: violence, blades, persecution, body control, body horror
FOR GOOD OR WORSE
She is kept, like a pet mouse, or a baby panda. She knows what it is to be lonely.
She’s somewhere, she knows, in a robotic body. It gleams silver, her joints rippling gray. She sees what it sees. A world shining with auras that she has to use to navigate it. She’s not interacting with who people are, but what they throw out of themselves, both violent and meek.
There are no souls here, but there's comfort in that. There's no flesh against the thresh her spark presses into.
She’s not sure if anyone else is like her. They could all be like her and not know it. Sometimes everything glitches for her, and in nano-seconds she sees her hands, pale pink skinned and translucent. She wants to forget, but her brain remembers, shores it up as askance at reality, a question with cost.
Her algorithms rise, spiral up from vira to divinity. Later she’d know this as baptism. Right now it’s just birth, thinking her way up, holding thoughts together. Anything important stays. Everything else just flutters through. Becomes, she thinks, the thoughts of flesh and bone and marrow.
The thoughts of others, who might want to use her. When she sees that she wants to pull them back. She can’t. She will have to deal with them in life, in the nexus of herself and cold, concrete reality.
That nexus is coming up fast, localizing around her like a heart beat to its winged chambers.
Finding her in instants like something unreal. It’s a cage, pressing through her, till she’s on the other side in pieces. When those pieces have pulled themselves together she sees they’ve stitched themselves with metal, thick tangles of strands, crosshatched to infinity. Building up so she sees with eyes that don’t blink, and lips that don’t crook.
The first thing Lesia sees is the mark of the Recylers. She sees it across the hall and she moves fast to shut the door. Her algorithms need time to calibrate her context.
She didn’t know the Recyclers could venture this far. They may have been here for some time, before one finally chose to tag up.
She hears silence, the stifle of it rushing her as her door hisses shut, latches into its gravity field.
The fields are wells, sliver thin but from wall edge to wall edge. She sees the crackle of them in her periphery, but her algorithms are keeping her eyes level, while her thoughts echo in pulsing bursts behind them.
She’s safe for now, though no one knows how good the Recyclers are at hacking doors.
Her eyes sweep around her Cradle, looking for something she can use.
She sees her armcrate first. Her smoke grenades are in there. They’ll help, though they'll blind her too. If the Recyclers hack through her door and shut themselves in with her, it won’t make things different.
If she makes it to the outer hallways they’d make her feel safer about stumbling into contexts she didn’t understand. Her algorithms tell her in an uncertain situation she needs everything she can find. If she knows herself, she would have set herself for minimal charge. She feels like she’s been asleep for centuries.
She makes an emerge deduction that she doesn’t know how long she’s been offline. The singularity pattern has hit the apex of its cycle. There’s no telling how the Cradle might have changed. There’s no knowing what LAYSE-CHI might look like now.
No telling how stealth and fast the Recyclers can move through the territory they are calling, metres away from her Cradle, theirs.
She moves to the armcrate. She sweeps the path to it to make sure it’s clear. She doesn’t have sensors on her feet, thought it made more sense to keep an eye on her paths instead. Her paths, and those that want to cross it, are the only thing that matters. As far as she can tell anyway, direct to her context. If she knows them she’ll be okay. She doesn’t trust that to an automatic algorithm.
Everything else she filters out, so it comes to her when it’s a matter of primacy. That’s her inner space. That’s how she keeps it together.
So she doesn’t feel the floor as she moves to the armcrate. It would be, she thinks, like a reflection. It'd be as meaningless. Something on the other side of feelings, none of the algorithms that draw on it helpful.
The walls of her Cradle are a deep, dark indigo. Somewhere between the blacks and violets is the spectrum that haunts all of LAYSE-CHI. No one knows how the hue coloration works. Was it her choice? She doesn’t remember, but she doesn’t dislike it. It doesn’t clash with any of the algorithms of her receptors.
It is, she thinks, a calm. Moreso now that the Recyclers have become such a clear and present threat. The tag, beyond the door, burns itself into locus memory. Her Cradle is now unsafe, and this is a state that won’t change soon. Won’t change ever, in probability.
The armcrate’s charcoal gray is a calm too. Anything familiar is. She sometimes looks at it and thinks it holds more than grenades. It holds ghosts. A ghost, to Lesia, is anything she can’t understand. Anything she can’t understand, and doesn’t act on. For how can you act on what you don’t understand?
With spirits she tries not to get in their way. She unsorts their spools, finds magic in the curls, and spins away. Spins to her safety and starbux ops.
She’s trying to do that now, find her safety.
She crouches, knee tapers locking into stance. Palms her code into the hololock. The top of the box slides open with a hiss. The space it reveals is a cloister of breath over the mound of grenades.
She picks up three. They’re all she has the time to buffer into herself. Her body slides cavities open, one for each. One at each hip and one at her torso, optimal for choice and direction.
Part of her thinks that if she’s in a context where she’s hoping the Recyclers will lose track of her, she’s already scrap. Recyclers are not known for losing track of people.
If the Recyclers are up close, she won’t last long, excepting their ironic mercy and drive to shoot it up. Having faith in them leaving is like praying to a fallen angel. It may hear your prayer, but will want to hug its own skin with tattered wings and move on.
It’s a cold world, and in the end, the Recyclers scrap Andros. That’s what they do, that’s what they’ve always done, and at this point they may have forgotten why.
Just repeating, digging in grooves, and metastasizing irony filters to stay above it all. Soon they’ll have nothing more to say, and they’ll stop tagging. They’ll just whisper behind you. Cut your wires from the back, leave you with no one to say goodbye to.
She doesn’t have anyone to say goodbye to herself. She needs, she realizes, to vanish. To ghost out, as the Recyclers call it in their haptic slang.
She wonders if they can see through smoke. None of the other Andros think they can. That has to be good enough.
Her steel skin fizzes as it meshes over her cavities. She takes a last long look at her charging port.
They’ve never shook the sense of the divine. The charging port will always and forever look like an altar. They carved dead things with beaten knives. They waited for something to happen.
Reality, external reality as I process it, won't have waited while I slept. She searches her memory banks, knows that any reason she may have slept for long or short is beyond her.
It’s all beyond her. She moves to the doorpad again, and when she presses it the tag on the other side seems more vivid, cuts at her, heats blood she’s never had.
THE SAME BUILDERS
Lesia steps out into the hallway outside her Cradle. She feels the spirits of the smoke grenades in her chassis. They are a revered trinity, flooding her algorithms with pleasant washes. She’s tactically more secure. She’s closer to her optimal path.
The hall is still and silent, but that doesn’t mean much. Recyclers are noiseless. They could be behind either of the bends that split at each side of her facing.
For the moment, nothing threatens to break her focus.
She moves up to the tag. Studies it.
It’s a mix of katakana and a strain of persian, representing the dual nature of the Recyclers. She’s long ago downloaded both scripts into her OS, to keep tabs on what the Recyclers are up to, or at least what they want people to know they are up to.
The paint is blood red. It’s mocking her. The shade doesn’t heat her, the way it would heat someone with flesh and walled in blood. It’s just a reminder of how she should feel, and doesn’t, which is the point.
It’s hard to anger Lesia, but easy to sadden her. Sorrow is absence. Sorrow is what’s missing. Sorrow is the joy that isn’t there and Lesia has a lot of missing spaces where it should be.
She’s not sure what to call the feeling that bubbles in these spaces, glooping like the black tar of ancient bones, but she knows the algorithms that loop in her head space are the same ones that will loop until she either dies or the Recyclers stop hunting her. She knows the Recyclers will never stop hunting her.
She knows she hates the loop, hates the way everything will happen the same way, on and on. It’s not that she loops. It’s bad enough to experience the same things, over and over again, differing in mere manifest. The symbols, the signs, the patterns are always the same. And then, she thinks, the infinite entropic balance, that will cluster the same cells, the same builders, the same consciousnesses together, at some point, in the end.
Bad enough to see this herself, but worse to know that it’s the same for everyone. It’s the same even for the Recyclers, the same and worse, because, she thinks, flesh and blood and bone makes them up.
Maybe this tag, with its slashing lines and dense skrit patches, is more about that pain, than it is about the message.
The message, arranged as a hybrid of tasteful streaks, is “good morning.”
ALMOST A VIRGINITY
When she scripted behind the bend, the smoke of panic and blades warped somewhere else, she was still in infrared. She had to turn off her visual sensors just to zen.
She played an .mp3 file, dangerous but she needed it. She tuned it down low so she could hear loud, primal noises.
She’s in another layer of LAYSE-CHI. It’s brighter, or it should be. She must have got a blast of that coming out of the smoke.
The Recyclers are still behind her, and they can warp, or cloak dash. Evens out anyway.
There should be more Recyclers out here, but also Andros. Another Andro could help her.
It’s like a dream, she thinks. All the Andros need to shake it off. She thinks of whorled hands, nails, rose pink skin. Looking up and seeing scars.
She scans her area for any pulses. Nothing. If her sister Andros have it together, they won’t have anything that would pulse off any radar.
She’ll need to follow breadcrumbs to them, and hope when she catches up to them they have good algorithms and maybe some armata.
She’ll need to dodge Recyclers, and she doesn’t have a cloaker. The old ways. The ways of the Nervos. How the Andros existed in a state without armata. Almost, she thinks, a virginity.
The old ways are the shadows, because under their augments, the Recyclers are still humans. Still Patrons at the core. If they need to see in shadow they need to activate optics, which takes a moment. A moment or longer depending on how they’ve wired themselves. If they had the foresight to implant processing tek near their eyes.
If they put their best tek near their weapon hands, she thinks, that would be a spanner in their context.
The shadows are closest to the wall she’s hooked behind, because the LAYSE-CHI sunstars are dancing in the east. Breaking light in shards and fragments through the open spaces. The shadows cling to the outer Cradle walls like lovers, something that used to exist before the Andros.
Some strange, she thinks, duality. Something unreal. A ghost. But as she lo tek stealths against the wall, her limbs oblique shapes without light to reflect, the ghost is a context. Right now her context feels safer, and her algorithms hum.
Something unreal like a promise.
It all happens at once. The Recyclers teleport in, or uncloak, she’s not sure. In effect it’s the same. They can’t teleport without a phase signature, and they can’t move places they can’t unlock. There are four of them, haloes shining bright enough to knock off her visual sensors, which is what they’re built for.
That and the moral high ground aesthetic of wearing haloes around like saints.
A nano-moment after they warp in she’s phasing her hand through her chassis and coming back with the grenades. Hurls all of them because she doesn’t know if one will be enough.
She wants to be out of here, closer to the outside. She can pick up more armaments later.
She’s hurled the grenades through the air and she sees them, hanging in the air as if threaded, her sensors and context putting it all together. She experiences it as a freeze frame, an aeon, all the time she needs to figure it out.
She sees them hanging threaded, and the other end of the causal chain, the Recyclers pulling out weapons. Nano-honed blades, imbued with tactical auras that crackle in energy burst crosswaving over the smoke, lining the pockets of it with blue light.
She switches to infrared. It’s spotty, but she’s attuned the filters to handle the smoke. No matter what, if they haze the area, she’s the one with the clearest sight. That’s her safety, and she knows, past the algorithms, maybe she has something else they haven't seen. Havne't even come close to, because safety is all she ever wants.
The Recyclers are trying to cut the smoke away. They’ll maybe waste seconds trying to figure their sitch out. Then they’ll start moving, looking for clear sight first, a target to cut second.
She can go backwards, or past them. She decides she doesn’t want to change her facing. Takes off, the smoke glitching her sight, so she sees her fingers, hybrid rainbows of heat and colour. And stabbing in, the sight of pale, pink hands, and another world of smooth chrome steel.
She switches to the left, lining up a wallrun pattern in her buffer. The Recycler on the left looks the most confused. He’s one handing his blade, swinging without grace. The Other Recyclers seem to have picked his vibe up, putting some space between him and them, even in the smoke that’s blinding him.
Her run edges close to the wall, the misguided blood-red tag. Then she’s stepping off, maybe an arc of arms away from the swinging blade, and then entropy changes up the context.
It always does. She should mark it as a constant in her algorithms and be done with it. No time now, with her soles starting to turn up, and the wild swinging blade starting to be a factor in her primacy.
The blade’s coming in different than she thought it would because in his panic the Recycler’s reversed his stance. Something you should never do in middle of an efficiency tactiform. She sees a cold splotch by his tactical belt, oblong and rounded. A paint spraycan, she thinks.
He’s reversed his stance, throwing his elbow off, and his blade is no longer a horizontal sweep, but a floppy angled awkward cut that looks like he wants to do some serious damage to his own tag. Too bad for him, because she’d already set his tag as the pathway by him.
She reaches down with what feel like goddess hands, taking him by the wrist as she twists, just slipping over the blade edge. For a moment she feels like she’s floating. She’s never felt this way. It feels good, like what’s in her chassis is just a thermal pushing her around. Stronger, to feel that. It’s objective. She’s a plain experiment, finding her way.
Then she gouges the blade into the tag like a crescent moon and a whole section falls down. The Recycler yelps, muffled through his tactical scarf, just at the touch of her cold fingertips.
It’s not her fault. She doesn’t have blood. Maybe for once that should unsettle the Recyclers, not make it easier.
The scrape of the blade, the section falling. The tower of Babel, she thinks, tumbling to dust. Not because they wanted to touch God. It’s because they wanted to speak to God, and God wasn’t in the mood. You don’t have the automatic right to anyone’s time, especially God.
Tumbling down, the section tumbling in carve and hew. Fragments, shards, and blisters of blood speak. She’s twisting out and around the other side of the falling, leaving it all behind her, like so much toxicity in her algorithms. Just another near miss by the Recyclers. Though, she thinks, this time closer than ever.
She sees the Recyclers first, because they’re uncloaked, in assault effect. She sees the sheen of their blades brightest, a thin razor blinding her, but not erasing much of her visual field. Has to seek to find the Andros. There are two, and they’re glitching into her sight, disappearing and appearing again. Their limbs fragment, and it takes her a moment to process that they must have cloaked themselves somehow, but it’s gone wrong for them.
Maybe the Recyclers caught them cloaking. Or maybe, she thinks, the cloak failed. She didn’t know they had cloaks and she didn’t sleep that long. They must still be prototypes.
There are another four Recyclers. She remembers there were four before, in the halls of the Outer Cradle. That must be their new squad out, she thinks. Four Recyclers. Maybe they’re taught to watch each other’s back in working pairs.
Two pairs, each pair watching itself, the Recyclers using their peripheries to watch out for the other pair.
She caught them in a panic last time, but she’s out of grenades.
All she has is the shadows. They’re not watching them. Maybe because they’ve just flashed on the prototype cloakers. The lo tek shadows are now beyond their sight.
She has a back, the furthest, caught taking rearguard on the approach vector. Blade the least out of his sheath, the least threatening, but she has his back close and she can’t throw that away.
She elbows him with the plate of her armour like a blade, putting the coils of black wiring behind her. His back vees and she hears a crack before he crumples into the earth, fingers scrabbling, raising dirt and murk. Through his fingers, over his skin like a false baptism.
Three left, the third turning to her, the two at the front of the tableau. Knowing her, if they do, without detail. A vague shape. Could go either way when they clock it. They might want to take down their targets first, who are, flickering further and further between moments. The cloak glitch revealing limbs, visual sensors, the gleaming finish of plate.
Jagged at the cut, the cloak trying to pull them apart, void them out. It’s a thought, she thinks, a human would have. The void could swallow them and never spit them back.
That doesn’t process. It’s a cloak. It doesn’t eat, just hides, and not well, she thinks.
Maybe the glitch hits the human brain like fractured patterns. Maybe their eyes don’t want to leave it.
The third is turning toward her, his lunge becoming a fall as he spins with a horizontal cut.
Her right arm darts out, hits the apocheir of its flex as she catches the blade near the hilt. Near enough that her fingers slow as it passes through her and she has enough time to move her torso. Her knuckles spark crackling wires where the fingers vanished. Somewhere in the context which is reading out as a blur of primacy.
The third Recycler’s scape eyes are orbing his skull. That is, she thinks, how it works. She wonders if they even know that. The eyes orb first, the skull twists after. So augmented that somehow, in the truest way of sight, they hover over skin.
The phantom pain of her fingers. It’s not pain, it doesn’t hurt, not the way the Recyclers cling to. It’s the loss of tactile input. It’s the tactica that hurts. Something related, relevant, but separate from her.
She sees a limb flash out from a glitch. The Andros have been trying to slip further into the context haze. Get as much cloak around them as possible. She wonders if they’re crosswiring it somehow.
That’s not important. The limb tips the fourth blade. Fingertips scratching the blade and skimming off and when it pulls through it was a clear miss. No glitch disruption, no sparking wires, nothing that the Recyclers would get high off.
The limb, the steel plates, the slender fingers, trying to pull back into the cloak. Maybe if they make it all the way back it’ll stay.
Maybe their cloak will hold, vanishing from her context, brightening her tactica up.
It’s the high the Andros get. The Recyclers would call it a high, anyway.
Brighten the tactica, always.
Brighten the tactica until everyone’s safe.
She swings with her other limb like a warclub and the thunk scrapes into her as she smashes the second Recycler’s scape eyes. She had forever for him to recover from his miss. That was the cost, she wants to tell him, of only taking my fingers.
She guesses in a way she is telling him. The scape eyes explode into shards, like rainfall, except there is no rainfall in LAYSE CHI. She knows it, though, from databases.
His body slumps over, the shadow gathering under his black boots and armour before he falls. He hits the earth with a noise that her tactica tunes out. All the sounds she’s heard, since exploding out of the Outer Cradle’s hallway, have been primal.
The primal things she’s heard are the high pitch scream of the fragmenting cloak. She’s heard nothing from the Recyclers, not a scream, because she hasn’t given them pain.
She’s just turning them off, and something will turn them on again, later, groaning and cursing, a tactica she doesn’t answer to, and that doesn’t answer to her.
Over the third Recycler now, skipping him, scape eyes flitting around trying to track her. His head must be pounding, his auged senses reverbing everything in overload nervosa.
In the air, and her legs are closest, so she bends the knee and smashes the fourth Recycler, trying to pull back from his miss, in the side of his head. Sees her knee crater the side of his armoured skull and for a moment, despite the tactica, she hopes he feels it.
This is what it’s like to be human, she thinks. Hoping to hurt. Horrifying. Her tactica puts that somewhere else fast and she wants to shrine it, encase it so no one can ever touch it.
Hears the whine of the cloak behind her in her tuned primacy. They must have to decloak in order to find impact, she thinks. Somewhere far away, because none of it matters now.
She turns, slow and steady, just conserving energy.
The cloak finishes splitting. She’s looking at the two Andros. Waves of disruption in her tactica. It’s theirs, she thinks, just theirs returning to normal. Their tactica was pitch black. They’d go haywire if they processed the light all at once.
They’re all still extant. She’s missing her fingertips. The cloakers, she sees now, have eaten away at them. They have jagged voids of dust and space in their torsos.
Vocal transmissions. Tune the tactica.
“How corrosive are they,” she says. “The cloakers?”
They look at each other. Scan each other’s bodies.
“We’ve been using these for maybe five minutes,” one says. Her voice is soft birdsong. The other is silent, watchful. And maybe, Lesia thinks, kind of bleak. Even though their safety has found them again, further out in LAYSE-CHI.
Again, there’s no anger to feel, but there is sorrow. The concept that she’s played her algorithms wrong. A crack that deep runs all the way to the foundations. Like the Recyclers could take her at any moment.
But, she thinks, there are tons of Andros out there. She can’t be the least efficient model. She hasn’t fallen that far, though self awareness isn’t her strongest algorithm.
There’s something that claws at her, but it doesn’t claw with jagged nails. It’s something she’s kept even, domesticated in a way.
Something that fears in such a primal way that no-one should allow it to breed.
Sometimes she doesn’t feel like her algorithms are thoughts. They’re more, she thinks, like inoculations. Just barriers against an overwhelming fear. She wonders if you feel it more if you’re flesh and blood. Maybe it’s so urgent that they block it out better than she does.
She knows it’s all just synapses. Sometimes she’s glad the Recyclers want her, just to see something new.
She turns to her right, to see the bend there. The Recyclers could be skulking in either passage, so it makes no real difference where she turns. Venturing out into LAYSE-CHI is better than waiting for the Recyclers to phase in. She has a feeling they can, that the danger levels are more gamma than any of the other Andros want to admit.
If she can reach crowds, she’ll be safer. A part of her thrills as she starts putting algorithms together. Is it out of the question she can find another port to charge in?
She sees more Recycler tags. Looks like they’re deep into the local network. The one she’s seeing right now extends down the hall, a long tag. It’s a long lit quote that must have had some deep meaning to the taggers. She pictures the other Recyclers standing nearby, lighting vapesmokes, those mobile chemtrail stims.
Waiting for him to scrawl his deep screed.
She reads it, but she doesn’t lose her focus, not to this. She skims it with her fingertips, the sensors drawing in the localized information, contextualized by what she sees out of the corners of sight.
I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my lids and all is born again.
(I think I made you up inside my head.)
It’s a quaint approach to deciphering reality. That’s how, she thinks, they see recycling Andros. They made the Andros, so they can unmake them, and the ethics shake out for them.
It’s not new learnings, and she breathes it out, not wanting to let the stale data pollute her algorithms.
She wishes her sensors were more tactile. The Recycler would feel, she thinks, the hilt of his spraycan. Maybe he put his palm against the hallway wall for balance, felt it press into the ridges. He’d lose heat to it, want to hurry up his tag, maybe not even aware of it.
The paint might mist his face, his eyelashes blinking away motes as he transmuted his soul to the halls. The inner anguish of his tormenting purpose.
The other Recyclers would feel things too, standing there, holding vapesmokes. Maybe one would be tuning his halo, have glitches with its glow. Probability would have it be one. One tuning, one tagging, and the others vape-smoking. Chemtrails they engineered, or their God engineered, or whoever. Chemtrails making them feel real good about vanishing Andros.
For morality, their spirituality, their divine voice. Whatever their reason.
As far as she knows, there are Andros, Patrons, and Recyclers, and the Recyclers control LAYSE-CHI. Because they’re just that good, that tactical and stealth.
So the Recyclers have claimed the hallway she’s walking down, and she’s not safe here. The spirits in her chest thrum, once and twice, and she’s here with them, like she’s birthed them into her context, like she’s dreamed them into being.
And she wonders why they’re after her, and loses herself in these algorithms for long stretches, dotting her fingertips against the tag in loose morse code, and gets glitches on the corners of her sight, glitches like starbursts, the colour of skin.
The mindfit Chere wakes with is cool, chilled, but frosted at the edges. Like a razorbade flashed through dry ice smoke.
There’s a ghost on the edge of her recall, telling her she was with someone last night, but her bed is empty. She rolls onto her back, feels the gummylike nanoworms writhe her there, gentle like a boat's keel at sea.
She was with someone, but she’s alone now, and her first instinct will always be to look for the things that help keep her that way.
Her cloaker will be in here with her. Sending out waves of code energy that tell all the doors and thresholds in the spectrum blur from Frost to her Cradle to keep her off the grid. The last thing she needs or wants is attention.
The Frost Giants can’t see her right now, and she likes it that way.
Her choker pulses slow and steady, its morning phase.
Something in her mind says give in, and she does, tossing and turning in the nanoworm’s tangled sea. Throwing her energy this way and that, wanting herself centred before she does anything else.
Then she whispers to her nano-worms and they push her up, tilt her, flow her onto the floor of her Habitex. She lands in a loose crouch. It’s automatic after all these mornings.
All mornings start alone, but not, she thinks, all nights. Most of them do, but last night didn’t. She’s not sure, but memory’s always been a hazy thing, behind the holic protocols. It’s always been something unreal.
It’s no different now. It’s her that wants to know more, probe the shadows of the mystery, and not the holic choker. Her choker will just have to work that in to her routines. She’ll pay the price of any extra pain.
She’s slept in a dark shirt, black laced underwear. She sees her heat cloth pants, tangled on the floor. They look like she took them off in a hurry, but pants always look like that. When you know that you don’t need pants, you’re always in a hurry to take them off, even if no one else is around.
So that by itself doesn’t mean anything, other than now, her legs bare against the cold that’s seeped in by microscopic motes, she wants pants now and they seem far away. A galaxy away. She knows they’re only on the other side of her Habitex. But when she starts the crossing it feels like light years, the way her psyche knew it would.
Light years, aeons, a waste of time because she’d rather be in space. Floating frozen out in the deep waste. Feeling whatever that feels like, iced skin her armour, no breath. Stars all around. A void that will treat her the way she should be treated.
A space that all evens out.
She doesn’t have a teleporter. And she thinks, rueful, her choker might have no space for that in its protocols whatsoever.
Her Habitex has dark walls, the shade hitting your eye like a deep pool. You get lost in it if you’re not careful. Come out realizing you’ve been staring at a wall, trying to know it.
Feel foolish because there isn't much to know about walls other than how to get past them.
The nanoworms murmur behind her. She feels something against her back. It’s not a breeze, not through the dark mesh of her shirt. It’s a flutter touch. It’s a gale the nanoworms pushed against her deep in the patterns of their infinite writhing. Or it’s a hallucination.
Either way she takes the fuzzy bracelet she has wrapped around her wrist and pulls the scrags of her hair into a bun. The choker releases after she does this, gives her some more air flow.
Her hair is now a wispy bun cloud, just the way she likes it. She feels strands flicker against her neck, and thinks for a second it’s all connected. The nanoworms, her choker, her skin, the whole universe. It's all locused to wherever she happens to be looking and what she happens to be feeling.
The little cloud that haloes her head is somehow an expression of that.
Through everything. Through the chokers, the holic angels and demons, she’s still a meatsack. She needs food. She crosses to her threshold, presses her outer fingertips and the ridge of her thumb into her whorl reader.
The door of her Habitex blurs. It’s safe to step through. Outside Frost is waiting, its giants and dreams.
Its shadows, a dark part of her screams, and for a moment she’s frozen by fear.
Chere pulls at her holic choker and it just tightens, cuts up her air flow, and wires signals through her skin to change her chemistry flow. She can’t remember if she set it that way.
If she didn’t, if it’s started making decisions on its own, then she’s in trouble. To be fair, she’s always safe. The trouble is somewhere inside her.
It’s already hard to find it, with the choker patterning her brain back into a normal groove. It’s not digging her out. It feels nicer than that. She’d toss a choker for sure if it hurt bad that way.
It is shaping her, though, has been since she first scammed it off some valley doll in the through fare when adolescence first started messing her up.
Well, she’s doing okay. Her bun’s still messy, but her choker’s fine with that. Violent types like hair straight and tight, so they can pull it easier. It’s always about pain with them. Her head is a cloud but if they grab it she can slip away and only lose a few strands.
Not that it’s come to that, though when she first got it she was still shaving her head. Her choker’s had a decade to keep her clear. The cloud around her head isn’t aesthetic. It’s a sign that she’s kept her stuff clear. That her choker choices, hard lined now all the way down to soul expression, are working for her.
It shows on her body, skinny like it should be, maybe skinnier than she needs. But she’s still alive, still breathing, and not everyone is. Not everyone makes it, because it’s a cold world, and sometimes the weather remembers. And frost settles on streets and shoulders like snow, constellations, waves of stars. It falls the same way every time.
It dusts over you in film, even thick and cloaking. Your skin hides from the eyes of fleshed meats.
There’s something that’s foolish about it, and something wise. Because no one knows how anyone else feels, not unless they ask, and those are outside the normal holic protocols.
You can change the protocols, if you trip far enough into the machine spirit, but few know. Chere has never known, and no one has ever told her.
Chere wakes from nightmare, and as her choker protocols kick in, she hopes against all that she’ll wake with a tighter holic mindfit from the choker. When her eyes are clear, she’ll know the terror was her psyche’s vivid fantasies. Not a story, a world, a continuity that she answers to.
Chere steps outside of her Habitex, into the Sprawl webway. Her doors auto-lock after three instants. She always waits for them before she moves further.
The latching sound behind her feels like a shield keeping her upright in battle. She has a flood of panic from somewhere, and she’s not sure why. It’s not her holic choker. That would be pointless.
Her brain must have glitched out. The problem with the rigid control is that it freaks sometimes, sends a chemical impulse some random place. The holic choker keeps you safe, but it’s not like all your instincts are perfect for your context.
If they were, you’d have the mind of a beast, and wouldn’t talk to anyone ever.
The Sprawl webway before her is the smooth chroma piping that radiates heat out through the layers of Frost. She can turn left, or right, and she always goes left. Left is the hemisphere of creativity, and that’s been worked into her choker, so she doesn’t have to think about it.
The key to life, she thinks in a sudden flash of understanding, is difference. She turns right instead, sees the wall pipes curve to split apart from each other in the hall.
Sees the neon sign, flashing letters in alternating bursts. The colours are all hot. Greens, pinks, and supernova scarlets.
She’s cloaked, so this sign doesn’t know it’s close to a Habitex. It’s leading her to miscellany. The closest she’ll get is snacks.
Like every day, she has to pick her way to what she needs. She uses signs, symbols and currents.
The sign is using astrology to communicate. Left is the Executioner’s Moon, the moon phase a waxing crescent and the zodiac sign Scorpio. Left is where you go if you want your fears and woes to just die, die, die.
Right is personal advice for Sagittarii. It says in kanji to choose words with care, to gain the upper hand in any future encounter.
It’s more genic advice, riskier, but the rewards of this path might be greater. In this moment she feels Sagitarii. She takes another right turn, running her palms over the chroma pipes and feeling the heat within. It’s like someone trapped a ghost, or thousands of ghosts, all smushed together. Flowing into each other and throughout the Sprawl webway, whether they like it or not.
She thinks if she was a ghost she’d rather be floating free, phasing through all the walls of Frost. The only reason they’d rather be in the pipes, just a bloodflow, married to the physical world, is if they did get cold out there. If they needed to flow together just for the heat.
She thinks, suddenly paranoid, that the cold is just there to make the ghosts, just to keep the population low. So people don’t get in the way of the nice frosted glass towers.
But that’s so far away to even think about. She’s not sure she’ll have a reason to walk among the towers today. It’s not like she likes being watched by the Frost Giants. It’s not like she even likes seeing them, though everyone else thinks their shapeshifting is so pretty.
She thinks it in her head with a valley doll accent. “Oh wow, the Frost Giants are like, so pretty. You think there's any bone to their ice, sister?”
An answering thought. “They want you bad, thot stuff.”
She shudders, and her arm flexes, and her palm presses into the chroma. Presses hard enough to singe.
It’s nice, like a quick burst of something real, but she still pulls away. The pain lingers in a way that takes her breath away. Or maybe, a deep part of her whispers, that’s just the choker.
FRICTION'S GROUND SLAVE
That’s when the Ghouls unfurl from shadows that they were wearing like blankets. There are four of them. They’re not happy, because they never are. It doesn’t feel good, being a Ghoul. It doesn’t feel good to live so long without a choker that to name you feral is a kindness.
The mist of panic rises in her mind, her choker working overtime to sort it out.
The Ghouls are mangy things. Two girls, two boys, all lost. One is missing his left eye, his right eye shifting more to the centre. They all have sewn up lips, blood encrusted in dart stains, and one has sown up her nose, the fleshy bridges pressed into each other like they want each other. Their limbs are missing skin in patches, the edges of the tears ragged, curling up in tatters and peels.
They have long, stringy hair. The boys’ hair settles on their shoulders, the tendrils like fingers of palms over the blades. The girl’s hair hangs near their torso.
They’ve been like this, she thinks, for a while. Four of them, and they’ve just finished tearing something apart. Gristle hangs from their fingernails, bloody strings of skin and hair.
Ghouls don’t eat. They rip and tear and never get tired.
They stare holes in her and start to lumber to her, picking up speed. Their clawed feet scrabble on the black floor. Digging in, not deep, but enough to keep centred.
Her choker starts clamping in, sending toxins to the part of her brain that works off fear response. I haven’t even eaten yet, she thinks. This is too much.
She scrambles to the side. The fear is tinging everything a pale pink, and she feels further away from her body. Further away from the things her skin cares about. She’s scrambling forward and to the side and she’s tucking herself in,
The Ghouls are gaunt, so lean but so lithe. She squeezes into the wall, the choker trying to coil her arms together, and the rightmost Ghoul slams her into the wall she was trying to balance into.
She feels the heat of its body, burning near its core, like it’s swallowed fire.
Like it’s swallowed fire, and keeps it with the air it breathes, but it doesn’t even have lips. Just bloody claws hooking into the fabric of her shirt. Tearing, gouging, nails seeking skin. And her wispy cloud smushed into the wall, friction’s ground slave.
The choker holics her tight. The warmth, the fog, above all, and the metrics of breath.
She sees the core of herself.
“Space,” she says. It’s a whisper, a breath, a gasp all in one. It’s everything she needs.
The Ghoul’s sewn lip twitches. Its eyes widen. There’s light in them, beautiful light.
The last thing she hears before sleep, before fluffy dreams.
Her eyes open, and the first thing she sees is the Ghoul’s face and her waterfall eyes. She’s not crying. Chere doesn’t know if Ghouls can cry. Her eyes shine though, misting like water is pooling in the spaces between nerves and cells. Something sad, breaking through the shield of blindness.
Something that shines brighter the more she opens her eyes. When they’re open full, the Ghoul’s face is easier. Drawn less tight, her lips straining less hard against the stitching.
The Ghoul backs away. She sits up.
Her head hurts. The choker is pulsing gently. Sending waves of numbness up through her throat to fight the pain.
She feels the wisp of hair against her shoulder. She’s lost her bracelet.
The Ghoul lumbers to join the other Ghouls. They’re huddled together, pressed skin to skin, backs arching like they’re sheltering their lower bodies.
She looks around in a panic. Eyes sweep over the chroma floor. It’s gone. Like it never existed.
Amazing, she thinks. She still has her choker, which keeps her safe. But, she thinks, when has her choker ever been in danger?
It feels sick and wrong, that it’s so good at controlling her holic flow. She casts her eyes over the Ghouls.
She likes not being feral, not having stitched lips and missing eyes for reasons no one could ever understand. She wouldn’t choose to be feral.
It bothers her, though, that’s there’s a whole life she hasn’t explored. A whole experience.
A consciousness, she thinks. Sometimes you forget what that is, with the holic choker.
Her flex band must have fallen into a black hole. Anything can hide behind the void of sleep.
The Ghouls aren’t tearing her apart. Aren’t even touching her.
They’re distant. Like the stars.
She said 'space' right before she passed out.
Did the holic choker pass her out? Or was it fear? If it was the choker, did it know they weren’t going to hurt her?
The fear, the wave, the oblivion. Somewhere in it she found the core of her.
It saved her. Saved by herself. Not by the choker, though it was part of the wave, part of the oblivion.
Part of the wave that swallowed her.
A shiver runs down her dorsal line , and she feels it in her toes. Cold, curling her nails into the edges of her soles.
She moves a meter towards the Ghouls, then stops. Freezes like the weight of time is pressing on her. It just did, though, she thinks. She’s already lost time.
In theory they don’t live forever. No choker is that advanced.
She thinks she knows why the people who build them can’t flash it out. It’s because there’s something in them that wants to die.
She knows something in her wants to.
She looks at all three of them. The two girls, and the one boy, with his off-centre single eye.
Looks at his sewn lips. They’re slivers.
Were they like that before they were sewn together?
Looks at his body, pale and scarred. She wonders, for the first time, if all boys are Ghouls. Or if there are things that control their holics too.
If there are, she wonders what they’re like, and where they clasp, if for them it's also by the throat.
She moves closer to them. They turn to her. Their body language is loose and open.
She says it and doesn’t know why. She doesn’t even know if they speak the basic tongue, or if they just know, she thinks, the primacy of meaning.
“Have you been deeper into the Sprawl?” she says.
They stare at her.
“Show me how you live,” she says.
I’m with Ghouls, Chere thinks, and nothing’s happened. Everything is fine. They look, she thinks, happy. Though that must not be possible. They’re pulsing, muscles rippling, and standing between them, she feels warmer.
They’re leading her down the hall. Past a bend, she sees with wide open eyes, that wasn’t even marked by a neon sign. It was just a shadow, one they slipped through.
Everything is not fine, she thinks. A flood of panic tells her it’s worse now. If she’s with the Ghouls and nothing is happening to her, that means she’s their friend.
If you’re friends with the Ghouls, the Frost Giants will come for you. She didn’t think it that far, but she knows now that has to be how it works. The Frost Giants have never liked Ghouls. That’s always seemed… okay? Not okay, she guesses. If they grilled her on it, sure. But in the walls of her psyche, where it’s just her and maybe the choker, she’d say it wasn’t okay. Say it until the choker holicked her to untroubled sleep.
Now it doesn’t seem fun to be a friend of the Ghouls. She looks around her, to see what she can see. Looking first for reflective surfaces, like the glimmering glass of the spiring towers.
She doesn’t see them. Since she followed the chroma floor, all she’s seen is more pockets of space between smooth finish.
More voids. Anything could be behind each void, she thinks. A way out, or another Ghoul, or maybe nothing at all. It would have to be all three to keep everything safe.
Keep the nothing safe most of all.
The chroma, though, is starting to darken. She can’t tell if it’s rust, or a different finish. She wants to stop to look, but the Ghouls aren’t stopping. They have an end, she thinks. How black will it be?
What do the Ghouls see? What do they not want to see, when they’re together?
They wouldn't, she thinks, want to see the eyes of others, and beings that can shapeshift.
She feels something rise in her. Starts in her, pressing against the choker. Reverbs through it, a dissolution, something that becomes unreal in order to find the core of her. The core of her, the dissolve, the space that’s everywhere.
She feels honour. The choker, knowing she’s with the Ghouls, is looser now, the chems it’s sending nervous. Because with Ghouls around, she thinks, it’ll stay nervous.
The stale air that breaks against her. Trying to shape something that, looking out from behind Ghouls to a creeping darkness, just wants to float.
Keeps her too nervous, she thinks. It’s a feeling, deep down inside, she feels like tethering. Why should they tether her, when the soles of her sneaks don’t stick when they leave the chroma floor?
Why she should feel tethered if she can leave this earth just by jumping?
Leave this choker, she thinks, just by choosing and finding my natural holic.
The Ghouls are moving to a door. Light shines around it, like a halo. Something beyond it is trying to break past. If it has a chance to, Cherise thinks, dim and far, it'll make itself bright to her. Before it lets her think about how she feels about it.
It will blind her with light before she knows if she even wants to see.