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Ascension Core: A Cyberpunk Story [Original Fiction]

Discussion in 'User Fiction' started by JMHthe3rd, May 2, 2015.

  1. Threadmark: Table of Contents
    This story is heavily inspired by Acatalepsy 's excellent Cyberpunk CYOA. While some of the setting details I extrapolated from the CYOA, the characters and their stories are my creation, so I'm posting this as a pseudo-original work. Comments and criticism are welcome and appreciated.

    Ascension Core: A Cyberpunk Story

    There's no such thing as a free lunch. Transhumanism comes with a price tag.

    [​IMG]
    Chef d'Escadron Azra Ahmed
    Age: 38
    Occupation: United Nations Special Investigator

    [​IMG]
    Dr. Hadley Mabella
    Age: 37
    Occupation: Computer Systems Architect

    Chapters
    One
    Two
    Three
     
    Last edited: May 2, 2015
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  2. Threadmark: One
    ~1~
    (Dr. Hadley Mabella)


    Atlantis, South Pacific Ocean
    09-04-2088​

    Emergency fluorescents flicker as nozzles spray frigid seawater into the cramped chamber. Hadley is hunched beside the control touchscreen, armwire jacked in, his consciousness a paradox of compartmentalized focus. Captured-yet-fleeting within his audiovisual manifold, he senses surveillance feeds and sentry drones and the helmet cams of the security details who patrol in force throughout the halls of the administration district.

    On the far side of the titanium iris above, guards wait with weapons drawn. Through the iris below, three Manta-drones swim in lazy orbits. No longer are they hunting. They know where he is. They think they have him trapped.

    He shouldn't be able to do what he's doing, locked in an airlock in the underbelly of the city, but the system has backdoors for those who know where to look. As if twitching phantom limbs, he mentally flexes through the innards of the central neural network, using code-cracking implants to bash down flimsy firewalls. He plays with Atlantis' soul as if it were his own. For it is. He designed it, after all.

    He directs most of his attention on the power plant systems, but a shard of his mind notes the pink hue of the water swirling around his knees. Kay's hemo-seal spray isn't quite working. He swivels one of his eyes to her.

    His niece sits slumped against the curved gray bulkhead, faintly bobbing in the rising water which already reaches her chest. She cradles her arm, and though the open wound is half-submerged, he can clearly see the shrapnel-chewed muscle and bone where the ceramic bullet struck her bicep. The trauma is deep and wet and raw, but mostly free from blood. She'll drown before she bleeds to death. Which is good, because he doesn't have anything to use as a tourniquet.

    She looks at her arm and winces. "I'm cold," she says weakly, though her blue wetsuit should regulate her temperature; the stims should counter the worst of the shock.

    He offers no reply, but like a tickle his social processor tells him he should reassure her. That's what uncles are supposed to do. He forgets, sometimes.

    "I'm overriding the safety protocols on the fusion reactor," he explains, keeping his voice quick and shallow--he doesn't need much air; she does. He adds, "I'm going to shut down the coolant, allow it to go critical."

    Somehow, she fails to appear reassured. Her head lolls. Her eyelids, shrouded by soaked black bangs, droop to half-mast. "You're . . . you're going to blow us up?"

    He uses a backdoor to access the Mantas. He can't override their programming outright, but should they lose contact with AtSec . . .

    To Kay, he says, "No, the shields should keep out the worst of the heat; then the backup systems should jettison the core. But during that hundredth of a second, magnetic coils are going to switch on." He makes a smile. It feels weird. "I'm going to ensure they overload. A lot."

    "An EMP?" she asks. Her voice is bleary and half-mumbled, as if belonging to a toddler half her age. "That's not going to help. Security drones are hardened."

    Smart girl. Like her mother. "Oh, ye of little faith," he says and tries another smile. It feels more real this time.

    There's a Minnow-Class submersible docked four hundred meters southwest, outside the estimated EMP radius. Hadley remotely activates the small sub's magnetohydrodynamic drive, releases its docking clamps and locks its access to anyone but him. As a last step, he turns on the airlock's camera, looks into its lens and says in a loud voice over the splashing water, "I am Doctor Hadley Mabella, Chief Software Architect of the Atlantis Netocracy. Our police department has shot my niece and fired upon me. Currently, we are locked in an airlock which they are flooding. This illegal attack came without warning or reason and has been authorized by President Aalders. She's behind the media blackout. Here's what she didn't want you to see."

    With faint, localized concentration, he sorts and attaches recently deleted surveillance feeds and emails to the data packet and seeds the message deep in Atlantis' neural network. A few hours from now, after the power returns, this will broadcast on every touchscreen, every holovid, every AR contact. Aalders will have some explaining to do.

    But he hesitates. Perhaps he should have said more. Did he remember to make facial expressions? He was never very good at speeches.

    But now the water is up to Kay's neck, and she groans with chem-dulled pain as she struggles to keep her head aloft. Hadley sends the final activation signals and unplugs his armwire, severing his consciousness from Atlantis' soul. Five seconds later, he hears a crash and the lights go out--in the airlock, and all across Atlantis.

    Kay cries, splashes. The nozzles continue to spray. Hadley's vision switches to infrared, transforming the dark chamber into a rainbow world of blues smeared with red, orange and yellow.

    Kneeling in the thigh-deep water, he fishes his hands into the inky depths until he finds the outer airlock's manual release on the edge of the floor. He opens the panel and pulls, twists. Twists, pulls. The crank remains stubborn. Fear leaks into his brain.

    "This is a shitty way to die," Kay says between gasps that could be sobs. She tries to stand and almost succeeds.

    Hadley shakes the crank, jerks back and forth and up and down, screaming like the wild chimp he's become. It's not fair they're going to kill her she didn't do anything we're all going to die this is bullshit. . .

    But then he blocks targeted pathways in his amygdala, and the panic subsides. He proceeds with precise, exploratory force and pressure until the crank shifts and turns and the iris in the floor grinds open .

    Sidestepping the new moon pool to the Pacific depths, he pulls Kay to her feet with her good arm. He grips her head and forces her to look at him. Her face is lava in midnight that trembles through his palms. Cold water cascades over them both.

    "I can't see," she says.

    And she can't breathe water. She has no augments of any kind. But then, she's only twelve.

    "I'm going to need you to relax," he says. "Be calm, lower your heart rate. You'll waste less oxygen that way."

    "Haddy, I'm scared."

    He wonders why everyone doesn't have endocrine-inhibiting implants--and what to say to a frightened little girl.

    "Don't worry. If you die, you won't exist, and you won't be scared anymore."

    By infrared, Hadley can see the echo of a bitter grin in her shining orange flesh. "Gee, thanks," she says with a sniffle or a laugh. But she knows him. She understands.

    Even standing, the water is past her waist. "You'll need to hold your breath for two, maybe three minutes. Maybe longer," he says. "Exhale. Let it all out. Do it. Now take a deep breath. As much as you can. Now hold it. Hold it! And hold on to me!"

    He pulls her to him and steps over the open iris to fall into the ocean world. The wetsuit fights back the worst of the cold. The implant where half of his right lung use to be tickles as the filters extract oxygen from seawater.

    He switches to light enhancement, and as expected the three Manta-drones are still swimming in slow, wavy circles--waiting, but not attacking. Disconnected from Atlantis Security, they've reverted to the secondary programming he imparted to them: Protect Dr. Hadley Mabella.

    Kay hugs him in one-armed awkwardness as he tugs the armwire from his left wrist. As a Manta swims by, he grabs hold of the ventral maintenance panel, and the mattress-sized drone drags them along in its idle flight. Hadley slides the panel aside and jacks the armwire into the interface port. Its eyes are his eyes. Its mind is his mind. He takes control.

    Dangling by one hand, the other holding Kay's, Hadley directs the Mantas in a sloped dive that swoops into a level, if not steady, vector. The drones' rubbery biopolymer wings flap like seagulls as thrumming hydrojets rush them through the water until he and Kay wag like a tail behind the lead Manta.

    He feels no fear but only anticipatory disquiet, for though Kay is minutes from death and he is hanging for his life from a biomechanical fish, the weaker, less augmented shards of his mind can do nothing but watch the gray and green sprawl of avenues and alleyways and power cables and water turbines pass scant meters above as the drones soar beneath the bottom half of Atlantis' cityscape.

    It's a sight he's seen a thousand times; only now is it beautiful.

    They pass over a pair of EMP-fried submersibles, turning and rocking as they sink slowly into the dark Pacific depths. The occupants will probably be rescued in time. Probably. Not that he's at fault. If anyone dies today, Aalders is to blame.

    Hadley was born in Atlantis back when it was a few old supercarriers strapped together. He grew up here, helped it grow into the city-state before him. And now some corporate-Philistine of a President thinks he's expendable? Or a threat?

    Hadley intends to find answers. The message from his sister is as good as lead as any.

    The police appear from behind a corner, a hundred meters to the rear. Their hydrojet packs trailing angry bubbles, the five figures close the distance like a squad of human torpedoes. They aim gyrojet machine pistols in his direction, and he has no doubt they're target assisted.

    His Manta can't outswim them, not dragging two humans, so he throws the drone into defensive maneuvers while he circles around the two wing drones to intercept. Gunfire streaks curve and crisscross in the water, but hunter-seeker bullets can only change trajectories so much, not to mention their limited propellant. The police should have waited.

    His Manta banks under a hospital basement block, but he can still see the combat through the drones' eyes. The Mantas and jetpack police weave mad atomic diagrams of bubble streams as they dogfight like something out of an old 2-D war movie. Though they wear badges on their chest, the uniforms aren't the usual APD. Probably shore-based contractors. Their wetsuits are bulky enough to be armored, but when one of the cops' arms explodes from its shoulder in a flower-cloud of gore, Hadley concludes they're not spec'd against the Mantas' 11.5mm autocannons.

    The Mantas aren't bullet proof either, but it doesn't matter who wins. Their sacrifice buys time, and Kay is asphyxiating, maybe drowning. He can feel her thrash in his vice grip. He wonders what he would feel if she were to die. He doesn't want to find out.

    Swooping from beneath an underwater garage, their Manta arrives at the docked Minnow. More police greet them. Less than twenty meters away, the four officers float beneath the open moon pool of the docking facility, a small Sting-drone by their side. One of them points. They raise their guns.

    The blocked paths in the amygdala disallow panic, but Hadley feels the transcendent rush of analysis and calculation. He triggers his neural accelerators. The world grinds to a crawl.

    The police bullets plow slow gouges through the water as their rockets grant them gradual velocity. The Sting-drone sweeps left for a flanking maneuver. With an unmoving eye Hadley assess the situation and between heartbeats knows the way.

    Time resumes. The Manta flips on its side and dives as he pulls in his legs and plants his feet on the drone's underbelly as if he is surfing in a crouch upside down. Kay swings from his arm at an angle that burns the tendons of his shoulder, yet he still tries to pull her close. The Manta shudders as bullets chew into its dorsal hide, and Hadley banks and soars the drone up towards the sealed moon pool of the whale-shaped Minnow.

    Timing is everything. That's what his social therapist always told him. There are times when one shouldn't say certain things; there are times when one must say certain things; facial expressions should be used appropriately--people are finicky, confusing things. But Hadley understands objects. He knows the dynamics of causality, the ballet of physical interaction.

    Issuing his final orders to the Manta, he unjacks his armwire from the control interface and releases his grip on the maintenance panel. Inertia carries him and his niece the final four meters to the sealed iris, and as the half-dead drone charges the police, its autocannons' deep bass shaking through the water, Hadley slams out his palm to the moon pool's touch-lock pane.

    The iris opens. Hadley grips the lip of the portal, and nearly wrenches his arm from his socket as he all but throws Kay through into the Minnow's pressurized interior. The Manta offers distraction, but stray bullets buzz by like aquatic bees. He glances at the flanking Sting-drone--thirty meters away, twin guns firing- and pulls himself through.

    Something like a sledgehammer explodes into his right leg, but he turns off the pain and rolls onto the rubber mat of the submersible's deck. Kay is beside him, eyes bugged from near-asphyxiation as she shivers and arcs and coughs and takes deep, heaving gasps of the Minnow's air.

    But no rest for the wicked. Hadley spares a glance at his right knee and sees he doesn't have one. The shin's still attached, a little. He drags himself across the deck to the Minnow's cockpit, climbs into the seat. A worrying volume of blood flows from the stump.

    The docking clamps are free, the MHD drive warmed up, and so Hadley says, "Hold on, Kay!" and pushes on the manual control stick. The Minnow sails forward with scarcely a hum. Explosive-tipped bullets tap metallically against her hull, but the submersible’s titanium-alloy armor is spec'd for oceanic trench duty. He pushes harder on the stick and feels the faint pull of acceleration. They made it. They're safe. He leans back into the chair's formfitting cushion, his head dizzy, his eyelids fluttering . . .

    Splashing, a thump. His niece's cry is choked and gurgled. Hadley's arms flutter as he awkwardly turns in his seat. A police officer is halfway through the moon pool (The open moon pool! He forgot, damn it!) and is holding himself up with a hand and a swim-finned shoe on the handlebar circling the portal. The Minnow's movement sprays water around him, but that can't hide the intestines spilling through his bullet-ripped wetsuit.

    Though the re-breather obscures the cop's face, there's no mistaking that annoying French accent.

    "Mabella!" Security Chief Absolon gasps with a heaving breath. His free hand raises a pistol. "You blow Atlantis' power grid to save yourself? Do you think you don't deserve this? We know what you've done."

    "I don't," Hadley says indignantly.

    Absolon levels the gun. Hadley shrugs. His limbs feel cold, heavy.

    Kay's prone kick has little strength, but it knocks aside the chief's fin-shoe. He half-falls through the moon pool, only his grip on the handlebar keeping him from dropping completely out of the Minnow. Hadley spends a dull second watching the gloved fist clench and strain before turning back to the cockpit controls. Calmly, somewhat uneasily, he jacks in his armwire, overrides the safeties and activates the moon pool's emergency containment.

    The iris bangs shut. Through a trick of tension, inertia and lateral acceleration, the severed hand actually summersaults in the air before splashing into the inches-deep seawater sloshing across the deck. Hadley sets the Minnow into a gentle dive, maximum speed. He looks at his knee. Still missing. Still gushing.

    "Kay? Would you mind fetching the emergency medical kit? I seem to be bleeding to death."

    After a liberal application of hemo-seal and tourniquets, Hadley opens the titanium shutters guarding the cockpit windows. An aquamarine void greets them, spangled with flittering life. It may have cost them an arm and a leg, but they've made it.

    But it's not over yet.

    His niece sits in the co-pilot seat next to him. "Where are we going?" she asks.

    Hadley would pat her arm, but it's in a compression sling. And he's too weak for the effort, anyway. He spots Absolon's handgun sloshing in the blood-pink water by his feet. Useful.

    "Baghdad, honey. We're going to find your mother."
     
    Last edited: May 2, 2015
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  3. Threadmark: Two
    ~2~
    (Chef d'Escadron Azra Ahmed)

    Moskva-6 Vactrain Station, Moscow DMZ
    09-07-2088
    ~Rooster Crow, this is Spider Maroon One. Package is ready to play.

    The telepathy implant relays the voice into my skull. Not an actual sound, it whispers effortlessly over the shrill of the aircar's internal rotors and the pound of rain against the armored fuselage.

    ~Rooster Crow to Spider Maroon, I reply with a thought. Hold your dogs until the cats dance.

    ~Spider Maroon One to Rooster Crow. Will comply.


    Even I have to admit my insistence on code is probably unnecessary. Any enemy eavesdroppers would almost certainly know what we're up to anyway. Indeed: they're likely to be my superiors. They might even be with me on the command aircar.

    But "likely" and "might" aren't absolutes. Though it's impossible to fully hide my actions, I've requested no approval for this raid. I'm acting off record. Let surprise be my sword.

    I don't need to look out the cabin window. Reclined in my seat with my eyes closed, I conjure a light-enhanced, bird's eye render of Alexeyevsky District five hundred meters below us. It's not so bad, as Moscow goes. Most of the buildings here are intact, if derelict, and the decade of overgrowth from the neighboring parkland gives an air of pastoral neglect rather than the urban festering that characterizes most of the city. As we pass the Exhibition Center with its lonely patriotic statues and vacant Greco-Roman pavilions, I feel as if I'm glimpsing a Golden Age remnant from a dozen revolutions ago.

    My aircars bank and begin their descent towards the Moskva-6 Vactrain Station. Old fire damage spots its pretty white roof like bruises on a long, rigid banana. Thirty, forty years ago, during Russia's brief day in the sun, the train system was a world marvel: Minsk in fifteen minutes, Warsaw in twenty. A terrorist bombing back in '61 put it out of commission, and it's been abandoned ever since.

    At least that's what we thought, but seismographs don't lie. Someone has spent a lot of money secretly renovating the tunnels. I think I have an idea of what they're shipping, and it doesn't add up.

    I feel the inertial bob as my aircar slows to a hover, and then the slight jolt as it sets down in the shattered, puddle-strewn expanse of the station's parking lot. The engines shut off, and the rain seems to pick up its tempo.

    The three other aircars land in their assigned locations a few hundred meters away, and through their external cameras networked with my eyes, I inspect the three squads of soldiers pounding down the hinged loading ramps into the midnight storm.

    Their helmets and powered armor make them look like beetle astronauts, but they're Blue Cobras, a Special Missions Unit assigned to me through the United Nations' Oversight Office. A larger force would be ideal, but trusting something this clandestine to PMCs or (Allah help me) Moscow Police would be counterproductive--if not suicidal.

    Even as it is, I half-expect to be stabbed in the back before this is over.

    After the soldiers come the drones. Three Mustangs, light UGVs that look like giant spiders fucking headless horses. Won't win any beauty contests, but they're versatile and more agile than they look. More than what we'll need, hopefully.

    Forty-seven seconds since touchdown. We have to hurry. I stand from my seat, though I'm not stepping outside. I want to. I want to gear up, grab my carbine and share the danger. But those days are long over. I'm an officer and a robot-operator, and I'm more useful here.

    My aircar can carry twenty men, but all it holds aside from me is Lieutenant Caza, four Noir-Class bodyguard bots and my fellow ops, Lieutenants Zutter and Bless.

    Those two are already reclined in overly padded feedback chairs. Zutter is a hard brick of a man. He looks as if he would be better suited as a front-line commando than a bot-jock, but then, others have said the same thing about me. Bless, on the other hand, is a straight op stereotype: mousy, pale and petite. She'd be a cute if it weren't for all those tribal brands.

    They're both younger than me, their brainware newer. I pace to the center of the cabin where I enjoy free range of motion. While they merely dream to drive their machines, I must dream and dance.

    ~Systems synced. Good to go, messages Bless.

    Zutter follows with, ~Checked and green. Ready to go when you are, ma'am.

    Implant-to-implant speech removes all trace of accents, giving the Germans an almost sleepy cadence. As I check the status of my sync suit, I shake my head at the absurdity of using telepathy within a couple of meters of each other.

    "Jam-bots on. Hawk-hovers in the air. Prisoner transport in standby. Car router amped," Caza says aloud from the pilot seat. He looks at no instruments: the data rolls across his brain. "No heavy EM from the station, so shouldn't be any interference. Unless they're masked, of course."

    "Thank you, Lieutenant," I say, slipping on my HUD visor. You'd think that'd be redundant, but my bionic eyes date to the early seventies and lack the latest semantic-compression capabilities.

    One minute, six seconds since touchdown. We're behind schedule.

    ~Spider Maroon, this is Rooster Crow. You are free to let slip the hounds, I message.

    ~Spider Maroon One to Rooster Crow. Will comply.

    I don't wait, but say: ~Rooster Crow to Teams Daisy, Fox and Silver. Proceed.

    I'm still seeing through the aircars' cameras. The rain-swept scenes of soldiers jogging towards the station play as vivid imaginings. I focus, feel the network accept my touch, and suddenly I am in control.

    I am Mustang-2. Bless is Mustang-1, Zutter Mustang-3.

    I flex my index fingers, and Mustang-2 moves with the Cobras across the parking lot. Through both it and my own ears, I hear the distant cacophony of Team Spider Maroon's demolition charges, followed immediately by the night-splitting roars as hundreds of kilometers of vacuum tunnels start sucking Moscow air. If the Muskva-6 Vactrain Station was active before, it's not anymore.

    You know the old saying: "Wherever the United Nations go, sexual slavery follows." That's been true since the twentieth century, but it was only about six years ago, after a series of exposés revealed its epidemic proportions and a few sensory sims allowed viewers to fully appreciate the trade's latest nightmare fuels ("p-zombies" and "brain hulling" being particularly high-octane), that the usually apathetic public reached the critical threshold of outrage.

    Scandals begot scandals. Heads rolled. The Security Council President resigned. It was the biggest circus since the Pope's arrest. Needless to say, the General Assembly found this a little embarrassing--they still do: some of the high-profile trials are ongoing--so they brought in people like to me to clean house.

    Aside from my past days in the GIGN, I'd already made a recent name for myself in the National Gendarmerie's Criminal Investigation Division, though in truth my team deserved most of the credit. Still, busting an army-run pedophile ring is always nice on a résumé.

    And so when the UN's Oversight Office offered to make me a Special Investigator and ship me off to this kleptocratic, semi-balkanized hellhole, I accepted. I'd be lying if I said this wasn't at least partly personal--after all, my ex-wife grew up in a Strasbourg brothel-- but really, I enjoy my work. I like hunting down monsters, and Moscow is full of them. Some of them wear blue hats.

    My current investigation is one that hits a mother's instincts and knots my guts. Twenty child abductions in three weeks. Ages five to seven. Low-income homes. No ransoms, no bodies. Peacekeepers and Moscow Police have nothing, which only means they've been paid off. Scanning the usual suspects didn't turned up anything, but a Bayesian analysis of what few sightings there were suggested the kids were being taken to the city's North-Eastern Okrug--territory of the Ten' Ekipahz, the "Shadow Crew."

    And then we learned Moskva-6 was active. Someone's shipping little kids west, but nothing arrives in Minsk. I don't like mysteries.

    With a thought and a roll of my thumbs, I halt Mustang-2 fifteen meters from the station's Terminal 7A wall, which is a kaleidoscope sprawl of overlapping Cyrillic graffiti. The eight Cobras of Team Silver spread out to tactical entry positions and unfold their arm-mounted ballistic shields. Absurdly, I think they look like iron sculptures as they stand so still in the rain. I focus and twitch my trigger fingers; Mustang-2's dorsal grenade launcher scatters debris as it blasts a two-meter wide hole in the building's brick hide. I follow by shooting through a peeper, the tiny flying bot adding a new eye in my already cluttered consciousness.

    Before the smoke's faded, I message to Team Silver: ~All clear, and gallop my Mustang-2 towards the interior. Part of me monitors the feeds from Teams Daisy and Fox; Bless and Zutter have already breached, entered and are engaging hostiles. Multi-camera scenes of two separate gun battles play dreamlike in my mind. I watch their brain-controlled bots incapacitating bad guys with precision e-laser fire.

    And they do it faster than me and all without twitching a muscle.

    I may have been hot stuff in the seventies--and experience still counts for a lot--but bot-ops is a young cyborg's game. I could upgrade, of course, but I'm leery of adding more gear in my head. My ex says I'm being like one of those technophobes back home, but maybe the bridge between man and machine shouldn't be too sturdy, the wall between thought and action too thin. And there's been incidents. Just in the news the other day there was that autistic scientist in that Atlantis city-state tax-shelter. Half his brain was metal. Turns out he was a kiddie-diddler. Went nuts and kidnapped his niece.

    I may be old fashioned, but I don't want to end up like that.

    Fingers dancing, arms rolling a slow swim, I lead my drone into Terminal 7A. Light enhanced vision bleaches the corridor into washed-out pastels that flicker in the dying strobe of the occasional florescents. Brown-stained ceiling tiles droop like pregnant bellies and drip rainwater. Soiled, mildewed blankets are piled in a corner where a long-gone vagrant once built his nest. I'm glad this bot can't smell.

    Team Silver follows behind Mustang-2. I see them through the posterior eyes; if I focus, I can also see Mustang-2 through their helmet cams. I am all points-of-view, but I reign it in. Omniscience can be distracting.

    Boots and hooves crunch across the paper cups, food wrappers and broken glass which blanket the floor like geologic strata. We pass the open doors of trashed offices, navigate around smashed computer equipment and overturned plastic chairs.

    My peeper is the first to hear the Russian whispers. They're not far. The steel-jungle beats of Slavic-techno pound from a sound plate somewhere deep in the station. The drone is the size of a fly, but I land it on the ceiling anyway.

    ~Three hostiles ahead, I message, though I have it covered.

    Mutang-2's arm-cannons are already ready when they turn the corner. The Shadow Crews are the usual scabby sort with spiked, greasy hair and scowling rat-faces. They grip old-school Kalashnikovs in dirty hands. One of them is shirtless, live-tats playing pornographic clips across his acned chest.

    In the heartbeat before they react, I scan them for dangerous implants, see they're clear and zap each with e-lasers. Blink-and-you-miss-it bolts of lightning send them tumbling into trash where they flop with seizures. Blue Cobras run up and slap their wrists with paralyzers.

    Their limp bodies and slack expressions make the Shadow Crews seem unconscious, but as we pass them by their eyes follow Mustang-2's soulless faceplate and gently flailing spider arms. They know the reckoning has come. I am the monster to monsters.

    It takes less time than I expected for my teams to clear the station. These clowns never had a chance. Most of their augments are first or second generation--chromepunk limb-grafts and eye-scopes and other tacky crap obsolete since the sixties. Their one combat bot was older than I am. I was concerned with having to deal with BLEDs--Bio-Linked Explosive Devices--but those are found more among out-and-out terrorist groups like the Caucasus Emirate and the Dagestan Liberation Front. The Shadow Crew aren't so hardcore.

    There's only nineteen of them, and most never get off a shot. No casualties for us, but we have to kill two of theirs: one a bear of a man who's sub-dermal made him too resistant to e-lasers (a Cobra downed him with 4.1mm caseless), the other being a scrawny junkie who's heart popped at the shock. I'm not too worried. If we move fast, we can get their brains in a SPECTer for a data retrieval.

    We search every room and corridor. We send peepers through the now air-flooded vacuum tunnels. Our Mustangs m-ray the walls. We finds the detritus of a dozen different gangs who've roosted here over the years, but no children, no cages. In fact, the Shadow Crew here don't seem to have a illegal business at all. No guns, drugs, slaves or 'wares. It's as if they spontaneously decided one day to hang out in a spooky old train station.

    But the Vactrain system had been repaired: the controls and maglev systems meticulously replaced. These punks certainly didn't do that. But who did? And why would they spend billions to snatch a few poor kids?

    Time to find out why.

    ~Good job, I message as I call for the waiting transport to land. Gather up the prisoners and meet at Extraction Point Alpha.

    I've barely finished my thought when it happens.

    ~A prisoner's having some sort of seizure, Bless says in my head.

    Sergeant Drews, one of the Cobras, adds, This one is too. And this one. Oh shit, they all are!

    One of Mustang-2's cameras zeros on one of the punks. The paralyzers keep him from moving, but blood drools from his nose and mouth. The scleras of his violently twitching eyes have turned bright crimson. I hear wet grinding from his skull. I check the bio-readings, but my heart sinks as I remember the scare in Paris a few years back. And of course, there's the Yankee Stadium Attack. We all know what this is: a nanovirus. A remote-activated nanovirus.

    ~Suit check, I message. Everyone sealed?

    My multitasking-enhanced mind subconsciously counts the twenty-four affirmatives. Good, that means no one's compromised, though if they were they'd be dead by now. "Caza," I say aloud. "Pick up a trigger signal?"

    Lieutenant Caza speaks from the aircar cockpit two meters from me, his voice carrying by radio to the teams.

    "Yes, ma'am. Whoever did this had to boost and flex to bypass our jammers, but they did it through relay nodes." He pauses, and though his back is turned to me, I can imagine his goateed frown. He continues, "But just before it happened, there was a very slight EM swell here."

    In my networked mind's eye a rendered map of Moskva-6 spreads before me, a red circle appearing over one of the station's passenger luggage loading bays.

    "A good place to start as any," he adds.

    "Thank you, Lieutenant," I say. To the teams I message, ~All right, send detachments to converge on that area. Use extreme caution.

    I disregard the dying prisoners. The nanovirus has been tailored to applesauce their brains. Some of that's already gushing out their eyes. Any knowledge they might have is already beyond information death.

    Difficult to detect and with a theoretically indefinite "incubation period," nanoviruses are a common boogiemen for doomsayers. One of my son's favorite ORPGs uses them for its zombie-apocalyptic premise. The truth's not so dramatic--released nanite anti-virals usually keep things from getting too out of hand--but they are scary. And very expensive. Not to mention outlawed by the Geneva Protocols.

    Someone went to a lot of effort to make sure their goons won't talk.

    "It makes no sense," Bless says aloud, out of team-chat.

    "Yeah, this is more than a few crooked peacekeepers," Zutter replies. "I don't know what it is, but we might have stepped into something we shouldn't."

    "None of that talk," I snap. "I don't care if the President of France is behind this: we've caught a big fish and we're going to reel it in. That's what we're here for, right?"

    "Yes, Ma'am," they say in unison.

    After some careful probing with peepers, Mustang-2 and three men of Team Silver arrive at the source of the trigger signal. Mustangs-1 and 3 show up a short while later, chaperoning their Cobra detachments.

    No working florescents, so we switch to infrared which transforms the bay into a blue-fogged cavern specked with yellow heat residue. The ceiling is low and cracked. Scores of squat plastic cargo pallets make a knee-high rat maze of the wide floor. On the far side of a long, convex wall is one of the vactrain tunnels, the windows to its interior so dark that it may as well lead to outer space.

    We already searched here during the initial clearing, but I run a multi-spectrum scan.

    ~Not picking anything up, Bless says, speaking once more through telepathy.

    And it's true. Aside from Mustang-2's €10 million suite of vision modes, M-rays alone can see through over a meter of concrete, and if anything's blocking that besides grids of rebar, I'd know. But the bay is bare. No hidden doors or transmitters. Not even a residual EM pattern.

    "Caza, how certain are you this is the right spot" I say aloud.

    "The swell was there. I bet my right nut, Ma'am."

    I think back thirteen years ago, to Mecca during the Saudi Intervention. I'd just been in bot-ops a few months and was leading a GIGN team into a prince's penthouse in one of the old Abraj Al Bait towers. He was a sneaky little bastard, kept a snuff dungeon in a "hidden floor" shielded to not only absorb heat and scans, but reflect back false readings. It was crude and didn't fool us long, but points for effort.

    Materials science has passed a few generations since then.

    I turn cameras downward, set Mustang-2 for pattern recognition and accelerate my own oracle implants. And then I see it: thin wheel grooves in the floor's dust, weaving between the plastic pallets. Most of the paths lead to the vactrain airlock. They all originate from a bare stretch of wall.

    M-rays and spectroscope say the wall's concrete, at least a meter and a half thick. Ambient temperature is vaguely skewed, but the deviation is not statistically significant.

    I don't bother explaining. ~Stand clear, I message as I red-mark the wall in their HUDs.

    I wait just long enough for them to kneel and unfold their ballistic shields before I twitch my fingers and fire a low-yield concussion grenade. The smartmatter drops the masquerade as it blasts into gray ash. As I suspected, the "meter and a half" is closer to four or five centimeters.

    Smoke fogs my infrared, but I gallop blindly through the breach, Mustangs 1 and 3 behind me. I switch to standard vision. It's a dimly lit laboratory, empty submersion tanks along the wall. I blank out the twenty tiny bodies on twenty metal tables and focus instead on the thin man in baby blue scrubs standing not three meters away.

    M and t-rays reveal his heavy augments, mostly in his skull. My HUD takes special care to highlight the BLED near his brain stem. I hold my e-laser fire. I know he's rigged to blow if I zap him. He watches me with wide dark eyes that are as bionic as my own. His tight sliver of a grin tells me he's steeled himself and has nothing to lose.

    "It doesn't have to end this way," I say through Mustang-2's speakers (~Stay back, I tell the Cobras). "You tell us who you're working for, we can cut a deal."

    He glares at me balefully. ~You've made a grave mistake, Chef d'Escedron Ahmed, he messages in French, cutting effortlessly through our telepathy encryption. The machine is in action. You won't leave Moscow alive.

    The blasts claps my ears, knocks wild static into my cameras. A second later, my vision returns. The lenses are shrapnel-scratched and gore-splattered, but otherwise intact.

    ~Status check, I message. Everyone's fine.

    Now, to deal with this mess.

    In my career, I've witnessed unspeakable evil: mass rape, torture, mutilation, brain-slaving . . . I've taken the meds to keep the bad dreams away, but it's good that I remember these atrocities, that I know the depths of the abyss. What I see now, as bad as it is, it not the worst I've seen. It is the most inexplicable.

    The explosion overturned and scattered the autopsy tables, but the bodies are mostly intact. Shining floodlights from spider arms, I zoom on a child sprawled by Mustang-2's hoof. He's about five or six, and I recognize him as Yurian Fedorov, who disappeared five days ago. He's been dead long enough for purification to set in, pale on top, purple and black along his backside. Like all the others, the top of his head's been sawed away, revealing an hollow red bowl where his brain should be.

    It doesn't seem that long ago when Alex was this age. I imagine what it would be like to find him like this, and then try to chase the vision away but can't. I haven't seen him in four months. He turns fourteen next week. I should be there. Buy him something nice. Hug him and kiss him and embarrass him in front of his friends. That's what mothers are for.

    "Ma'am, are you all right?" Bless asks aloud. She's looking at me from her seat.

    "Yes," I say, blinking at the wetness in my eyes. It's a good thing my HUD visor's tinted.

    "What are we looking at here?" Zutter asks in disbelief. "Organ harvesting? Why would they want with brains?"

    I examine the computers, but of course they've already been slagged. Most of the submersion tanks were shattered by the BLED, but I can see they're meant for preserving tissue. The brains are gone, no doubt whisked away on the vactrain, but maybe the children aren't really dead. I find this thought less than reassuring.

    Even though I'm not really in this laboratory of empty children, even though I'm actually in an armed and armored aircar hundreds of meters away and my teams have taken no casualties, I suddenly feel very vulnerable.

    But I remember my duty, remember who I am. I am a hunter of monsters, and today I've found the trail of a big one.

    ~Everyone gather what you can and head to Extraction Point Alpha, I message. We've got work to do.
     
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  4. Threadmark: Three
    ~3~
    (Dr. Hadley Mabella)


    Lau Basin, South Pacific Ocean
    09-10-2088
    "You're going to have to stay awake while I'm gone, Kay," Hadley says in a helium-shot rasp. "Do you think you can do that?"

    His niece is slumped in the co-pilot seat. Her moan is a squeak.

    Built for deep-sea habitat maintenance, the Minnow is stocked with construction supplies. Undeniably useful, but more power would have been nice. And food. And medicine.
    But in these gloomy depths, Hadley makes do.

    Already he's installed the pods with burst transmitters. Next comes the thermite. With amplified sight and trembling hands, he slides stylus-sized charges into the beacons which clutter the small submersible's currently tilted deck like so many aluminum cantaloupes.

    The Minnow is all but shut down. Only passive sonar. No heat, no lights. A thousand meters of cold sea creaks against the hull, but their skinsuits stave off hypothermia. High-pressure nervous syndrome will kill them before they freeze.

    Kay complained that they didn't need to do this: why torture themselves with chems and super-dense air when the sub can just as easily maintain a steady 1 atm? But they would never reach Fiji without recharging, and being wanted for who-knows-what, it's not like they can stop by any atoll station. To get what they need, he must go outside and crawl where the sun never shines. And the Minnow doesn't have an atmospheric diving suit.

    So, for the last week they've taken the Barilex pills while gradually pressurizing the sub with heliox. But despite the saturation-accelerating drugs, human tissue is not meant to absorb gas so quickly. The tremors and myoclonic jerks aren't bad yet, but even with his many cognitive-augments, he grows disoriented.

    A couple of days ago, he wandered the cabin awake but unresponsive, clawing at bulkheads and pressing buttons at random. Fortunately, Kay was in one of her lucid moments and managed to trip him.

    It's affecting her worse, but Hadley keeps his amygdala blocked; he can't afford to worry.

    But just one quick venture outside, and then they can begin the slow decompression and shed this mad atmosphere.

    He primes the last pod and dumps it on the deck where its metallic roll reverberates in the cabin's thick air. From the nearby medical nook he retrieves a syringe (a hypospray won't work in 33 atms) filled with a prepared cocktail. Bracing for the sub's slant, he props himself up and limps to the cockpit with his peg-leg.

    The exploding bullet had already done most of the work, so the amputation was no more than sawing through a meat rope. The hemo-seal and bandages took care of the stump, and with some spray-foam, nylon straps and an aluminum-alloy pipe, they crafted a serviceable, if unbending, prosthesis. If it weren't for his beta-endophine blockers, he'd be screaming with every step.

    But Kay can't turn off her pain, and the morphine ran out four days ago. Paracetamol keeps down the fever; fluxacillin slows the infection, but what she needs is a surgical unit to remove the ceramic dust-shards polluting her thin bicep. It may be too late to the save the arm.

    He leans by her side and brushes a wet, pallid cheek with a trembling hand. In the pale blue glow of controls, her young face is a despairing capture of his sister when she was a child.

    "I've been saving this," he says in a high-pitched but hopefully gentle tone. He holds the needle before her. "It's part stimulant, part analgesic. It won't last long, but it'll keep you functional. And I need you, Kay. I need you."

    Her cynical, helium laugh belongs to a dying mouse. Hadley taps the syringe, squeezes out a drop and jabs the hypodermic into her good arm. She screams, thrashes, gnashes her teeth. Brown pupils roll in wide white.

    He waits until she calms down, her mental fog clearing.

    "I'm headed to the station," he says. "There's a fair chance I'll be spotted. Keep radio silence. Watch the passive-sonar. If you see anything, move to pick me up. Drop beacons if they launch."

    Shaking, she stares at him with a slack jaw and unfocused eyes, and at first he thinks she doesn't understand. But then she nods.

    "I'll . . . I'll try my best."

    He doesn't need his social analyzer to know his niece needs encouragement. He's not very good at this, but settles with, "I know you will. I'm proud of you. And I'm sorry."

    Her lank, black hair is greasy against his kiss. He says nothing more, gives her no final glance.

    He pulls on a hood, goggles and gloves, and, almost as an afterthought, straps Absolon's gyrojet pistol to his side with a nylon sheet. From a maintenance locker he retrieves a tarp of phase-change material. Designed to minimize thermal wear from underwater power plants, the PCM will mask Hadley's heat signature.

    With the press of a dully lit screen, the deck's door sleepily irises opens to slosh frigid seawater into the cabin. Clasping it to his neck, Hadley wraps himself in the tarp as if it were a cloak and crawls through the portal into the Pacific depths. His filter implant tickles to life as he breathes ocean. From the curved ventral hull of the sub, he pops open a small hatch and tugs loose a retractable superconducting cable which will allow a speedy recharge of their lithium-air batteries.

    So far down, the noon sun is but a twilight suggestion, but his light enhanced eyes can see well enough. The Minnow is perched near the craggy ridge of a long dormant volcano festooned with tumorous barnacles and anemones whose spines coat rocks like stubble. A sloping, two thousand meter abyss gapes to Hadley's left, beyond which lies a gnarled mountain range that he makes out only as blue-fogged teeth, godlike and rotted dark.

    Out of nearby stones, a whale ribcage reaches like frozen claws. A spidercrab bigger than Hadley's head pinches at the tarp. Hadley moves on.

    About forty years ago, there was an energy crisis. Too many adolescent nations, not enough power to feed the growth spurts. Many hadn't even been weaned off fossil fuels.

    There was a few brushfire wars, a few economic rollbacks. Some countries looked to the sea. Advances in materials science allowed deep underwater construction, prettying up the long-puffed pipe dream of hydrothermal generators.

    The Lau Basin is dotted with these installations which harness subterranean heat to power half the Pacific Union. Hadley heads towards one of their relay stations. Unmanned, hopefully unwatched.

    But a vain hope, surely. The Minnow had only the range to reach three such nodes, and only this one sits near Fiji. Though passive sonar failed to detect their subs, Hadley knows Atlantis is waiting.

    It's a two hundred meters along the ridge, and Hadley crawls like a crippled sloth as his peg leg scrapes against stones. The cable is attached to a belt hoop so that he can better keep the black, crinkly PCM over him at all times. Not that there feels like there's any heat to hide. Even through his skinsuit the icy cold leaves his body dead numb, and in some near-fugue state he catches himself staring at his slowly trembling gloved hand and wondering who it belongs to. Strange aquatic baritones sing to him in gurgles.

    The tower appears on the volcanic horizon like a fairy tale lair. Ocean blurs its thorny edges, but with a zoomed eye he sees the plethora of black electrical cables which stream in every direction as if the tall needle structure is the hub of a vast undersea spiderweb.

    He reaches its base and finds a portal alcove embedded in structural latticework. After plugging the power cord into a charge outlet, he reads the weathered instructions (written in ten languages, five of which he knows) before pressing buttons on the ancient touchscreens which flood the airlock. Once the process is complete, he opens the door and half-crawls, half-swims into interior water.

    A necessary evil: in his highly gas-saturated state, regular air pressure would burst him to blood sausages.

    Waterproof florescents flicker on.The control room is a short titanium tunnel almost too low to stand in. Tarp floating around him like a toga, Hadley jacks his armwire into the relay mainframe as it stutters in the first boot-up it's likely seen in years. Moments later, his consciousness embraces the Web.

    He and his niece have been cut off for a week. He scans the news. Implants in his hippocampus and prefrontal cortex translate data into semantic bites: Atlantis scientist head of child prostitution ring. Escapes arrest, kidnaps niece. Mass power outage. Three police wounded in shootout. Atlantis Security Chief Absolon vows to bring Dr. Mabella to justice.

    Video feeds accompany the headlines, and as they stream through his audiovisual manifold, he realizes he should have anticipated this outrage. Of course they would lie. But why ruin his life? And what does any of this have to do with his sister in Baghdad?

    The news includes a short clip of a distraught Kay describing the terrible things he made her do. The CGI is pixel perfect and would fool almost everyone, but to Hadley the teary brown eyes lack that inner luster.

    Someone will pay for this, he decides, but then strangles his anger and gets to work.

    He could have done this in the Atlantis airlock, but from the inside it would have been too easy to detect: he's no ace hacker. He pauses, allowing himself to plan, to prepare. He knows enough to hide his address behind multiple proxies. That will buy him a few minutes. He hopes it's enough.

    He accesses Atlantis' network, slips through a backdoor and triggers his neural accelerators. With compartmentalized precision, imagination and speed, he conjures his and Kay's new lives: names, places of birth, Global Security Numbers. He forges and backdates financial and medical records and, after using his ICE implants to crack the personnel database, authorizes his creations and disperses them to government offices throughout the world.

    The false identities won't stand up to scrutiny, but it's the best he can do.

    ~You disappoint me, Dr. Mabella, says a voice in his auditory cortex. A ghostly face appears, a transmitted hallucination seeming to hover before the bulkhead's antiquated controls. The man is bald, nut brown and smiling with the confidence that comes from knowing one holds the high water.

    ~I expected a game of cat and fish, he continues, yet you swam right into the net.

    Hadley uses the tower's dish to relay his reply. ~Have you come to murder me, Lieutenant Darmadi?

    The Atlantis naval officer feigns a hurt expression. His cybernetic eyes are a wrong baby blue that even Hadley knows is out of style. The coffin-sized bridge of an attack midget-sub crowds his background.

    ~I've come to arrest you. You're a sick man, a pervert.

    ~If you believe that
    , I have a beanstalk to sell you.

    A rueful laugh. ~Well, whatever it is you did, must have pissed off the President--or her handlers. It happens. You and Kay come out, and I'll pick you both up. We'll return to Atlantis and figure things out together, all right?

    No reason to blow up a relay tower to kill one man. That's the only reason Hadley's still alive. Hopefully, Darmadi doesn't see the Minnow. Or the power cord.

    The passive sonar reveals four small drones diving, circling. Still linked to the Atlantis network, Hadley triggers a second neural accelerant (the nootropic rush leaves him lightheaded and shivering) and scours its database for anything related to 2050s-era hydrothermal generator safety overrides. Two seconds later--and after a slew of bashed firewalls--he finds what he needs.

    ~We're on our way out, Hadley says as he monitors the drones' progress. Less than a hundred meters away, like birds of prey they swoop on the hatchway, ready to shoot as soon as he appears. To stall, he adds, ~My niece is really hurt. Do you have a medical bay?

    ~We'll take care of her. Just come on out.


    The drones stop and float expectantly at fifty meters. That'll have to do.

    The relay tower is outfitted with a simple shock defense, just enough to discourage any overlarge and over-curious marine life. The circuit is routed through a transformer which dampens the charge to a reasonable voltage. Hadley doesn't want reasonable. He inputs a code into the mainframe. The transformer shuts down.

    The interior should be insulated, but then again, the tower is nearly forty years old. But if the insulation fails, Hadley will never know and therefore he need not worry. With a thought, he activates the defensive grid.

    Seven hundred thousand volts. A muffled pop as fuses are blown, then darkness. No more Web. Hadley retracts his armwire and adjusts his eyes to thermal, rendering the lifeless maintenance room in mechanical blacks and blues that smother residual yellows. Half of Fiji may be without power.

    He works the airlock's small emergency lever with a wired, trembling diligence that doesn't quite ignite into panic. The drones may still be active. If not, the midget-sub will doubtless avenge them with a torpedo barrage.

    With a watery clank, the portal door slides open, and Hadley pushes himself outside, awkwardly banging his peg-leg on the titanium frame. He switches back to light-enhancement: the drones are fried; they drift and sink stiffly like a quartet of petrified mantas.

    Now is not the time for stealthy crawls, so he swims between clumsy hops and hobbles across the rocky undersea terrain. The cold gnaws at him. His tarp is the ludicrous cape of a failed superhero.

    For all his augmented intellect, he laments that he stumbles crippled on an ocean floor, seconds from obliteration. He will die without answers. His only chance now is his stim-cranked, half-dead twelve year old niece.

    He wonders if he dies and she surrenders, would Darmadi let her live? Hadley thought the man was a toady lick-spittle, but he never struck him as a child murderer. On the other hand, Darmadi wouldn't have to worry about any lingering feeling of guilt. There are pharmaceutical solutions for that.

    Hadley crests a boulder and sees in the midnight blue a pale whale coasting towards him. No! he thinks but cannot cry. Run away! Run to Fiji!

    The Minnow veers to starboard and out its open moon pool drops three small pods that glimmer like pearls. A heartbeat, and they erupt into tiny, blazing white suns wreathed in steam.

    As if from nowhere, two torpedoes streak by meters above his head, their bubbly contrails swerving wildly as the homemade ECC beacons' heat and radio noise scrambles their guidance. Something rumbles the earth, and Hadley looks back to witness the relay tower's death throes. Light and frothed water burst the maintenance room and surrounding latticework to tumbling scraps. Only fifty meters away, the tall, pointed spire begins a slow, twisting topple. Towards Hadley.

    Another explosion. Closer. A giant scalding hand slaps Hadley into rocks, and he bounces up dizzy and spinning in an outer space of fire and ice.

    His goggles are shattered, and in the frigid water his bleeding blinks scratch polymer shards against artificial eyes. His skin blazes with agony. His ribs ache; his lung implant shifts loose and wet. He can't quite breathe.

    The pain and fear he shuts off, but he still doesn't know up from down. Through pink fog he watches oceanic pressures stunt nearby blasts to flashy muffles. Void and lights swirl. Shockwaves dance him like a submerged marionette.

    Something sleek and looming slams him in the side, and he slides along smooth, hard ice. A small hand tugs weakly at his shoulder. He reaches out, finds a cold metal bar and pulls.

    The inside of the Minnow is dimly lit and tilted, part-flooded from the open moon pool. Knee-deep in water, eyes red from crying, Kay grabs him in a one-armed hug and with slipping feet tries to drag him aboard. He grips the deck-grates, tugs off his hood and coughs blood. He shuts down his lung implant and hopes that's enough.

    The craft trembles from nearby shockwaves.

    "More torpedoes are on the way!" Kay cries in a helium-shriek as she tosses another beacon into the portal, dramatically, as if spiking an American football. She dumps another one. And another.

    Her bandaged, aching arm leaves her limping Igor-like as she splashes to the cockpit and sits in the pilot seat. The sub's starboard lean quickens the gush through the deck's gaping door.

    "Close the iris!" Hadley shouts high-pitched as ocean smacks him against the bulkhead. The door snap shut. His peg-leg is loose like a tooth, so he doesn't bother standing but rather claws forward and climbs to sit beside his niece.

    He jacks in his armwire, takes control and switches on the evac-pumps, but the cockpit's still half-submerged as the Minnow dives along the northern slope of the volcano. Good thing the controls are waterproof. Through sonar he watches debris from the smashed tower pursue downward like a slow-motion meteor shower. A cluster of smaller dots outpace them, but the beacons do their job. One by one the torpedoes swerve, flash and disappear.

    Hadley waits until they're coasting along one of the Lau Basin's many narrow, twisting canyons, about 3,500 meters down, before deciding they're relatively safe. He takes stock of the situation.

    First or second degree burns, probably. Maybe some broken ribs, internal bleeding. He'll need stitches for his eyelids. As for the sub, the tower's electrical surge damaged the battery, but the charge is enough that they should make it to Fiji if they're careful.

    He powers down until they run all but silent.

    Reclined in the foam chair, Kay's thin legs shiver. Her teeth chatter. Her eyes jitter and weep in the near-darkness. Hadley allows himself the feeling of guilt because he knows he deserves it. The amphetamines must be a nightmare for her young neurochemistry.

    "You saved my life. Thank you," he says and gently ruffles her hair. Then, "I've started our decompression. Your ears may pop for a while, but in a week we'll be ready for normal air pressure. The HPNS-symptoms should subside, and of course we'll stop sounding like chipmunks."

    That last part was intended to be humorous. It doesn't work.

    "What about food?" she asks bleakly. "We're almost out."

    He nods back at the freezer, where his severed leg and Absolon's hand are stored.

    Her helium-laugh is a kitten's sneeze.

    "Haddy, that's gross!"
     
    Last edited: May 28, 2015
    • Like Like x 5
  5. Okay, I'm shocked nobody else has commented.

    Genuinely one of the best cyber-punk type stories I've encountered, already.
    The characters and setting are already very compelling, and the mix of action with exposition is nicely balanced.

    Very impressed, and really enjoyed this.
    Hoping to see this continue!!
     
    • Hugs Hugs x 1
  6. Thanks, I enjoyed writing these. I tried to give both Azra and Hadley's characters distinct voices, and I think I succeeded. I also tried to keep the technology as hard as possible, extrapolating from current day trends to seventy years in the future.

    I have a lot of irons in the fire, but I'm definitely coming back to this one.
     
    • Like Like x 2
  7. This is surprisingly good for how many comments is gotten. The characters are very distinct in their different voices. I look forward to more.
     
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  8. Virch_Walker

    Virch_Walker

    Location:
    None
    I for one appreciate this story so far. The characters are interesting, well-written and the setting is also interesting.

    Consider this watched.
     
    • Hugs Hugs x 1
  9. jenkinrocket

    jenkinrocket

    Location:
    Houston
    I agree. This is bar none one of the best things I've read on the site so far. To put it frankly this is fan-fucking-tastic. I will be reading ALL future updates.
     
    • Hugs Hugs x 1
  10. jenkinrocket

    jenkinrocket

    Location:
    Houston
    Please do :).
     
    • Like Like x 1
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