH

Relentless Joe holds out his hand. A holo-cube fires out a little projection and starts spinning in front of me. There’s a gigantic man suspended in some fluid in a huge vat. Military personnel are walking around it with tablets out, taking readings and measurements. There’s one important looking one standing perfectly still, looking up at this vast floating body. The naked form with some headset attached to it, wires and feeds going into it. They must be bombarding him, breaking him down.

“You’ve heard of these military indoctrination labs, what they do to psychics, how they tear the mind apart only to rebuild into a weapon for their use?” Relentless Joe says.

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve heard the horror stories; sure, rumours, but you never meet anyone who ever made it out of one of those things.”

“It’s all true,” he says and pauses for a long time. “This sort of treatment is only kept for the really powerful ones. Kids like you, with the gift, if they’ve not got you by the time you’re maybe ten years old, then it’s not worth their time anyway. They’ll leave you to the Corporation or gangs. You know the drill.”

“Yeah or sneak through, like me, and go freelance underground.”

“Exactly,” he says, lighting a cigarette, putting the projection cube back into a big pocket in his jacket. “Then there are the ones that have the gift, the ones they’re looking for young. They get sucked in by the military, and guess where Battle comes in?”

“Ex-military, they wanted to get him back.”

“Battle’s one of a kind, not only part of the military’s psychic-training programme since around four years old, but look at the fucking size of him. He’s also been on their super-soldier programme since they had him as a kid.” He pauses and shakes his head. “Horse was able to get what you just saw on the holo-cube. We only needed it to confirm what we knew. Battle is Alpha//Omega level telepath, prime military tech, billions invested, and he managed to escape. Went AWOL, joined us, we’ve been pulling jobs for years, and we’ve managed to keep them off our backs all this time through his abilities to mask himself, only something happened. They found a way around it. They found out what our next job was going to be, and now, well, you just saw where they’ve got him.”

“So, what the hell do you expect me to do?” I say.

Deacon steps forward, spits, and wipes his mouth his forearm. “We’re going to the Ring, Wild Cat, and you’re going to help us get him back out.”

Beeple: POWER FILTRATION GATE

“To the fucking Ring?” I shout and take a step back. Joe has already got me by the collar, and he’s pulling me out of the Cube-Room, out of Blood Moon, out onto the streets of Major Prime, and into some tank-like vehicle that is easily the most heavily armoured thing I’ve ever seen.

“Wait, wait, wait!” I’m shouting at them after getting a grip on myself and what’s going on. “We’re going to the Ring?”

“Time to spit in the drink of death, kid,” Relentless Joe says. He’s put me down and strapped himself into a heavy looking chair in the darkness of the armoured vehicle. Screens are streaming green code all around him, holo-projections spinning silently, the rumble of the tank a low hum outside as we head out toward our destination.

I’m terrified and trying to figure out exactly what the fuck is going on. “Look, I think you got the wrong person,” I say, holding my hands against the shaking. “I’m sure you’re all supreme bad-asses and all. Joe, your first name is Relentless for fuck’s sake. Horse, he’s a terminator looking android and I’m sure can hack his way into and through anything. Deacon, fuck me, he’s been to the frontier on Mars. Look, I’m just a barely functioning telepath with a perennial luck problem. I’m sure you guys can handle breaking into the most heavily fortified military compound in the northern quadrant of Major Prime to rescue some notorious Alpha//Omega telepathic super soldier. But guys, I don’t think I’m quite there yet.”

“Deacon, show her.” Relentless Joe lights a cigarette as his chair spins away from me, and he and Horse continue hammering away at the consoles in front of them.

Deacon comes over, hunched in the low space, the turquoise blues and digital greens of the tank’s cabin mixing with the cigarette smoke that gives the scars on his face a formal look of dread. He hits a few dials on a compartment next to the two of us and waits, his hands joined together like he’s in prayer.

A drawer hisses and slowly starts to push itself out of the armoured wall. He grabs the contents and turns around, a twisted smile on his face, wild eyes glowing in the green of a million little flashing lights and dials and holo-projections.

“That’s not what I think it is,” I say.

“I should say it is, Wild Cat.”

“Oh fuck,” I say, moving forward, not able to help myself, despite knowing how dangerous this thing could be.

“This is forgotten technology,” he puts the small sphere down on a table in front of me, careful to make sure it’s on a small base that cradles it. “Stolen from the frontier by the military and stolen by us from them.”

I lean into it, mouth agape. It’s spinning in the cradle; only it’s not spinning. It seems still, maybe it’s something inside it, like a mist, mist in an endless whirling void. I want to dive into it. It’s hypnotic and terrifying, and it’s drawing me closer. “What does it do?” I whisper, looking up at its frowning protector.

“It’s a source of power,” Deacon says.

“Like what? Is it a bomb? You going to blow your way into the Ring with this?”

“Nothing so crude, Wild Cat.” He leans back and sits opposite me. “This here forgotten tech, it’s an amplifier. It’ll take what you got and make you almost as powerful as Battle. It’ll turn your dials right up, beyond eleven, from telepathic to telekinetic. You’re going to help us rip Battle out of the cage they got him in. He’s going to use this artefact to project to the sacred temple on Mars, and they’re going to give him what they have been trying to get to us for so long, so we can take down the Corporation, take down the government. Take down this whole fucking system.”

Relentless Joe turns around, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, smoothing his beard with a hand, sunglasses on and reflecting the screens all around in the cabin. “This is what we were stealing when Battle got taken. As you know, contact with the Martian settlement has been severed and strictly prohibited for centuries, and the Corporation and government want to keep it that way. They’ve known they can’t control the forgotten tech. They know that what the temple and the Deacon’s found up there can bring this whole thing down.” He pauses and gets out of his chair, walks up to Deacon and me and the sphere, placing a hand next to it. “Wild Cat, with this, we can communicate with them, but only Battle is powerful enough to do it. This isn’t just a weapon for us to rescue Battle. This is a fucking ticket to freedom. Everything you’ve feared your entire life, everything we’ve been fighting against, this can change it. So, we need to know, are you in or are you out?”

“Fuck me,” I say, leaning back, taking in everything, flashes of the past running through my mind. What’s happened over the last twenty-two years of my life. Born into a broken family, father a T>O<X addict, mother rigged into a corp-slave system. No money, no food, no clothes, all the while seeing the ultra-elite of Major Prime get their way with whatever they wanted. Having my ‘gift’ start to find its way out of me during puberty, trying to understand what it was, how it might help me, and only ever finding my way into more and more trouble. Scraping through at every possible turn and picking up a few healthy addictions along the way, myself. The fear of the Corporation is getting me, the fear of the government getting me, the fear of the gangs getting me, and the thing is, I’m just one lonely girl with a hint of telepathy in a metropolis that stretches from coast-to-coast across the entire north of America. Billions and billions of people, all fucked and twisted by this mega-city over generations, with little or nothing to protect or help them. It’s not any way for the world to run; we’ve all known that, but what could we have done? Nothing, maybe until now.

“Wild Cat, we’re not flush on time. What are you thinking?” Relentless Joe places his big war mitten on my shoulder, lifting off his sunglasses with the other and staring down at me with big round eyes.

I stand up. “If there’s something we can do that might change this city, this world, then I’m in.”

“Might cost you your life,” he says still staring right at me. “Most likely will.”

“What sort of a life do you think I’ve got now?” I say.

Deacon laughs. “Still think she can take it, Joe?”

I look at him. He looks back at me and says, “Oh, I reckon so.”

Deacon’s wry grin flattens out as I walk over to him, and he starts on about what the sphere is and what it’s supposed to do. “Listen, Wild Cat; this is bigger than anything you’ve ever thought of. The use of this tech, what power it’s going to give you, what we’re trying to achieve.” He’s staring me down. “Just don’t fuck it up.”

“Less of that,” Relentless Joe shouts as he moves back to the console area. “We got no time, just get on with it.”

A grimace runs across Deacon’s face before he turns back to the sphere. “This ain’t too hard. Place your hands on the sphere. The forgotten tech will do the rest. You’ll interpret it the way you want to. Everyone does differently. The main thing is there’ll be some portal.” He pauses and looks me dead in the eye. “You must understand you must go through this, Wild Cat. Once you have taken that step, once you have walked through the portal, you will come out the other side, and it will have magnified your gift beyond your reckoning. You’ll be able to astral project, and with that, all the other good stuff comes along, like the telekinesis. There’s no time for training, so this is on your back. Best I can recommend is try to remain focused. We hit the Ring, get Battle out, and he’ll be powerful enough to talk with Mars, get what they have, then all is change. Got it?”

“I got it,” I look down at the sphere, the whirling mist inside, cloaking an endless void, the blackest thing I’ve ever seen.

“We are ETA eight minutes from the Ring everyone,” Horse says.

Relentless Joe gives me a nod, and Deacon sits back and brings his hands together in prayer.

The thought flashes that I have no idea what the fuck I am doing or getting myself into. Just a few hours ago, I was sitting in the Blood Moon sipping away at popskull whiskey, considering taking a walk to a suicide-room, kind of wishing that a job might come up that’d get me out of it.

Now, I’m here, with this band of criminals, about to bond with some form of forgotten technology, probably millions of years old, so we can break out some super soldier mega telepath from the most heavily fortified military compound perhaps in the world. Do I believe in them? I don’t think I’ve got much choice. All I know is I want to believe.

I hesitate a split second. The Deacon notices and places a thin-fingered hand on my shoulder. I trace one scar from the top of his forehead down to the bottom of his nose, bringing my line of sight slowly down onto the sphere. Absorbing for a second the whirling mist, the darkness of whatever’s inside, as I take a long deep breath and place my hands down on it.

Beeple: OTHER SIDE

A room rolls out before me, as dark as anything I’ve ever seen, endless black, a vast infinite void. I’m standing, shaking with fear at the temporal immensity of whatever this place is, without time or thought or meaning. Did I just get here? I could have been here a million years or just arrived. There’s no sound, not even the sound of my breath, some vacuum; I don’t know. I don’t seem to know very much, how I got here or why or what I am supposed to do. Everything within me is black; everything within me is blank, just like this space, this void. Utter nothingness.

An eternity passes, a fraction of a second, some moment that has no parameters. It quakes through my being, and I squint, and something is beginning to appear. A small dot of white light on whatever might be called the horizon of black stretching out before me. It’s increasing in size. It could be right in front of me and be very small, but I choose to see it as very far away and coming towards me.

There, a moment of recognition, I choose. A moment self in this selfless place, the peace that there was moments ago is thundering away as quickly as the spec of white light is increasing in size. Something is coming back. I am coming back. I am here, in the void, and the light hammers up to me and stops. A tall rectangle, a strip of white in the dark. A doorway. A portal to something better.

The culmination of everything I am and have been and will crystallises, and here and now, I am the ultimate me. I pass the portal, and I’m back in the tank, Horse, Relentless Joe and Deacon staring down at me.

“Well,” I say, “Let’s go.”

“I knew she’d make it,” Horse says.

“Take up arms and ready for deployment.” Relentless Joe peels off and heads towards the doorway. Deacon and Horse follow.

“That’s it?” I say, standing and walking over to them.

Relentless Joe is huffing on some neuro-enhancer, webbing his fists and arms with nano-tech. Horse has a nuclear-powered battery pack he’s wired into, and Deacon is hanging dozens and dozens of weapons off the inside of his large white robes.

Relentless Joe finishes prepping, says a few lines of some litany I can’t quite hear and turns to me. “Listen, kid; we got one shot at this. The tank’s currently taking us through their outer-defences. Any second that door’s going to drop, and all hell’s going to break loose. Between myself and Deacon, we can handle pretty much anything they’re going to throw at us, and Horse is making sure they can’t see us, and you — ” The tank crashes and throws us across the compartment.

I scream at Relentless Joe as the door drops, and a squad of government tac-marines are waiting for us. “Drop your weapons and surrender immediately!” One shouts through a radio-mic in their tactical gasmask.

Relentless Joe roars at the marines as Deacon pulls out two laser pistols and, in one sweep, slices the whole squad in half. Their torsos from the waist up slowly fall to the floor, blood spurting before their legs also topple over.

Deacon turns to me, anger and fear in his eyes. I can feel the rushes through him. His whole life, the protector, and then unable to protect the one so close to him. “Get us to Battle, Wild Cat,” he growls. “He’s in the Ring, but we don’t know where. Project yourself now, we’re through their outer defences, find him, get us to him!” he holsters his pistols and jumps over the pools of blood and twitching bodies.

“Up here, kid,” Relentless Joe grabs me by the collar with one massive hand, lifts me clean over his head, and places me down on his back. “Get us to him.”

I see Deacon throw a couple of grenades to clear the way for them as Relentless Joe smashes his fists together. Horse takes off at speed, remote EMP just ahead of him wiping out any cameras, drones and sweeping outward for other androids.

Closing my eyes, I take a breath. I’ve heard about projecting before, but I’ve never had near enough power to do it. My lungs fill with the smell of burnt flesh and gun smoke as the sound of the fight all around hammers my ears. The battering of bodies by reinforced arms, the explosions, the screams of the dying and roaring fighters. I bring it in and push it out, and it fades into the background as I walk to somewhere bigger, outside this normal plane. Everything disappears into the darkness, and I’m again in the void, but this time I’m listening, reaching out for something, for some hint of Battle in the dark.

I hear a soft voice whisper to me out of the shadows. “I’ve lost my way.”

“We’re here for you,” I push out, my jaw straining like it’s wired shut.

“Where, who is this?” Battle’s voice says.

“We’re coming to get you. You need to tell us where you are.”

There’s a long pause, that edging of time, that temporal immensity, all at once, and nothing at all. Then he whispers, “Level 287.”

Back in the room, the fight is screaming all around me. We’ve entered some massive hangar type dome. There are dead bodies piled high at the doorways all around where the tac-marines have tried steaming through.

Screams of the dying and wounded. One man is sitting perfectly upright. I watch him as he leans over and tries to pick up his viscera and stuff it back into his opened stomach. Another is wandering with no arms. They’ve completely come apart under Deacon’s laser pistols, which continue to eviscerate and sever. I bring my focus back in front of me, and Relentless Joe is smashing in a skull with his massive fist, holding the mangled head in one hand and pummelling it with the other.

“What the fuck!” I’m screaming and sweating, strapped to his back.

“Kid, what you got?” he says, dropping the marine.

“How long was I out? How the fuck — ”

“Long enough, now what you got?”

“Level 287, he’s there. Somewhere on Level 287.”

We set off, out of the hangar and through doorways and corridors, into halls and out of rooms, meeting a fresh wave of tac-marines every couple of floors that quickly get dispatched either by Relentless Joe’s fury or Deacon’s forgotten tech. Laser pistols are dicing up without even breaking the beam, massive arms smashing skulls, and nano-tech reinforced legs kicking through steel doors. Hammering through one level, and then the next and the next. The mist of the fight soaking in every pore, the taste of death creeping its way into my mouth.

I scrunch up my eyes and tense against the killing, trying to find a way out, find that void, that darkness, the quiet peace of nothing. I’m there, in the nowhere, tensing against the outside with all its horror.

“What the fuuuuccck!” I hear Relentless Joe scream, and I’m pulled back into the moment. There’s gore coating all the walls and ceiling of a small corridor we’re in, its metal walls and ceiling bent outwards. Blood and viscera and brain and bone fragments are dripping and falling all around. The only sound is the huge panting breaths of Relentless Joe and the drip of the blood and carnage into pools of dead flesh.

“Wh — What happened?” I manage to say.

“You. You happened, Wild Cat,” Deacon says.

I scan the corridor again, not sure what to say, how to react. “I’ve never killed anyone before.”

“Well, you’re up here with the best of us now,” Relentless Joe says as he picks me up off his back, puts me on the ground before walking over to Horse. “How we looking?”

“Hack complete,” Horse says, his head wired into the bent and half-melted access panel.

I’m still shaking at what they told me I have done when the hacked door Horse is working on starts to shift open. Thick steel scraping, the whole thing warped and firing out sparks. Relentless Joe runs to one side and starts to pull as Horse takes the other, and they inch it open.

Then as they do, a new wave hits me. I gasp, pull at the air, thick with a fog of blood and pistol smoke.

“It’s too late,” I whisper. “No — ”

I run past them pulling the door open, small enough to scramble over the pile of human mess and through the small gap they’ve managed to make in the gigantic armoured entrance. Crawling through, pushing forward with that feeling in my gut. Something is penetrating me, saying to me over and over, ‘It’s too late, it’s too late.’

I’m through, and into a massive laboratory, banks of computers in the walls, monitoring equipment, and all other types of paraphernalia scattered around. Everything destroyed, sparks flying, small fires all over, strewn between the twisted and wrecked bodies of dozens of scientists and other military personnel.

“I did this,” I pause and breathe and try to find something in me that would make this happen. Is this what I am now? I have no answer, and as I turn, I see the huge vat that housed Battle is on its side. He’s spilt out onto the floor, body shaking, immobile but still alive. I race up to him, sliding across the ground on the amniotic fluid they had him stored in, pulling myself close to his massive, super soldier frame. I hold myself above his face, hands on his enormous chest.

“Not now, not here, not after all this,” I say, closing my eyes.

“Child, take my hand,” he raises a huge arm, and I place my small fist into his palm. “We will do this together.”

“No — ”

There is a flash, and we’re together, in the darkness, in the void. The vastness of this place opens around us, stretching out for all eternity. The black and all it has to offer, nothing and everything. Battle is standing before me, immense and naked, ridged muscles huge and pulsating. His eyes like glowing stars, he closes them and arches his head back and opens his mouth, and a slow rumble comes from it. It’s deep and harrowing, and it reaches through the darkness. He holds his hands out, wide and flat with his palms facing up, and I know I must put my palms down on his, so I do, and then another flash launches through me.

Beeple: PRIMITIVE ROYALTY

We’re on the surface of Mars, on the frontier, at the sacred temple, with all its white and Gothic grandeur. Towering, symmetrical, the place the first Deacons constructed when the forgotten tech was discovered all those centuries ago. Four of them stood there in front, in their white robes on this red planet. Their hoods pulled over, their orb floating in the middle of them, that thing that perhaps had told us what we had wanted to hear, rather than the actual truth.

That there had been life on Mars, and it was human, and that all that was discovered was not forgotten, but we could be taught again. We could become one with that ancient skill. This is what the government had always tried to suppress, for generations and generations, keeping it from everyone on earth. This is what the Corporation had paid for the government to keep away from us for centuries so they could keep us slaved and in their workshops, and the elite would go about their business, and the rest of us would work ourselves to death.

A Deacon steps forward.

“We have been expecting you,” she says.

Battle is beside me, towering and naked. “There were some complications, but we have had help.” He looks down to me and smiles a lob-sided smile. There is a strain in his face, pain formulating in his huge eyes. “But we have not much time.”

I’m not sure what to say, so I stay silent.

“Their end is near.” Another Deacon steps up and the white orb follows them. “Who will take the knowledge?”

Battle limps forward, beginning to shake. He is failing, his ravaged body back on earth utilising all its skill and strength to project us both here. “She must,” he says.

The Deacons form around me, and each place a hand on my head. The depth of their knowledge, all the learnings from the sacred temple, the ways of the forgotten tech, the brighter future for us all stream through their hands and into my head. Wave after wave of mystery that I have no idea how to interpret or understand.

“It’s not for you, child,” Battle says as the Deacons release their hands. “It is for all of us to decipher and learn again, but you must be our vessel, and now, we must return.”

A flash again, the darkness, the void, and then back in the laboratory. I’m laying on top of Battle’s colossal chest. It is still, and he is dead. I open my eyes and try to connect my visions with the muted sounds and images streaming through my mind.

I sit up. Relentless Joe is fighting tac-marines, Deacon by his side with his laser pistols firing, Horse wired into a computer bank at the side of the room that is now piled high with bodies and blood and gore.

There are all these things I have within me now and all the power that comes with them. There’s no way to understand right now, not how to use it, or what exactly it means, but it is there; it is rushing through me. Something innate, something universal, something part of me, something part of everyone and everything.

The muffled roars and screams and explosions all around become richer and sharper until I’m back and acutely aware and terrified.

I close my eyes and see a better place, a beach, the sun, the sea, a place I once visited when my addict father and enslaved mother were once able to align for the briefest of moments and find the capacity to do something good. Take their child to show her some life, to travel to the edges of the city, and out to the coast, and it was the happiest day of my awful little childhood.

Before the memory formulates entirely, I can smell the sea air. I open my eyes, and we’re here. Relentless Joe, Deacon, Horse and Battle’s body. We’re on the beach. It is just before sunrise, and the waves are rolling lightly. The smell of the sea gathers up in my nose, the twilight of the rising sun on the horizon over the sea opening the new day to me.

Relentless Joe falls to his knees and looks out over the black ocean. Bringing his huge hands to his head, he lets out a guttural scream and begins to cry.

Deacon turns to me, his white robes bloodied, his hands replacing his pistols underneath them, his scarred face painted with the vital fluids of all those that sought to end us in the Ring. “You made it,” he says.

“I think so,” I say and step forward and hold his robes up to my eyes. “Is this real?”

“I believe so, child.” He looks down at me and pulls his face into a lined smile. “And now all is changed.”

I drop the robes and turn away from him, looking out at the ocean, over on the horizon as the purple hues of the rising sun break and fire out. The world seems to have a new sheen. It seems to have something that was not there before. I can’t know what it is exactly. I can only know that whatever is in me, whatever they gave me on Mars is going to help with that change. And I am ready.

Artist: Beeple_Crap AKA Mike Winkelmann

Artist Bio: A graphic designer from Appleton, Wisconsin, USA. His short films have screened at onedotzero, Prix Ars Electronica, the Sydney Biennale, Ann Arbor Film Festival and many others. He has also released a series of Creative Commons live visuals that have been used by electronic acts such as deadmau5, Skrillex, Avicii, Zedd, Taio Cruz, Tiësto, Amon Tobin, Wolfgang Gartner, and Flying Lotus and many others. He currently releases work on Flying Lotus’ Brainfeeder imprint.

Artist Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/beeple_crap/

Artist website: http://beeple-crap.com

Writer: Richard Galbraith

Writer Bio: A science-fiction writer with a penchant for cyberpunk, neo-noir and existentialism, Richard hails from the UK and currently lives in Denmark working for LEGO while hammering away at short stories and his latest sci-fi manuscript.

Writer medium: https://medium.com/@ricgalbraith

Musical Inspiration: