NEON & CONCRETE —Story #07
I pause to look at the mega-skyscrapers towering over me, their ethereal glow radiating in the iron dark night sky. A plague of drones hum between them as a thin layer of snow starts to make its way down to me, gliding between the concrete hulks over this quadrant of Major Prime. I stand and watch, using the moment to bury down the ghost of the past.
They have a long life and dreams. That mist that floats through you, pulling at your soul before crystallising around a memory, a moment, and then, you’re there.
That other world, that other time, it’s just as rich, just as potent, it’s in your gut and it tingles. It’s not what was said, it’s more than that. It’s not what you were doing, it’s bigger than that. It’s how it ran through you, to the pit of your stomach, to the tips of your fingers and across the edge of your soul. Those are the ones that rise, those are the memories that come back. You either laugh or you cry because there is never anything in-between.
That past still creeps in. One where I wanted to smile, one where I had to cry. Buried away in that place I keep for it in the back of my mind. It pushes, always trying to push its way in, but right now I’ve got a job to get to. My perfect distraction, something to take my mind somewhere else. A big risk and a big payoff, just the way I like it. It’s the distraction I need, and the reason I’m on this path.
A thin fog of snow that makes it this far down settles on the broken streets, it calls on the neon hue of the metropolis and gives a soft crunch under my steel toecap boots. A purple-pink glow rises out of the forgotten darkness on the ground levels and for a moment there’s the idea that I might be somewhere other than here. There’s that chance of escape until the figures start to make their way out of black spaces.
My holographic overcoat provokes synthetic eyes from the fading shadows all around. Beady little red dots which track and follow, otherwise hidden in the dark recesses of the streets, pulled out by the glow reflected on the thin layer of snow.
They’re everywhere at this level — always looking, always watching. Trying to spy a way in through my protection grid. No such luck with this girl motherfuckers; she’s armed to the teeth. All the latest tech and defence systems courtesy of Old Bobs Metal ’n’ Bones itself. The old fucker managed to get himself put back together after he and Rawstone landed in some trouble from the old boss, the Galaxy Widow. Well, it’s too bad for her, because you don’t fuck with Rawstone, just the same as you don’t fuck with me.
There’s a whistle and a shout when some creep comes limping up to me. The weak red light in his eyes is dimmed by the neon glow from strip lighting embedded in the concrete overhang. That concrete, a mixture of moss and grey, hanging weeds and jutting rebar steel, city infrastructure and neon, all that lovely neon. Major Prime, coast to coast, real concrete, real people, real neon, and that’s why I love it down here on the street levels; you get to see the city at its barest, raw as fuck and no holds barred.
“Well, would you look at this sight,” he says with a suck of his teeth.
I stand and look him up and down. About a foot shorter than me, calling him a skinny street kid would be a compliment. No defence grid, so no real threat, but these little fuckers are tricky, might be a scout for some harder types, bait for a gang, or a million other different reasons to keep some space, so I do.
“Savage Lucy, the Acid Commando in the flesh,” he pulls an upside-down grin out of his gaunt face and throws me a wink. “Yonder goes the light.”
“You don’t get to say that.”
“Like fuck, why the hell not?”
“You were in Prague?” I say.
“Prove that I wasn’t,” he says.
“You’re about a decade too young to start, but say I did believe you, what outfit were you with?”
“3rd Sub-Con Marine Division,” he says with a smirk, narrowing his eyes.
The answer is so far off the mark that I can’t even be pissed off. I laugh until I see a flicker of anger in his face and my guard is up. “Back off, kid.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever Ms. Lucy,” he shifts from side-to-side, licking his brown and broken teeth, rubbing the palms of his filthy little hands together.
“You keep acting like that and you’ll get some Cutter,” I keep my eyes on him and point down to my drone at my side on its four spiked legs. A halo of neon at the front of its pill-like torso flashes from green to red and a circular blade pushes itself out from beneath the rim, around its entire body.
“Listen,” he steps back and raises his palms up. “Calm is what’s called for here,” he winks again. “I didn’t mean no disrespect, it’s just we don’t get a lot of Vets down this way, you know.”
“How do you know who I am?”
“Word gets around.”
“You pull the sorts of jobs you do in this quadrant, you get a certain reputation. And I reckon you’ve got something on the go with this very evening…” he trails off and there’s a look in his eyes, the red goes out of them, the soft hue from the snow rounds off his face in a way that gives me a twitch.
I don’t answer and he begins to shift his weight from foot to foot. The cold bites but he’s sweating. Something isn’t right and I’m not taking any chances.
I blink and my HUD comes down over my vision. I pull an invisible target line across the punk’s left arm just below the elbow, and as soon as it’s complete, Cutter jumps. The punk’s eyes go wide and it’s over before it even begins, a split second and the drone is speeding through the air towards the arm, its blade spinning around its torso at 1,000 RPM.
There’s a quick grinding sound and the lower half of the kid’s arm falls to the floor with a soft thud, blood shooting from the limb across the white of the snow. In the same instant, the drone lands and launches back through the air, cauterizing the wound before coming back to my side, the AI flashing its body lights in some sort of synthetic giggle.
I walk past the kid, his mouth twitching, eyes as wide as dishpans. I reckon I can hear a slight murmur but it’s hard to tell over the sound of him pissing his pants and the crunch of my boot on the severed limb. I pause and turn over my shoulder, “They might kill you, whoever you’re with, because you’re useless to them now… they might not… but now they know what they’re going to get if they come after me.”
He falls to his knees and I make my way in the alleys back among the streets, heading toward the job, Cutter by my side, red eyes following me but not daring to come out of the shadows. I’m following the map given to me by my agent, Munroe. I always take the last few blocks by foot; it’s better to try and get an idea of the surroundings, taking a moment to bring the focus.
I look back over my shoulder and give everything a quick scan before I enter the mouth of a tunnel the map has brought me to, out of the neon hue and snow and into the darkness. Its ceiling is low and there’s sewage on the floor and it goes on for a long time. The light from my overcoat guides me and Cutter has a little spotlight on until we reach the end and a big bulkhead door, the sort you’d see on a ship, shines back at us. I turn the wheel and it spins easily enough. The steel creaks as it opens, and I walk into a large warehouse of a space.
White spotlights with piercing light are on tripods positioned all around, casting long shadows from me and the drone. The ceiling is ribbed steel, the walls are made from tall concrete, there’s some old heavy-duty machinery and trucks. After my eyes adjust, a man in a black military combat suite is stood in the middle. He’s holding a small sub-machine gun pointed at me in one hand and in the other a child with a hood over his head by the scruff of the neck, he must be around ten years old by the look of the height and build. Half a dozen others with masks on and similar gear behind form a semi-circle behind them.
“Yonder goes the light,” I say to him as I walk up and hold my hand out, palm up.
“Yonder goes the light,” he says back as he puts his gun by his side and places his hand, palm down, over mine, making sure not to touch, but close enough that it kicks in our proximity sensors. This is a formality between Vets and I can sniff a Vet from a mile away. The others might not be, but this guy sure is.
Our old military implants exchange data, talking to each other, sharing the crypto-keys and codes that our agents have embedded in our sub-con lockers, making sure we are who we say we are, making sure we’ve not been compromised.
The gangs, the T>O<X addicts, the fucking Agency, the government, the Corps, they’re messy, they fuck up, they have no code. Us Vets? We’ve been through the shit. Tbilisi, Vilnius, fucking Prague, the list goes on. It’s all a total clusterfuck, so we know the only way you get out and stay alive is by following a code.
He’s staring at me as our scanners do their thing, his key unlocking my code. His face ridged, big cheekbones above a thick moustache, not giving anything away. The exchange is taking too long and I can see the mercenaries behind him beginning to twitch.
“You got what we need, Jake?” one of them says.
“Hold your shit,” he says.
The mercs shift and their fingers throb at their triggers. The kid struggles in Jake’s grip, but he holds him steady and keeps staring at me before there’s a flash in my HUD and some text floats passed my vision.
“Yonder goes the light, Lucy,” he says as the frown softens.
“Yonder goes the light, Jake,” I take a step away and lower my hand, my defence protocols still at their highest settings. There are a million ways this thing can go wrong and only one way it can go right.
“This here’s your package, you have your brief?”
“I do now,” I say as my commands start streaming down my peripheral vision, always kept locked down until the job is opened through the crypto-process. The agents deal with the specifics, Vets just get the job done.
“Reckon you got it covered?” he pulls a grin out from underneath that thick moustache.
“Simple delivery job from what I can tell.”
“Yeah, but it’s got me itching.”
“Hence the mercs?” I say.
“Hence the mercs,” he says.
“I’ll watch my back.”
“You do that, Lucy. Yonder goes the light,” he pushes the child toward me and picks up his machine gun in two hands.
I grab the child by the hood and hear some whimpering, “It been any trouble?”
“He,” Jake says as he turns away, walking back to the mercs who still have a twitch in their stance. “And no, not for me, but don’t mean he ain’t gonna be for somebody else.” He turns his head back to me slightly. “Watch yourself, Lucy, I got a bad feeling about — ”
My defensive perimeter spins up the instant before two massive explosions rock holes through the walls of the warehouse. Dust and concrete and smoke and screams fill the air as I blink my vision through my HUD setups into attack mode and try to push the ringing out of my ears.
Cutter is up and darting through the air as a dozen or so humanoid combat drones stream through the blast holes and open fire with machine guns.
“What the fuck did I just say!” Jake takes a defensive position behind some old loading truck off to my right as I pace with the kid looking for some cover. Half of his mercs drop to the floor with the first wave from the drones in a hail of gunfire and smoke. Cutter is spinning through the air and doing what he’s supposed to do, protecting my back and turning the robot fuckers into recyclables. I flush my system with nano-stims and pull my laser-sighted Desert Eagle out with one hand, dragging the boy along with me in my other. I blindly fire off a few shots behind me as we duck behind an old forklift’s heavy-duty engine.
The gunfire stops for a second, the ringing in my ears replaced by my heavy panting, the smoke and mist of the fight in the air catching the back of my throat. Cutter has taken a defensive position, dug into the ceiling of the warehouse with a protective nano-sphere, and is streaming a video feed to me. About half the drones are left, hunkered down in their own defensive formation, tough to penetrate, it’ll take a lot more than a few machine guns to get through it anyway . I’m running through options as fast as I can and see Jake and a couple of his squad behind a big truck catching their breath and reloading.
“The boy!” comes a human voice from the drone’s position.
I turn and pull the hood off his head, just a whimpering child, soot and dirt covering his face, big wide eyes full of tears and fright, a shock of platinum blond hair on his head, little hands twitching at his side.
“The boy, Lucy, or you’re fucking dead, just like the rest of these assholes are about to be.”
“That is not going to happen,” I say as I turn back to the kid. “Get under there and stay,” pointing at the tiny space only a child could fit into beneath the forklift.
“You’re outnumbered and outgunned, Lucy. It doesn’t have to end badly for everyone; you can walk away from this,” says the voice from the drones.
“And why the fuck am I getting the special treatment?” I pull my other Desert Eagle out and check the video feed again. Half the spotlights that were dotted around the warehouse are smashed and the light is weak, but the dust and smoke have cleared. The drones are beginning to shift, Jake and what’s left of his mercs are still hunkered down behind that big truck.
“Enough,” the voice says. The drones rise and start to take on Jake and his pals as I pinpoint a position in my HUD via my video feed and put Cutter into self-destruct mode. There’s a flicker of complaint from his AI, but his mind will be uploaded straight back into another body back at my place.
He fires off the ceiling and down into the humanoid drones, who begin to scatter. His body flares up and explodes, sucking the air out of the room for a second and firing off a hail of broken steel and drone bits over the top of the forklift. It’s pitch-black and I’m blind to the rest of the warehouse without Cutter’s feed. I switch to infrared in my HUD as I hear Jake and the rest of his mercs taking on the last of the drones.
Deep breath, three, explosions and gunfire, two, screams and torn metal, one, gritted teeth and gripped guns. I roll out from behind the forklift into a kneeling position and let loose my hand canons. Drone metal and dead bodies scattered through the warehouse, my Desert Eagle’s flaring orange light from their muzzles as the explosive rounds tear through the last of the steel and wire bodies that greet the fallen mercs on the rubble-covered ground.
I stand and scan. There is silence now, other than the crackle of some electrical fires and the dying moans of a few of the mercs. I bolt over to where the bulk of the firefight happened, my HUD absorbing as much information as it can, looking for signs of who might be behind this. I find Jake, half his face blown off, dead. Yonder goes the light, you poor bastard. There’s nothing I can figure out from the mess and there might be another wave of these drones on the way, remote controlled by whoever the fuck was demanding the boy.
“Get your ass out of there,” I shout as I skid over to the forklift and grab him out from underneath.
We dart back through the tunnel where I first came in and break out into the neon hue of Major Prime, the reflective light of the snow all around with an eerie quiet, people dotted here and there and those red eyes in the shadows following us. We slow our pace to a brisk walk and try to blend in, the boy squirming from my grip on his wrist as we walk and I look for a quick exit. My car’s a couple of blocks further than I’d like and I’ve got a strong suspicion that whoever is after this kid isn’t going to give up after just one round.
“Hey missy!” a voice calls as we turn down a blood-orange alleyway with tall walls, graffiti, trash, and all the usual trimmings. A hovercar pulls across the opposite end and three assholes from some gang step out. Leather waistcoats on bare chests with tattoos and chains, stim and implant-rich with bright red mohawks standing on their otherwise shaved heads. “You got something we need there,” one says as he points to the boy.
I pull my hand cannon and drop the fuckers before they’ve even had a chance to make it halfway over to me, their car hovering gently behind them. I grab the boy and hammer it down the alley jumping in and telling him to sit still and keep quiet in the back seat.
“Fuckers,” I’m jabbing at the readout on the dash, the car is some sort of modded Corp-security vehicle, god knows when it was stolen or what those gangbangers have put under the hood. I pull a wire from my wrist and plug it into the dashboard input to hack it as the boy taps me on the shoulder from the back seat.
“I think I can do that,” he says.
“What the f — ” I just turn and stare as he crawls into the front passenger seat and puts his hand on the dash. The car reboots back to its factory settings and asks me to put my hands on the steering wheel to ident it to my sub-con locker.
“See?” he sits back into the passenger seat as the seatbelt comes over his chest.
I peel the car off the ground and into the air, dodging between the mega-skyscrapers and pushing through the drone plague in the lower levels. “What the fuck was that?” I ask.
He doesn’t say anything, sat there, staring forward, his hands on his lap.
“I need to get hold of my agent,” I say as I dial up Munroe in my HUD.
It’s ringing out with no answer when the kid replies, “He’s dead.”
“What do you mean he’s dead?”
“He’s dead, they got to him trying to get to me. I’m sorry if that upsets you.”
“What the fuck do you mean if that upsets me?” I’m panting, there’s nausea rising in my gut and scattered stars across my vision mixing with the millions of lights from the buildings and drones outside of the car. I blast another stim stack into my system, uploading a random pattern sequencer into the car’s AI from my HUD and switching it to auto-pilot, letting the thing buzz all over the quadrant till I can figure out what the hell is going on.
“Were you close? You worked together for a long time, didn’t you?” the kid says.
“Kid, now listen,” I turn to him and take his seatbelt off and pull him slowly toward me, holding my hands on his shoulders, trying to catch his eyes out of his vacant stare.
“My job, this job, is to get you to an address a quadrant over, it’s a temp address, industrial sector, nothing stand-out, looks to be one from a Corp, nothing unusual there either. I’ve delivered kids before and there’s been some trouble about it too, but never have I been attacked by a pack of drones on pickup that have taken out a Vet and half a dozen mercs.” I pause and look into his empty eyes, trying to find something that I’m not sure is there. “If you know something about this, you need to tell me, for both our sakes.”
“How would I know?” he says, blinking, swallowing, and saying nothing else.
“How did you do that with the car?”
He tilts his head and his eyes focus on me. “I can talk to things, I don’t know how, it’s like talking to you now, it’s just natural. Some things are easy, but not everything, some things I can’t talk to at all. Like those robots that attacked us, I couldn’t hear them, but the car, there’s something in it I can hear, and I can talk to,” he pauses and looks at me. “It just makes sense.”
“What the fuck has Munroe got me into here?” I run my hands through my spiked hair and sit back into the seat, letting the kid turn back to the world flashing by outside.
There’s a code that us Vets follow. It gets us through the jobs, it keeps us on track, it maintains our reputation and most of all it keeps us alive. They, whoever the fuck they are, the people that hire us, know this, and our agents know this too — it’s why we get jobs, it’s why we can do what we do, it’s how our system works. We are reliable no matter what the job, we left our morals behind back in Prague and all the other clusterfuck missions we were sent on.
Right now, this reliability is under threat. Whatever this kid is involved with, it’s big — big enough to leave a trail of dead bodies within the first hour or so of the job. Jake and his mercs are out of the picture, probably their associates too. Munroe’s gone from what I can tell, whether the kid’s telling the truth or not. Ultimately if I call and he answers then I’ll know for sure, it’s as simple as that. No answer means something has happened. Those gangbangers who came to a quick end through my handy work and who we grabbed the car from, they have a boss somewhere giving them orders, and they have some sort of info from some source to be looking for me in the first place. I’ve had jobs go west before, but nothing this bad… this quick.
I pull my hands down my cheeks, the stims running through my blood and firing my synapses at twice the speed. Still, nothing makes any sense, and I’ve got a strong feeling that I’m going to get royally fucked over here.
Once you’ve been through the shit, once you’ve been through the training they put you though, once you’ve seen sub-con combat — you know. You just know when things are going to get fucked up, and this is a prime example.
This is something big and the only way out now is to get the job done. Backing out isn’t in the code. My options are thin, I know it. The rules are going to have to be bent.
“What’s your name, kid?” I ask.
He tilts his head, staring at the colours shooting past outside, “Boyd,” he stops and turns. “My family, they called me Boyd.”
“Well, do you remember how you got to be with Jake? The guy that brought you to me?”
“No, not really,” he says.
“Do you know how you did what you did with the car, how you know what you know about my agent?”
“It’s just that I can talk to things. Your agent, when you called him, I could see through the connection, see him there in his office through the security cameras, see the bullet holes in him,” he breaks off and his bottom lip starts to tremble as tears start to roll.
“Calm down, calm down,” I try to pull a smile out from my face, patting him lightly. There could be a million reasons why this kid is being delivered; it’s part of a job. Major Prime has got a mountain of different uses for a young human body and more kids than I would even like to imagine just disappear into the ocean of neon and concrete that is Major Prime and all four billion of its inhabitants every damn day. I might be part of that problem, but I’ve got to make a buck, just like every other lost soul in this hell.
“But I know you’ll help me,” he turns to me and there’s something behind his eyes now, a flicker and chills running through me.
“What do you mean you know I’ll help you?” I say and grit my teeth as that ghost of the past creeps into my mind.
“When you grabbed my hand, when we got out of the tunnel… I saw things, I heard them through your implants. You used to — ”
“ — Not another fucking word,” I grab his face and pull it to mine. “You don’t know a thing about me, you got that you little shit?” I push him back into his seat, pointing down at him. “You’re just a job, like any other. I’ve got a code, and that’s what I follow, it’s got me this far and it’ll get me out of this shit show too. Put this back on and keep your mouth shut.”
I throw the hood I’d jammed in my overcoat at the kid and he pulls it back over his head with shaking hands as I grip the steering wheel of the car.
The car comes out of auto-pilot and I start pulling in through the maze of mega-skyscrapers, weaving in and out of the other cars, back down and down below the drone line and near the lower levels to keep off the radar as much as possible. I’m going to need some help to get this job done. My place is going to be too hot right now, if they got to Munroe, they’ll know about where I live, so a resupply is out of the question.
I dial up Curtis Conrad in my HUD, a solid Vet that took a walk down the civilian street, getting a Corp job off the back of his military background doing something with their bio-metric workforce for off-planet activities. Nonetheless, he’s still a Vet and you never really leave. Plus with his cushy Corp job, he’s got access to the sort of equipment I need to get this kid to where I’m taking him.
The call’s going through as I dodge and weave through all the colossal structures, the waves of humanity going in and out of them, the rich and the powerful, the corrupt and the guilty. There are no innocents up here at these levels. There’s no one that’s made it this far up the ladder that’s not trodden on piles of people along the way. I’d not be able to afford to live up here in a million years on what I make pulling the jobs I pull, doesn’t mean I’ve not trodden on my fair share to get where I’ve managed to get to, not much choice there as an ex-Vet, not like I know how to do anything else. Maybe there was a time where I had a chance at another life, a flicker of something kinder? That spectre of the past is creeping. Wells and the love he said he had for me, the child we made, my escape, my salvation, all torn away. They never let you leave, not really.
“Lucy? Shit, ain’t that something! Yonder goes the light,” Conrad answers as his video stream pops up in the corner of my peripheral vision. Clean-cut as always, some people you can just see were a Vet, Conrad’s not one of those people. He looks like he spent his life working the easy life in an office or something. No chance you’d pin on him what he did in Prague.
“Conrad, yonder goes the light,” I reply.
“What you got?”
“Trouble. You got time? I need a re-supply and I got something I need you to do with a package for me, I figure you’ve got the equipment there.”
“Always for you, Lucy. I just pinged you some coordinates, come to the factory. I got Corp-sec clearance and they’ve got top-level defence and imaging systems, we’ll be off-grid and I’ll try and figure out what you need me to.”
“Thanks, Conrad, we’ll be there soon,” I say as I enter what he’s sent over into the car’s navigation.
“Anything I should be prepping?” he says.
“The job, boy, ten years or so, a simple delivery only turns out it’s not so simple. Can’t talk too much over the air but there are some well-equipped people who’re after this kid. Have weapons and a deep-consciousness scan prepped if you have one; the more I know about what’s going on with this kid, the more I might be able to understand about who’s after him, helping to get this delivery done.”
“You got it, Lucy,” his image flickers out and the car swoops through the buildings and drones and vehicles carrying all those people, carrying out all those lives, me and the boy in-between them all — not much of a life.
The entrance lights of the building flash from red to green, big shutters open from the top and bottom and the car floats into the landing bay as Conrad comes out to meet us at a service entrance. He’s not changed, still the side-parting, the look of innocence in a set of eyes that have seen their own share of horror. The sort of face you’d trust without thinking, a lot of the enemy did when he would go on infiltration missions back in the day, and they paid the price.
He looks me up and down and gives me a, “yonder goes the light,” before turning and taking us onto a factory floor. We pass by the huge vats with their hulking specimens floating inside, growing and readying for their turn to head out to the stars and build the colonies we’re promised by the fuckers in power will help save us some day. Who the fuck knows if any of that shit is real? For all I know, the huge clones are getting sent off to wars we’re never told about for resources that don’t exist anymore. What I do know is that somehow Major Prime keeps ticking, and that’s that.
Conrad takes us through and into some sort of a lab type room. A plethora of equipment is hanging off the pale white walls, the scanner that I asked for is in the corner, there are no weapons that I can see.
He pulls over a chair and sits on it backwards, spotlights shining down upon him. “What’s going on, Lucy?” He pauses and scratches his clean-shaven chin. “Shit, you look spooked, last time I saw that face we were in Tbilisi,” he says.
“In the last few hours I got a dead agent, I got a dead Vet, half a dozen dead mercs, a big pile of fucked up humanoid drones that I have no idea who were being controlled by, a handful of dead gangbangers, and it’s all got something to do with this kid.” I sit on a chrome chair, roll up my sleeves, and point at Boyd.
“Sounds like you’ve been having fun,” Conrad stands and walks over to the kid and takes the hood off. “Poor bastard, what’s going on with you?”
Boyd just looks up at him with big blank eyes, staring.
“Something ain’t right,” I say. “And whatever it is, it’s big. I got a feeling it’s some sort of neural implant or something, seems he can talk to tech.”
“Well, that might be something, but you know as well as me that sort of thing has been around for a while now, it’s nothing new and what you’ve been through so far would seem a little excessive for a retrieval of a kid with neural implants.”
“Fire up the scanner then,” I say as Conrad takes Boyd over to the machine in the corner of the room. He picks up an EEG band and places it over the kid’s head. Boyd is just as distant as he has been since I picked him up, but he turns to me as Conrad sits him down and his eyes go even wider. He’s staring at me, into me, and I try to hold back a flicker of the past that the helpless look tugs on.
“Interesting,” Conrad says as he moves over to a bank of screens embedded in the wall, all coming to life with a million different readouts that I have no idea how to decipher.
“The corporation teach you this shit?” I say as I walk over to him.
“Mostly. Some they implanted, some was just turned on from my old military implants that they didn’t let me access when I was in the service.” He pauses and points. “Look here, this brainwave frequency is out of sync,” he places his hands on the screen and widens them, zooming on the one line bobbing up and down. Moving his hands around, he pulls the line around horizontally and reveals a dozen or so more lines all within that one, all pulsing like waves.
“What does it mean?” I say.
“Well, fuck,” he pauses and pulls at some more waves on the screen, grabbing bits of different ones and compiling them together in one form before turning to me. “Lucy, you’ve landed a good one this time, how much are you getting paid for this job?”
“Just tell me what it means, Conrad,” I say, leaning into him.
“This, Lucy, from what I can tell here, is an AI embed and neuronal sync which is state of the art. This is the sort of thing we put in the bio-metric workforce clones you saw growing in the vats outside there. That shit’s simple — grow them, implant them, turn them on and away they go, you know the drill. However, we’ve not figured out how to sync an AI with a human brain. We can put an AI into a blank brain, grown in the lab, and we can put in information and upload data into a human brain, but we’ve not been able to get an AI into a human without one frying the other. Either the AI gets pushed out by the human brain or the human gets pushed out by the AI or they both end up dead. From what I can tell, this here is them working in perfect synchronicity — this is the holy fucking grail of cybernetics. You think your military implants are something? You think what they put in us was hardcore? This is a ten-year-old kid with the intelligence of an AI, no wonder he can fucking talk to your car. Whoever figured this out stabilised the sync. Christ, this kid is worth billions, trillions, more… this is revolutionary.”
“Fuck,” I say.
“No shit, Lucy. You realise what this means? You have something here — ”
“ — Don’t start, Conrad, I’m going to make the delivery.”
“Lucy,” he turns his body to me and holds my shoulder while looking over at Boyd. “This kid, whichever Corp gets its hands on it first will be the next major power, you do realise this? But fuck the Corps, you’ve got something here, you could make a change with this, you don’t have to make the delivery, there are other options…”
“You mean going to Wells?” I say as I push his arm off my shoulder and step away, thinking of what I had, of everything that was taken from me.
“If the Underground got their hands on this before the Corps, it might give them the edge they need to make a difference. If the Underground can understand this tech and whoever it was stabilised the AI… the human connection… shit Lucy,” he walks over to the kid and looks down at him.
“I’ve got a job to do, I follow a code,” I say. “You might not follow that code anymore, Conrad, you might have sold out for an easy paycheque and a cushy apartment up above the drone line, but I follow a code.”
“Lucy, you’ve already broken the code coming to see me, you know that right? You already know too much, shit, they’ll kill the both of us just for running that scan.”
“I’ve bent the rules, Conrad. They won’t ever find out about you and what they want to do with me when I successfully deliver a package of this importance they can take up with me when I’m done,” I turn to him. “Now I know what I’m dealing with, I’ll need those weapons you promised and I’ll be on my way.”
“Look, Lucy, just go see Wells… you don’t even have to give the kid up, just give them a few hours with him, they’ll be able to lift the info they need and that’ll put them in a position they’ve not been in for a very long time, then make the delivery,” he says.
“I need those — ”
“ — I know what they did to you Lucy,” he says, stepping up to me, those innocent eyes that lie, those eyes that have seen so much horror themselves looking right through me.
“You don’t know shit, Conrad,” I say.
“I know they wouldn’t let you get out. I know when they turned up at your door and demanded one more mission you turned your back on them. I know that they killed your kid. We all know it was them who killed your daughter, Lucy. With this boy right here, you can get the revenge you’ve — ”
“ — Fuck you!” I scream and grab him by the shirt and steady my breath through grinding teeth. “Are you going to give me what I need or am I going to have to take it myself?”
“Take what you need, Lucy. Just, do the right — ”
There’s a small tug at my leg and Boyd is stood there, looking up at me. “We’re not safe here,” he says.
“What? What’s coming?” I say.
“The dogs,” he says as he grabs his arms around my waist.
“The dogs?” I say and look up at Conrad.
Those eyes of his go wide. “Only Laches uses dogs,” he says.
“Laches is dead,” I say, shaking my head, a pang of fear running through my gut.
“You really think they were able to take out Laches?” he says. “Fuck me, Lucy, that’s who was behind your humanoid drones. That’s the other big gun that’s after this kid, and Laches only takes military contracts. You’re out of time, Lucy. Get to the Underground — they might at least be able to hide you for a bit.”
“I need weapons, Conrad,” I say as he turns away from me, starting to enter a keycode into a panel on the wall and I pull the boy off me.
A compartment to the side of Conrad slides open and a hidden room reveals itself. There are rows and rows of guns, shelves of body armour, boxes of ammunition and stims and drones, everything a one-woman-army could want or need.
I grab everything I can carry and Conrad leads us out to the hangar where the car is. I nod to him as I get in and the kid follows. He nods back but doesn’t say anything. I know what he’s thinking, do the right thing Lucy, get to the Underground, get to Wells, help them to help you… some shit like that no doubt, but it ain’t me, it never was. I pretended to be something else for a short while, someone else. I was teased by the good in this world for a short time. Faked a life. No. It ain’t me.
The car peels off the hangar bay floor and out to the lower levels below the drone line, trying to stay off the radar. Fucking Laches has released his dogs, well, he must be desperate, but I’ve got a few tricks programmed into my implants that I can pull out yet. He might have taught me everything I know back when I was a fresh recruit, but I ain’t no snot-nosed private anymore; I’m a Vet, just like him. I’m fucking Savage Lucy, the Acid Commando.
The car’s defense system kicks in and it dodges and weaves. Two missiles scream past and explode in the side of a nearby mega-skyscraper wall, firing out a cloud of hot ash and debris. I grab the steering wheel and hammer the car down lower and lower, hurtling towards the ground, spinning and screaming.
“Don’t do it, don’t do it!” Boyd shouts from the back.
“What? Why? Down is good, it’s off the radar,” I’m yelling as I level out the car and two more missiles shoot past the tail and into the ground behind us, tearing up neon and concrete as I switch my peripheral vision to the outside back-cams. There they are, pacing along the ground just as fast as us and gaining ground quickly — the dogs.
“Those things can track you easier on the ground, you need to get into the drone cloud, between high radar and their lower level scanning,” Boyd says.
“How the fuck am I supposed to navigate in the drone cloud?”
“I’ll take care of that — just get up there.”
I turn the car into a lateral spin, the undercarriage scraping along the side of a mega-skyscraper as I spin it around again and we’re heading straight back up along the outside wall of the building. Everything is flashing, everything inside the car, everything inside my head. My implants, my peripheral vision, the whole lot is going fucking crazy as Laches and his best try to keep up with us.
The kid’s eyes are closed in the back. Hands out, he’s sucked into the seat with gravity holding him down with our vertical ascent. He leans forward, holding out a little hand which I can see in the reflection of the dozens of panels in the dashboard.
“I can’t hold them!” he cries.
Something blows the roof of the car clean off and the world comes screaming in. Debris flying, glass and twisted metal and the lights, all those lights, millions of tiny flashes from everything around us. The mega-skyscrapers, the drones, the cars and people and everything else all reflected in a haze of broken glass and twisted chrome. I grit and focus, sending a stim pack into my system as the car somehow maintains its trajectory upwards and I hold my breath. Where to now?
Another explosion rips outwards from the side of the building underneath us as we’re riding up it, catapulting the car backwards and out into the heavy flow of traffic between the buildings. A moment holds onto me there, still in the air, somewhere between our vertical velocity and the force of gravity, the night, Major Prime — everything and everyone holds us in the gigantic palm of their vast hand while I blink and scream. Everything goes dark.
I can feel the pads stuck to my chest; there’s a voice somewhere counting down from five. Everything’s black and buzzing, my heart is jumping around inside me, pushing itself through my ribcage, trying to escape to some unknown place that is beyond me. The countdown reaches its terminal point and the electricity rips through me and I can feel my implants sizzling and I can smell burnt flesh and the voices are becoming clearer as I manage to lift an arm and start to cough and wheeze.
“We got a reading,” someone says.
“Back off, back off, she’s coming around,” another voice says, there’s something recognisable in it — a flicker of the past.
“Lucy, can you hear me?” It’s close now, that recognisable voice, leaning in and over me while I peel back my eyelids. A dank, green light is revealed as my implants reset themselves and lines of code load in my peripheral vision. I blink and try to remember what happened as reality comes pounding back in with all its brute force. Soon my vision realigns and there he is — there’s his face in front of me. One that I’ve not seen in years. One that I hoped I’d never have to see ever again.
“Take it easy, Lucy, you’re pretty banged up,” he says.
I cough and croak out, “How the fuck did I get here, Wells?”
“Slowly, Lucy, take it slow.”
“Don’t give me any shit, Wells,” I say as I push myself up onto one elbow, swallowing hot spit and grimacing at that smell of my burnt-out implants and the flesh that surrounds them.
“The kid, Lucy, it was the kid. Boyd contacted us when you were with Conrad, something about him finding out about the Underground and me and, I don’t know. I guess the AI was able to hack us and he got a message through and told us what Conrad had told you and we came for you.”
“So, you know about the kid,” I shake my head. “Did he survive?”
“Yeah, we know about the kid, Lucy. He’s safe. He gave us your location and we started tracking you immediately, we had you pinpointed when you started to try and run so when you went down we were able to grab you before he did, but it wasn’t easy,” he stands up straight and turns his head to the room we’re in.
I look around at some sort of makeshift medical bay. It has arched brick ceilings, dark green lighting, half-a-dozen other poor bastards on makeshift beds like the one I’m on wired up to various pieces of outdated medical equipment. “I’m in the Underground,” I say.
“Right, we didn’t have much choice,” Wells sits on the end of the bed and turns to me, that grizzled jaw sticking out as it always did, always does in the memories that float in the back of my mind. The low light catches his scarred face, penetrating eyes looking down on me with the same grit and strength they had when I first met him. Everything that drew me to him still there, all that fire, all that intensity, all that honesty. “I’m glad we managed to get you out, Lucy.”
“You sure?” I say as I take a bottle of water from beside the bed and swill it around my mouth, spitting out the taste of burnt flesh and smoke.
“You know how much I’ve thought about what I would say if we ever saw each other again?” he leans forward and puts his head in his hands.
“I’m guessing more than I care to know.”
He doesn’t say anything and we’re silent for what seems like a very long time.
“You — ”
“ — Don’t even start, Wells,” I say as I sit up and pull off the paper gown and the EKG pads from my chest. I grab my t-shirt off the floor, torn and bloodied, and pull it over my head. “I gotta get out of here, I’ve got a delivery to make.”
“Lucy, if you didn’t already realise, you’re at the end of the line here.”
I turn my legs off the bed and try to stand but they go out from under me, my knees hit the cold concrete floor, Wells steps over to me and grabs underneath my arm. I’m looking up at him, trying to hold it down. Not the pain that’s hammering through me, not the fear of what’s about to come, but that other world that haunts me — that other time, the one where we had a life together, and the one I have done so much to forget. Everything that we went through. Our daughter. Her death. Her murder. “Back off, Wells. Where’s the kid?”
He pulls me up and puts me back on the bed, stood over me, looking down with those fierce eyes. “Look, Lucy, you need to lay low for a long time. We lost two people getting you and the kid out, and look at these poor bastards in here, they came out for you.”
“Don’t give me that shit Wells, they came out for the kid. You came out to get your hands on him and for what he might be able to give you. Don’t you dare say you came out because of me.”
“You think we would have bothered with you if we were only after what’s in the kid’s head?” he’s looking at me, still staring. “We need you too, Lucy, if we’re going to get through this.”
“We? Or you?”
“Lucy,” he turns away. “It wasn’t your fault. When are you going to stop blaming yourself?”
“Fuck you, Wells. They didn’t come after you,” I pull myself up again and steady myself on my feet, stars flashing across my vision, the past flickering across my mind.
“It was them, Lucy. It was them that did that to us, not you,” he turns back to me, his jawline pulsing.
“If I’d gone back in, she’d still be alive,” I say.
“And you’d probably be dead.”
“I don’t matter.”
We stop, staring at each other, a screaming silence between us mocked by the buzzing and beeping of the EKG units and other medical equipment in the room. He takes a step toward me with his arms raised but I pad them away, my footing coming back, my strength levelling out. It’ll take a bit more than a few missiles and a car wreck to get to me.
“Lucy,” he says as I step to move around him. “Lucy!”
I’m about to turn back as an alarm flashes in my peripheral vision from what’s left of my implants and defence grid. “Wells?”
“No,” Wells says as I turn to him, that fire in his eyes going out. “I thought — ”
“ — You thought we’d be safe here, you thought we’d be safe from Laches? Where’s the kid, Wells? He’s all that matters now,” I come closer to him.
“I thought we’d have some time, at least a few days, enough to figure something out,” he says.
“Laches is a god damn animal and it’s likely the military is feeding him with the best tech money can buy so they can get their hands on that kid. You think the Underground is going to stop that?” I put my hands on his shoulders. “Wells, the kid, we can save him, where is he?”
He’s shaking his head as alarm sirens start to scream throughout the facility and something big explodes up on the surface, sending strong tremors through the walls and ceiling.
“Where, Wells!” I shake him
“Two rooms over, research section, we’re running tests on him.”
I bring my elbow up to his temple in a flash and catch him on his way down. Knocked out cold. I lay him on the bed I was just on. “Sorry, Wells. This isn’t going to pan out the way you wanted it, you shouldn’t have brought me here.”
I turn and I’m out and down the corridor, pulling on some overalls I found in a locker while carrying a scalpel I lifted from a medical kit lying around in the makeshift hospital. The passages rumble and shake as they heave with people running in all directions, shouting orders and trying to bring some order to the chaos. The walls and ceilings fire out clouds of dust from the bombing that’s started above ground. It’s bedlam, but that works for me; I’m able to push my way through it into the barebones research facility a couple of doors down just as Wells said.
I kick through the door and a guy and a girl spring around looking at me with big eyes and dropped jaws.
“Don’t make this hard on yourself,” I say as I flash the scalpel at them.
The girl takes a step forward, her hands clenched into fists.
I spring and drive into her, pulling myself around in a flash and before she can flinch, I’ve span her back to face the guy, my arm around her neck and the blade against her jugular. “I’m fucking serious I will tear her fucking throat out, now, where’s the kid?”
The guy points to a door across the room. I edge toward it with the girl still in my grasp and kick it open, “Boyd, out here now!”
He walks out, looking up at me with that vacant stare, “He’s come for me,” he says.
“I know, we’re getting out of here,” I say as I jam the scalpel into the shoulder of the girl, twisting it to keep the wound open, pulling it out to produce a fountain of blood before pocketing it.
She’s screaming as I push her forward into the guy that’s cowering back against the wall and I grab the kid and bolt out the door.
We run down the corridor a few yards and I pull him into another room. It’s empty other than a few shelves with some random tech and other paraphernalia, people running around outside, the walls still shaking from the bombing, the sirens still screaming.
I kneel to the kid, “We need a way out of here! What do you know about this place?”
“I have full schematics and layout of the entire facility,” he says.
“Good, so you know how we can get above ground?”
“Yes, but, I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he pauses and looks up, the bombing has stopped, the walls creak but the dust begins to settle. “He’s here, he’s coming for me, he’s coming for us.”
“I can handle Laches,” I say as I grab the kid and edge out into the corridor. The main lights have gone out and the emergency power has now kicked in. Whirling siren lights spin red and cast circling shadows as the chaos of the moments before turns to whimpering fear in the passages from the few people that we see.
I keep the kid close as we take rights and lefts, down staircases and back up again until he stops and points. “There, that hatch leads straight to the surface.”
I step towards the ladder that leads up the wall and to a handled hatch, “Good, you go first, I’ll be right behind you.”
“You’re not ready for him,” Boyd says.
“I can handle him,” I say with a quiver in my voice that I can’t steady.
“I can’t let you go through with this Lucy,” he steps forward, the vacant look in his eyes turning ridged, wide and crazy.
“You’re the AI,” I say.
“If that’s what you want to call me,” he says looking up at me, a wildfire in his stare.
“I am going to deliver you to my client,” I say.
“Laches will kill you, Lucy. Then he will have me, and he’s not going to take me to any Corp, he’s going to keep me and go into business for himself, you know what that means?”
“We’ve not got time for this,” I crouch and sweep my leg around to knock the kid off his feet but he jumps and clears me and lands back ridged on the floor staring back at me. I bring my fist up before he can blink but he dodges his head sideways just I bring my other first around and drive it right into his temple. His body flings itself onto the floor and after a few shudders, he goes limp.
“Not a chance, kid. Even with an AI.” I step over and pick him up, flinging him over my shoulder.
Up the ladder, I release the hatch and go out into the open to be greeted by the long and desolate landscape of the quarantine zone. It’s abandoned and left behind by everyone that could afford to get out after the meltdown in 2076, where the Underground chose to set-up shop as off-grid as you can get.
I step out and put the kid down on the ground, looking up at the new dawn sky breaking, yonder goes the light. A wondrous selection of blues you never see in the depths of Major Prime widen in front of me, natural colours washing over me as the sunrise creeps out over the horizon casting gigantic shafts of light through the skeletons of the ruined skyscrapers all around.
Some fires burn from little huddles of people that still scrape a life together here. “It’s better than being in Major Prime,” I’ve heard they say. They’d rather suck down on some tasty radiation poisoning than live in that neon and concrete world. Can’t say I blame them.
There’s a stillness, a quiet that I’ve not heard in a long time, not since I was in the shit back in Prague and the bombs stopped for just a minute, the drones ceased for a moment, the screams and horror all around seemed to come to a standstill as the Russians dropped an almighty EMP that wiped out everything, implants and all, for miles around. There was just enough time for us all to take a few breaths before the melee kicked off again.
There’s that peace here, and I step into it, almost forgetting myself, almost giving myself that pleasure, until I see him coming over the horizon.
Laches, his guide-stick in one hand, his plague of drones following him overhead, his silhouette lone marching forward against the rising blue dawn.
“Savage Lucy!” he shouts from where he’s stopped, fifty or so metres away. He knows I’m in bad shape, but he also knows not to get too close, where I’m most dangerous. “Yonder goes the light.”
“Laches, yonder goes the light,” I say as I pause, then take a few steps forward. “How’s this going to go down?”
“You got something I want, Lucy. The way I see it, I could do with a second hand with something like this, going to bring a lot of heat down on me, Corp level heat, probably military too. Take a moment to think about that, me and you, taking on the Corps together. Hell, it’ll almost be like old times. Me and the Acid Commando herself back together again, that’s enough to strike fear into the heart of any man.”
“You know it’s not going to happen, Laches. I follow — ”
“ — You follow a code! Ah, the grand code! Lucy, everything they did to us, everything they put us through and we still follow what they taught us because we have nothing else? Lucy, it’s pathetic. Look what I’m offering you here,” he takes a few more steps forward. “This is a new life, this is a new meaning, this is beyond all that past all that history, this is you getting the revenge you’ve always wanted on the Corps and the military. You need to think about that for a second; an opportunity like this will never come along again and you’ll be left dead for a code that doesn’t mean shit to you, and I’ll be the new-wave, I’ll bring about the future that Major Prime deserves.”
I’m stood in silence. I’m spying my way in. He’s edging closer.
“Last chance, Lucy, like I said when you were at the handover back there with Jake, it doesn’t have to go down like this, you can have something else. We made one hell of a team back in the day, think what we can do with this sort of tech.”
“You think you can take me, Laches?” I say as we narrow the gap between us. “Without any of that shit?” I wave my arms up at the drones following behind him.
He stops and laughs. “Ah, nice move, Lucy, nice move. You want to get dirty, do you?”
“You and me, Laches. You owe me that much,” I say, now down to 20 or so meters away from him.
“Two Vets, hand-to-hand, the way it should be?” he says as he steps forward, nodding his head slowly.
“Wouldn’t be right any other way,” I step and stand as he launches the guide-stick out across the desolate landscape and the drones buzz after it.
“Well then, Lucy, I’ll just have to kill you the way I killed your daughter.” A dagger of ice pierces my heart and I take a step back and falter as he steps forward, grinning ear to ear, eyes flashing with a crazy hatred. “With my bare hands.”
“You…” I stumble backwards and down onto one knee, trying to catch my breath, trying to understand what I’ve just been told, trying to see her smile one last time, trying to remember her laughter, trying to think of her unconditional love, trying to hold onto some light.
“Yes, me, Lucy,” he says, pulling off his body armour, his gloves, striding toward me while beating his bare chest. “Who else do you think they’d trust with killing the daughter of the Acid Commando, just to teach her a lesson? Who do you think they came to? Of course, it was me, Lucy, and now you’re going to go the same way and I’m going to love every fucking minute of it.”
He launches forward, fists raised, jaw pulsing, bad, bad craziness in his eyes but he thinks too much of himself and too little of me, the way he always did. One step, two steps, he’s on me and I fall to my side from my low position and in a flash I scissor my legs against his. He’s down in an instant, his face hits the dirt, hands out in front of him, I spin around, using my legs to knot against his and I’m on his back pulling his head back before he can blink. He tries to scream something, but the blade of the scalpel is out of my pocket, in my hand and across his throat before he can mutter a sound.
My legs are locked and I’m screaming into the blue dawn while tearing his head back by his hair, hearing the popping and ripping of skin and bone and cartilage, a fan of blood shooting out in front of me as his gurgles and sputters and spits of blood pour out before us.
“You fucking did this to me!” I scream and pull and rip at his head as his body goes limp and the last of the skin and cartilage gives way and it snaps back and I take the scalpel and stab it into the back of his neck, stabbing and stabbing and cutting and sawing through his spine. Blood and sinew fly out, coating me in his death until the last of the bone gives way and his head comes off in my hand and I stand and step over his corpse and breathe in the morning sun, jets of steam pushing out of my mouth.
The light rises through the skeletal skyscrapers, washing me in its orange hues, the past cascading down in my mind — that world, that buried history slowly falling into a place where I can put it to rest. Moving out of that dark place where it would creep and haunt, into a new place, where I can let it be, where one day, I might be able to look at it and smile.
“Lucy?” the kid is next to me, looking up.
I turn to him, “There’s your Laches,” I say, throwing the severed head on the ground before his feet as I wipe the blood down my face and the tears from my eyes. “Come on, I’ve got a delivery to make.”
“You don’t have to,” he says in a whisper.
“They call me Savage Lucy for a reason, kid,” I say, stood, looking at my bloodied hands in the morning sun.
“I know, I’ve seen it, all that pain, it doesn’t have to define you.”
“Yes, it does, it’s who I am.”
The delivery is done, the kid is handed over, my payday has quadrupled. I slide back into the anonymity of Major Prime and away into the night, surrounded by all that neon and concrete.
There’ll be fallout from this one, a fucking lot of fallout. There are Corp wars on the horizon, the military will probably get involved, off-planet might even want a piece of the action too, and the Underground is going to get themselves together. God knows what they were able to scrape from the kid before Laches came. Whatever happens, this is going to be big. There’s going to be bodies that pile up, both the innocent and the guilty, and money to be made and that’s that. There are jobs to be had, and they’ll know who to come to if they can run the right credits.
I’m down on the lower levels, things on my mind — how to bag a new agent, what the next job might bring, but I’m here on the ground where I like it, where you can see Major Prime at its rawest with that “no holds barred” attitude. All those metallic purple hues, all that exposed infrastructure, all that decay and degeneration. The gangs and the T>O<X addicts, the civilians trying to scrape together a semblance of a life, the occasional Vet breezing by. Yonder goes the light. Just the tiniest fraction of all the billions of people that make up this vast metropolis going about their business, whatever that may be. I know what mine is, I know how I get it done, I follow a code, and I always will. I’m the Acid Commando.
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 cyperpunk, 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