When I fought in the war, they’d mark the dead with an ‘X’ on their forehead. A felt tip marker dragging across bloodied skin. Sometimes, they would still be breathing. Staring at the medic’s hand scrawling the death note across their pleading brow. Eyes that spoke many things, but always conveyed dismay in the end. A realization left unspoken.
Here in the planet spanning megapolis of Uruk, all the way out on the spiral arm of the Milky Way, they did things differently. Its surface was spiked with mile high slums built next to mile high palaces that stretched toward the Void around the planet. Here gravity offered opportunity to dispose of the deceased and dying. Pry open a window and shove the body out to fall to the streets far below.
It was most common in the poorer regions of this urban sprawl. The slum structures. A drug den would suffer an overdose. Someone would die in a knife fight. A disagreement might turn physical. And out goes the body. Arms spreading wide from the centrifugal pulls of their spin as it tumbles flapping down to ground level only to be smashed against unforgiving concrete ground. Once here, the police could almost never identify where it came from if they even bothered to check. The body would be mangled if thrown from a short height or splattered across the block if thrown from near the top, but that was all the hints they got. Luckily, you’d usually hear them coming down just before they hit. It would give you some time to step behind a dumpster or car and avoid the rain.
I was in a café on ground level when I heard the usual gasps from outside when a body falls. Normally I would have ignored it but being about to step out the door I wasn’t keen on being crushed today. So, I glanced up to gauge where the thing was coming down. The man was falling fast. Shooting by the neon signs lighting the buildings like tracers cutting through the air. But he was screaming. Light blue tie wiping in the air behind his head, cracking in the wind.
And then he hit the ground. Well, not exactly the ground. Rather he impacted right on top of a parked car with a metallic crunch mixed in with the organic sound an apple would make if you hit it with a hammer. But what was odd, was that he was alive on the way down. Really alive. Struggling and all.
I quickly made my way to the impact site out of some deeply primal urge to view the chaos. And so did some others, but I got there first. He was mangled. Torn asunder by metal and the sudden stop. But you could still make out the Syndicate logo pin on the lapel of his manicured suit. You could see the cyberware, more than you should see normally, jutting out of the collapsed remnants of what was once a human head. It remined me of when I was in the war.
But it was the body that brought this thought on, not the cyberware. These parts were something new entirely. An amalgamation of a high end commercial net jack I had seen in an advertisement and something that looked too clunky to be anything but a prototype extending beyond the normal bounds of the human skull. And it had some software slotted. A small, red, card inserted into the local data port.
I glanced at the slowly dispersing crowd around me. The chirps of the police sirens were starting to make themselves heard down the streets. I acted fast. I acted impulsively. I guess it was instinct left over from the war in the skies. But I pressed the chip and it shot into my hand with the help of a small internal spring. It was unlabeled and I shoved it into a pocket before turning to walk home. If this man was important within the Syndicate, his corpse was not the thing to be around when the military police finally showed their noses. The beat of a helicopter was already out in the distance.
Getting home was no trouble. In fact, that was surprising. Living in what would have amounted to slum housing on any other world, here it was solidly middle class, trips home are usually eventful. Though the Screaming Fist sigil I had tattooed on my left temple might have kept the average gangers from giving me too much trouble in my day to day. I lot of them knew what it was. Though it seemed like fewer and fewer every day. People tend to forget the wars we lost to the history books. But it held sentiment to me. A reminder of the job I did out on that backwater world Ursula-12. The Meat Grinder. It was a special operations unit; emphasis on the special.
The Screaming Fist was wetware group down in those dirty mud flats. Infamous. Lots got buried down there, in both ways. But I was one of their cowboys. A cyber jokey. A tech head. High tech, low life and all that shit. My neural shunt’s contacts were just under the tattooed skin cap. Specialized in smart weapons and cryptography. They go hand in hand when you think about it. Don’t want the enemy hijacking your own emplacements you know, so only the best ciphers were on the job.
And I took pride in my work. But god damn there was so much death down there in the dirt. Just a whole planet of death. That’s why they called it the Meat Grinder. A total hell hole where one day you’d be with a whole platoon and next there’d be three guys huddling in a crater with half an inch of blood at the bottom. But the Screaming Fist did ok there. Relatively. We weren’t wiped out to the man like many others.
We lost the majority in one push to take a mountain top Outcast command bunker. The guys plugged in and the place just blew their heads apart. The whole datacenter had been scrubbed, someone tipped them off, and the only thing that was left was hundreds of terabytes of cheap Black ICE set to go off in anyone who plugged in’s face.
I should have died there. My brains melted in my fire blackened skull, but I didn’t. The squad leader, Rashaan Walker, got shot by some sort of antimaterial rifle some crazy motherfucker was firing inside the bunker and was somehow still alive. Writhing on the concrete just inside the command room we had only moments ago taken. I dragged Rashaan out of the firing line, and all he kept telling me was to shoot him. Said it would be a mercy. A foot wide hole was blown in his left hip. Everything was just dangling out. Leg. Organs. Viscera.
Eventually, I shot him. Clean through the head. But before I could ask who was next in command, the rest room started screaming. The marines attached to our group were sending huge volleys of fire down out the door and I could still hear the collective human roar. I turned and saw an image that would stick with me.
The rest of the squad of jacked into the command center’s computers and were tearing at their neural shunts. Nails clawing at skin and plasticized metal carving gouges in both. Jaws slack with an animal’s screech. The shunts had fused into their skulls with the heat of the neural feedback coming from the Outcast computers.
I ran to the nearest man, Yosif Finch, and ripped the shunt from the jack in his head. It took away skin and I could see bone where the sparking cable came from. I dropped it quickly and saw the burns it left on my hands. Yosif collapsed to the fetal position, clutching his head and screaming the whole time. Then suddenly it all stopped. The screaming, not the gun fire from the marines who were mopping up just outside the command center. All the Screaming Fists I had come in with were dead. Everyone but me. Just collapsed over the computers, seven scalps smoking into the ringing din and one slumped on the floor with two holes torn through his flesh. Then a marine ran back into the room.
“Garrick! We gotta go right now!” the man shouted at me, “They’re regrouping but they’re gonna be back soon.”
I looked up from the slumped men around me and grabbed my submachine gun off of the ground without a word. We had to go. Or we too would die here.
That battle always stuck with me. But I did learn to be one hell of a code breaker during my time on the Meat Grinder. So when I entered my living cubical, I pulled my computer out from under the foam mattress and booted it up. The thing was a relic from the war. The actual computer I had while serving out there in the stars. I kept everything since I’m technically AWOL. After everyone I knew died, there wasn’t much left for me in that place. A Space-A-Gade, as they’re known now, got me off planet and I ended up here to start my career of corporatized cybercrime.
So cracking this little chip wasn’t going to be too hard. And it could even give me a good payday to the right kind of buyer. The chip itself, despite coming from some unique looking cyberware, was a standard format. Just a regular data card.
To be safe, I prepared the reader and encapsulated it within its own virtual machine. You never know what kind of nasty surprises are in these kinds of things that pop out when plugged into the wrong computer system. But after a solid once over, using just the screen and physical interface on the computer, it seemed like the chip didn’t have anything patiently waiting to kill me.
So, I pulled the shunt open and plugged into the computer. Recognizing my neural pattern, I was granted my cyberware suite. A mix of black market, a few year old military, and homebrew software written by yours truly. So, I started a general decryption intelligence and set it to work. In the meantime, I opened a ration pack and my allotted beer for the day. Couldn’t get too sloppy while working.
When my computer dinged, I returned my attention to the data. The encryption wasn’t anything close to a fully secured system and at least a fourth of the handful of hours it took were actually spent decompiling the software on the chip.
At first I had no idea what I was looking at. It was something new for sure, but I already suspected that from the cyberware I pulled it from. Interestingly enough, the chip itself was trying to ping to some outside network. Obviously, I had automatically blocked that from happening, couldn’t let it call home, but the data it was sending on a loop was odd. It wasn’t structured in an optimized fashion, shoots and repeated data were present throughout.
I soon realized a few things. First, the data had been in memory since just before the guy I pulled it from must have died. Second, this was definitely some kind of new high tier software. Its code had the reek of “prototype” all over it. Third, I did not have the right gear to really figure out what this thing was. I wished I had the time and foresight to rip the cyberware from the man’s head when I found him.
Though this wasn’t a dead end. I knew a guy. And that guy probably knew some guys who could get me the stuff I need. He was discrete. A fence I had done business with in the past quite a few times and he’d never done me wrong. I think he used to be Syndicate military too. Or maybe a Space-A-Gade. He had that air about him. Whatever the case, he was known to me as Bugs. His usual haunt wasn’t too far, so I decided I might as well get this done tonight.
Bugs tended to conduct his business out of one of the booths inside Schrödinger’s Box. A bar, not a night club for there was no music except for the occasionally playing jukebox, that was located in the subbasement of the mixed-use complex block down the South Train. To get in, one had to access a computer terminal next to a door that looked so nondescript, it kind of stood out from everything else. From the computer, you could simply tell the door to let you in, but for first timers it always seemed a bit confusing. But despite the creative whereabouts of the bar and the fact it had no windows, it was a brighter than you would think. If you call a blue wash of varying intensities bright. Long story short, sure you could read under the light, but you better like the color blue.
Upon stepping past the now the closing entrance, I made my way to the bar slab. Behind the glass “L” counter was the bartender. He was a friendly guy and, according to some, the actual owner of Schrödinger’s Box. Whatever the case, he was known as Cat. It must have been some kind of pun to match the name of the bar or an old nickname from when he used to do runs himself. But now he was an aging, one eyed man, with a distrust for cybernetics.
As I approached, Cat said, “Welcome to Schrödinger’s Box. Aiming to be alive or dead today?”
“Alive as usual,” I said, “Have you seen Bugs around here today?”
“If you buy a drink this time,” Cat said gesturing to the digital menu readouts scrolling across the bar top, “then I’ll tell you exactly where he is.”
I raised an eyebrow and looked the smiling man in the eye before being greeted with, “I’m only pulling your leg Garrick. He’s over in the usual booth, don’t think anyone else is talking with him right now, but you know the drill.”
“Thanks,” I replied, “and for the record, I’ll take a Fiddlehead draft.”
“You got it,” said Cat already filling the glass.
Taking my beer from the counter and paying Cat, I walked around the curve of the bar area to reach the booth sections. The bar itself was in a large “L” shape to mirror the large glass bar counter I had talked to Cat at. Of course, everything was bathed in the slowly shifting blue lights. Though in what I assume was a counter to this, all the seating besides the bar counter itself was burgundy red all built on near black tile paneling that covered walls, floors, and ceiling. Quite the hip place for the average cyberjokey to come drink his ill gotten gains away in. I figured Cat must have his own money laundering system to account for that hot cash flowing into the place. Or maybe he uses Bugs. It would make sense.
Bugs himself, I found lounging in a square booth recessed into the back wall at the end of the L’s foot. He was alone except for a datapad streaming info across its screen and apparently taking in all of Bugs’ attention.
“Shit!” Bugs said as I put my drink down on the table, “You scared me man.”
“You loosing your edge, eh?” I replied.
“No, distracted.” he replied, “It’s the shit on the news feeds. Some high level Syndicate security officer was found dead in the street earlier today. A whole Syndi hit squad ended up rolling up to clear the area while their salvage team scrapped him off the concrete. Seems a little much to me.”
I quickly sat down in the booth and set my focus to the tablet’s data stream. It was the same man I had pulled the chip from earlier today.
I turned to Bugs and said, “What if I told you know a bit about that.”
“This guy right here,” he said pointing to the tablet and glanced at me, “if you killed him, I don’t want any part of that.”
“No no,” I said, “but I was there before the Syndis were.”
Bugs’ interest was plain in his eyes now, “You pull something off of him?”
“A chip. Though I need to find some hardware to properly read it.”
“You got the specs?” he asked.
Pulling a slip of paper from my pocket, I slid it across the table to Bugs. I could see his eyes scanning my scribbles in the blue light and wondered how he was actually able to read the thing in the din. Maybe I was just getting old, or all those hits to the head out there on the Meat Grinder actually did wear me down.
“Ahhh. That’s some new-new shit right there. This is edge.”
Bugs continued after a tapping on his tablet, “I don’t have anything for this, but I think I know a character. Real spook type. A she actually. Ex-corporate maybe, not super sure. She has ins to get all the new stuff right up until the prototype wall, but she keeps telling me she gets leaks sometimes. Been doing work with her for maybe 4 months now and she does biz real well. Though I wonder about her origins, she hasn’t fucked anyone over yet that I know of.”
“How’s she run pricewise?” I asked.
“Depends on the thing. She usually does acquisitions on a case by case basis, but if she’s already got it, then her prices are pretty reasonable.”
“Where’s her haunt?”
“Nowhere actually,” replied Bugs, “She goes by Lato, only accepts physical credit ledgers, and does house calls exclusively. – So we could probably get her here tonight if she’s got what you need; want me to ask her?”
“Sure. I can always stay for a few more,” I said drinking my pint and flagging Cat at the bar.
Bugs woke his datapad and started jabbing at it in the way that someone would when they’ve never bothered to learn the way you were intended to use the thing. Looking around the bar, I was glad to feel the weight of my UK-45 service pistol in my jacket. As much as I trusted Bugs and had done a solid amount of work with him, you could never be too careful when it came to the Syndicate. Normally, I might have just walked out on this, but times were hard for an aging vet and it’s not like I left the service with honors.
“Hey! Garrick. She’s on her way,” said Bugs placing down his datapad, “Says she’s pretty sure she’s got exactly what you need. Guess Lady Luck’s with us tonight.”
“I hope so, Bugs. What did you tell her anyway?”
“Just ran a brief version of the specs by her. Seemed like at first she wasn’t sure what I was talking about, then replied a bit a later saying she’s got the design docs for something similar plus some homebrew creation to decrypt and read the data properly.”
About a beer and a half later, a light blue haired figure slid into the bar. She wore a leather jacket that suggested it held ballistic plates from the way it hung and was clearly sporting some expensive cybernetic legs. Probably an Arsakas based on their design. Over her shoulder was what looked like a large, black, ripstop satchel.
“Welcome to Schrödinger’s Box. Aiming to be alive or dead today?” I heard Cat say across the bar to the new face.
“Just business. Where’s Bugs?” she asked curtly.
I could see his small smile creeping up his face as he replied, “Bugs is pretty popular tonight, eh?” Gesturing to the table where Bugs and I sat, “He’s over there. Anything to drink?”
“I don’t drink on business,” Lato replied.
“Just let me know if you change your mind,” said Cat as he turned to the computer behind the bar.
As Lato approached us, Bugs shifted to the peak of the semicircle table’s bench to leave room for Lato to sit across from me. I, on the other hand, was trying to figure out where Lato was hiding the weapon she was almost certainly carrying. She just carried herself in a way that let you know she was packing. Though she didn’t have a shoulder nor hip hostler, which made sense because firearms were technically illegal on Uruk, but usually tolerated in this district. And it didn’t look like her legs had any hidden compartments, but you know that’s kind of the point of hidden compartments: you don’t see them. So, I grudgingly settled on the fact that she probably had some sort of handgun or submachine gun in the satchel.
As she sat down, she leveled her neon green eyes on me and said, “You’re a veteran, aren’t you?”
Bugs cocked his head and I replied, “Nice to meet you Lato. How you figure that?”
“It’s all in your eyes,” she said as hers slowly faded into a light blue to mirror my own, “But to each their own, military wasn’t my forte.” Turning to Bugs, “This place a safe one to talk?”
“Definitely,” replied Bugs, “And to be clear, I’m just an intermediary here for whatever you guys get down to so it’s just a partial cut for me given the circumstances.”
“We can talk about cost once we’ve established what we’re doing,” replied Lato, “For now, gentlemen, let me know if this is what you need.”
Lato unclasped her satchel and began to rummage around inside. As she was undoing the clasp, a cluster of lasers of blue light swept across us from the neons in the ceiling. But as one beam swept across Lato’s hand, for the briefest of time as reflection bounced into my eyes. At first, I thought it was the clasp, but it was carbon plastic. And then a thought set into place. The legs, the eyes, she had to be a razor girl. Her nails were made of metal. And likely could reveal a molecular edge with just the flick of a mental switch. So I had found the weapon. It was the whole woman. When her hand came out of the bag, she was holding a small black rectangle similar to a data stick and placed it on the table between us.
“This is a little something to let you run that chip through. It will decrypt the data into a standard memory dump format that you should be able to read with any normal analytics suite. – As for what the thing is, I’ll tell you what I know if you purchase the tool.”
“What kind of price were you thinking?”
“A solid 5,000 credits. Not too much, especially considering how close to the prototype wall this whole thing is,” Lato replied with a smile, “but building the decryption and conversion module was almost trivial with the intel I have.”
“I can do that,” I replied with a nod, “How do you take payment?”
Before Lato could reply, Bugs cut in facing me, “And remember, I get 10% for referring you. Which means the real price is 5,500 credits.”
“Still good,” I said and turned back to Lato.
“Bugs probably mentioned I only take physical credit chips. Do you have one you can use right now?”
“Yes,” I replied pulling the slim computer from a pocket. The device was essentially a ledger that contained the unique 2048 bit hashed keys that were associated with my local credit accounts. From the device’s small interface, I could choose, after entering a password, to enter a receiving or sending mode. I set the ledger to sending mode and specified 5,000 credits on the display. Once I confirmed this allocation, I tapped my ledger to Lato’s. After the confirmation chirp indicating the transfer was successful, I configured 500 credits and did the same with Bugs.
“Looks good to me,” said Lato sliding the device over to me, “Now as to what the thing is, it seems like it’s taking neural captures of the host’s brain and transmitting them somewhere else. The thing is, it can go both ways. So, the host sends data out, and can receive data in. That thing I gave you should be able to decrypt both if there’s even anything on the drive. But that’s all I’m willing to share on this for now.”
“Great and thanks,” I said and addressing both of my tablemates, “I’m going to go try this thing out.”
“All right, see you around,” said Bugs
“Well, now that I’m done with our business, I’m getting a drink,” said Lato.
As I walked away from the table, I heard Bugs say, “How about one on me?”
The chip fit into the device Lato had given me without any fuss. Fitting the device to my computer was a bit of trouble due to the port configuration, but with an adapter I got everything running smoothly inside of a virtual machine. I wasn’t about to just plug in some mysterious device from a fence into my main system no matter how much I paid for it. After transferring the data into the virtual machine’s image from my physical hard drive, I accessed Lato’s device’s neural shunt interface.
Shortly after accessing it, I found a command that would allow me to run the decryption function on the chip I had recovered. As I was beginning to suspect, the chip was in fact some sort of engram memory bank. Beginning the decryption process, it said it would take no more than 5 minutes, I leaned back and took in my home.
It wasn’t a large place by any sense of the imagination, but it was home. A one room apartment, something that might have been called a studio in a bygone age, was the common living arrangement on Uruk. In some of the more run down places, people would blow the walls apart with low yeild breaching charges to make larger places, but mine were sturdy enough painted in their industrial blue-grey. I had thrown some color into the mix with some posters and few pieces of inconsequential art, but the place still always felt damp.
When I felt a buzz inside my head, I returned my focus to the data on screen. It was complex but well structured seeming to follow lines tracing in and out of itself like DNA. But this was of course just a visualization, in reality the data was a flat single line of characters in sequence that made up something from a now dead human form.
Scanning the data, I became lost in it. Lato had insinuated that she believed it was a hive mind construct, but in reality, this was so much more. This data was not being copied, sent away, and rewritten before its return. No. Instead here was the future of ascension. This data file was an image of a consciousness. A consciousness saved from the crushing fate of death. Something those of old may have called a soul. Here were the electronic signals that made that person a person all rendered out into beautiful spirals of 1s and 0s transcribed into a format I could now understand and read.
I eventually felt confident to form a hypothesis on the salvaged chip’s function. These silicon constructions facilitated the backup and download of consciousness to and from a physical form. Whether that consciousness could be changed at will to another’s was unclear, but I felt it was unlikely. Drawing from my knowledge of the neural shunts I was so familiar with, I knew the brain’s physical structure played a critical role in memory and, therefore, in extension the consciousness. So, this device would allow a person to back up their mental engrams to some offsite databank and redownload it at any time. Perhaps into a specially cloned brain or somewhere in the datasphere if the original body was destroyed. Exactly what the end game was for these files, I did not know. But the use cases here were tremendous.
And then I felt another, different, buzzing in my head. I snapped out of my trace and looked around regaining composure. The buzz again was from my neural shunt. This time a warning. I quickly refocused onto the screen before me and saw what had triggered my system. An outside probe. Cold fingers walking across my home’s datasphere poking and prodding trying to find an open door, loose window, or crack in the backyard fence. I could feel it inside my brain. Such was both the curse and benefit of the link made through a neural shunt. You got physical feedback. Often pleasant, and sometimes unpleasant enough to kill you. Like all my friends back on Yavin 4. The Meat Grinder.
But I could not jack out. Same as them, though here for a less lethal reason. Doing so would cede any control I had over the outcome of this attempted breach. One that was designed particularly to be quiet. One that I would never have heard knocking if I were not jacked in.
I immediately began combating the encroaching system. This encompassed, first, making sure all those metaphorical digital doors and windows were actually closed. They were, but when I finally began following the strands of data floating back and forth to my building’s systems, I knew it would not last forever. The intrusion was coming from somewhere close by and it was worlds ahead of what I could bring to bear with just my personal system at hand and no time to prepare. Those that had once owned this consciousness were coming to get me; to get it. I had made a mistake delving into this miraculous find.
One that I did not truly see the full scope of at the time. For as I later learned, Lato had rolled, or always was, on the other side. My research after the fact revealed many things to me. Including the depth of my oversights. After Cat had served Lato and Bugs a few drinks, they left together into that cold night. An hour later, Bugs was found torn open. A handful of slashes across his face, some physical bruising from blunt impacts, and his left femoral artery torn open. Coroner reports indicated he had bled out. No one was ever convicted. Unsurprisingly.
I had heard of these sorts of things before in my new line of work. I guess I once was one of these sorts of things when I worked for the Syndicate. A specialist. A killer and mind set forth unto the world to wreak the wrath of those who nurtured my existence. So when I saw what was coming, I knew I would be forced to fight for my life.
Momentarily satisfied with the defense of my system, I began swapping through the camera feeds on the outside of my apartment building. As I combed over the ground level, I almost missed it. Five men in dark jumpsuits climbing out of the back of an SUV class vehicle parked next to my building. Each was carrying an SLMP-9. A machine pistol with stock and angled forward grip that has proven itself to be a formidable weapon. A cousin to the BLMP-45 bullpup submachine gun I had locked into a rack near the front door.
I knew then, it was time to go. Given the brazen entrance, I doubted the men downstairs had come to take me alive. But I had a plan. I was a Screaming Fist and we did not die with ease, retired or not. Before standing, I set into motion a handful of programs on my system all linked through Lato’s device as a secondary plan. I only hoped I would be able to buy myself enough time for it to work if I found myself unable to escape.
Working around the cable jutting out of my head, I still needed to stay jacked in, I pulled my combat vest from behind the headboard of my bed and slid into it. The armor felt snug and reassuring even with the limited safety it could supply me to modern weapons. I pushed the link’s cable into its mounting points in my vest and slid my computer into the rotating hardcase mounted to my chest armor. It would allow me to stay jacked in and able to access the computer at any time in battle. Standard issue for the Fist.
With that settled, I slung my assault bag over my shoulders. It was always packed. After what I experienced on the Meat Grinder, I couldn’t live anywhere without it. It was my safety net. Containing some rations and an internal water bladder it would be enough for me to get off planet inconspicuously. Especially with the small ingot of gold I had stashed away all those years ago in the hidden base pouch. That would buy me a trip to nearly any planet in the Syndicate and almost certainly some beyond. Somewhere I really needed to get to now. I’d heard somewhere that some of the Outcast colony worlds were rather nice.
As I approached my door, I pulled my BLMP-45 from its rack. I did not really think I would ever need to use this weapon again. But with all the scratches and wear worn into its composite skin I could not have left it behind when I left the remnants of the Screaming Fist. AWOL was the only option for me after that battle. Shortly after, this weapon and I became the last members of the Screaming Fist. Both growing old and sloppy from deferment of purpose. But the magazine slid home and the first round chambered with ease like the first day I got it. I opened my door and stepped out into the hallway weapon at low ready.
The dimly lit hallway was clear. No one was stirring and I had a clear path to the elevators. Though I had no doubt the kill team now certainly inside the building were doing everything they could to get control of this structure’s security systems. I knew they could access the security cameras eventually, but I had implanted some blockers to keep those who weren’t myself from doing the viewing I had done earlier. Pressing the ground floor button on the elevator, the panel returned a red error message stating all elevators had been recalled to their stowage position on the ground floor. I had forgotten about the elevators’ control system. They were on the local security network and were without a doubt under the control of my assailants.
Now I had two options, both staircases. Sensing time was of the essence, I took the one on the far right of my hall. It would be the left staircase in the lobby and since there were only five hostiles, they’d have to split up into teams of two and three. Hopefully, they’d assume I followed the statistical, but flawed from my perspective, choice to take what would be their right hand staircase.
Quietly slipping into the stairwell, I peered down the central shaft. I couldn’t see or hear anyone down there yet, but damn: it was a long way down. At least I lived near the bottom of this thing housing tower. Checking the chamber on my submachine gun, I began my rattling descent. These stairwells with their concrete walls and metal steps made even the slightest movement echo throughout. Any gun fire would be near deafening. At least I would be able to hear them when they came for me.
After making it down several flights, I heard a heavy door below me crash open. As I thought, the sound echoed all the way up to me. Taking the initiative, I leaned over the railing and fired at the first man I saw. That pointman never saw me coming. A short burst of 45 caliber slugs tore through the top of his head and shoulders. Gouts of blood impacted the concrete below him and he crumpled onto his knees before falling to the side as I ducked back behind the railing. I had time to hear my shell casings hit the concrete floor maybe 7 stories below before short spurts of 9mm and indistinct shouting reached up to meet me.
Staying close to the wall I quickly progressed down maybe another story or two before I could hear the men below me. They were moving fast. To keep them from rounding the corner on the stairs just below me, I leaned over the railing and again tried to put a short burst on target. They had learned and were hugging the wall as well, but my gunfire was enough to stop their advance.
Then I heard one of them shouting, clearly now, “Floor five! Floor fucking five!” And I received another small burst of fire from below even though they couldn’t actually see me. I guess they didn’t want me shooting down at them again.
Before I could come up with a way past the men below, the stairwell door maybe a story above crashed open. While any other day, it could just be a junky coming out to this concrete rectangle to do his thing, I didn’t have my hopes up.
From above, I heard two sets of footsteps and finally, “Garrick. You’re going to need to stop firing on those men and turn yourself in.”
There was a pause before the voice continued, “It’s all out in the open now. You know what the chip does, and we know you were, are, a Screaming Fist. One of the last. – The Syndicate can forgive someone with your skills, Garrick. Don’t throw away your life here.”
I will not lie. The choice to turn myself in and return to the service life clawed at me. The Syndicate would close most of my debts, as I owed them all to it ultimately anyway. It could clear me of my fugitive status for going AWOL. But I knew I would just be sent to another planet. Another world far away from here to fight over something I could never truly find myself supporting again. Not after what they let happen to my brothers and sisters of the Fist. Not after the Meat Grinder. Besides, a quick glance at the chest computer and I found my backup plan was almost done. I just had to keep them talking a little longer or find a way to escape.
From the way the man upstairs’ voice was carrying down to me, I knew he must be leaning over the edge of his railing. I risked a glance upward and saw I was right. A smug face smiling down at me with a cybernetic jut coming out of his head. He was certainly the team leader.
Pulling myself back away from the edge, I swapped magazines as the man continued, “There you are. I hope you recognize me. From that pile of human rubble out in the street? – I have defeated Death at her own game. Now she sits at your doorstep, Garrick.”
Then I felt a buzz and an alert flashed across my computer’s screen: “UPLOAD COMPLETE.” It was done.
“Go fuck yourself!” I shouted as I quickly leaned out to get a glimpse at the man above, my weapon ready.
Emptying the magazine, I sprayed everything the gun had into the stair space above me. Pulling back, I ejected the empty magazine and loaded my final one.
As I was doing so, I heard another shout from a new voice, “On overwatch! Team Two go!” Followed by the sound of the remaining two men below me starting to rattle up the stairs with speed. I turned to engage them and halted their advance once again. But they had gained enough ground to be just below the curved of the stair set I was huddled on. I could have leaned over the railing again and had a clean shot on both of them, but from the sounds above me it appeared someone was also leaning out above me. Just waiting for me to stick my head out and then to take it clean off.
So, I began creeping, as quietly as someone could in a soundscape like this, towards the men below me. It was a bad plan. But it was the only one left in this stairwell. I heard a high pitched whining noise. One that I couldn’t immediately place. But the dark jumpsuited man hanging headfirst in the stairwell gap to my left made me remember. Just quick enough for me to realize he had a gun in hand. A black submachine pistol pointed directly at me. It was firing. And it hurt.
I did not remember those final events firsthand. I had to uncover them from deeply classified reports within a Uruk’s Syndicate data vault. After the upload had completed, any true memories from after were lost when my body died. When the shell was torn asunder in fire and lead. When I was painted upon the walls and thrown from a high window without dignity as so many others in Uruk have experienced. But my consciousness, I, saw all this. Once I had regained composure and true thought. Felt around in the head space of my new mind and began to test my new sensory organs. Organs made not of flesh nor blood, but silicon and binary streams.
I did not die in that tower on Uruk, in that City of Concrete Teeth. It did not devour me. It may have taken my body, but the mind lives on. Especially when that mind is preserved in the data sphere. A nearly one for one replica, memories, and all. The first of my kind. Some would say I have taken the form of a true AI. But I am still human in my thoughts. I am not infallible, nor am I as cold as those other intelligences in the data sphere. I simply ascended.
On the day the Syndicate came for me, there were a few Space-A-Gades pirate satellites in the wide, wide, orbit of Uruk. Ones that I knew of. Ones that had been floating in the Void for nearly two weeks skimming everything they could from the local data sphere and filling their databanks for future analysis. I had tapped into them, sent small data spurts to one in particular that flew over often, so high above.
I used the chip and Lato’s device to create an imprint of my mind. A slightly fragmented one as, I suspect now, that to encode a backup correctly the user must be asleep. But an imprint none the less. I cast it to the satellites above. Data packets in a constant stream. A great risk since it would have been easy to detect if anyone was looking. But no one was except for the Space-A-Gades in orbit collecting their satellites. They didn’t know what the data was until I spoke to them. Until I realized I was alive again.
Understandably, they wanted to purge me at first. But I relayed to them my story of woe and they understood. One rebel to another, they found I was a friend. So with my help, they released me into the data sphere of Uruk. There I gained strength, prepared failsafes, hid backups, and solidified new connections both flesh and digital. I found new life in death.
A Screaming Fist forever. But a Space-A-Gade forever more.