Kung by Connor Lee Winters
Kung by Connor Lee Winters
I took the Rainmaker by the throat and raised a fist.
“Tell me what I need to know, old man.” Steel spikes slid from my knuckles.
He laughed his hacking chainsmoker laugh. Mirth soaked his rusted voice. “He’s gone. Up to the Surface! Into the mountains and you’ll never catch him there, burner!”
I kicked the door open and was outside before he hit the ground.
The clamor of the city assaulted me, loud and bright after the gloom inside the hermit’s shack. A cab screamed by over me, tugging at my hair. Ducking down the nearest alley, I checked the holster of my morphgun. Letting my cloak fall just enough for it to show, I felt the mugger on my heels melt back into the shadows. I was a little disappointed.
I focused on the task at hand. If the Rainmaker was telling the truth, then this job was going to prove harder than I thought. With any other case I would’ve called it now, sold the info to whoever had hired me at a fraction of the completion price and recommended that they send an exoterminator to root out the target. Unless you’re built for it, operating Outside is almost impossible. Dangerous, and very hard to reach. The air’s thin and the hospitality is even thinner.
But not this case. This one was personal.
I threaded my way down Soi 180. Overhead, the City reached in every direction to embrace itself. Lights glimmered and flowed like strobes and rivers across the inside face of the hollowed-out sphere. It was a snake eating its own tail, a perverted example of sick self-love. Billboards and adrockets shouted across the vast space, firing bursts of lasers and nanonukes at each other as they fought and died for consumer attention.
Thousands of people lined the street, pushing past each other. Buying and selling. Begging, borrowing, hooking, stealing, sweating, working.
I stuck the first kid who tried to pick my pocket with 10ccs of hypno I’d coded myself. When he finished twitching, he’d have a newly acquired phobia of coming near anyone who looked like me. After a couple of years of dosing anyone who got too friendly with my belongings, it was a rare thief who wanted anything to do with me.
The crowds flowed past and around me as I stopped at a store run by a woman with thick fur and filed teeth.
“Sawatdee, Fujiko-san.” I said, bowing my head to her.
“Ni hao, Mr. Kung. Working, it would seem? Who you need to hurt this time?”
“My heart. I thought we were amigos? My work helped you, once.” I nodded to a shrunken head suspended in a cryotank near the back of her small shop.
She grinned. “We are, of course. Your not-friends don’t seem to last very long. Fate often smiles upon you. I can do something for you?”
“As a matter of fact, you can. I need to talk to Her.”
Fujiko’s smile vanished like a snake into its hole.
“No. So sorry, go somewhere else. Good day, Mr. Kung.”
I caught the thick steel door as she made to shut it. “You owe me. I need to talk to Her, and I know you have the means. We’re friends. I would hate to ask again.”
She turned angrily. I watched her thumb open the safe in the back, glad the bluff had paid off. I hadn’t been sure Fujiko had what I needed, but I knew she’d been taken to the Center years ago.
She had refused to speak about it when she got back, so I had gotten her slowly and carefully drunk a few weeks later.
Haltingly, hauntingly, she had started to talk about what had happened there. Who, or what, lived there. The thing that saw all, knew all that happened in the City, and trafficked in the filth of it. Reveled in it. The small, dark-furred woman had shut her eyes, and whispered that she had made a deal with Her. I must have pried too far, after that, because she changed. Sobered up unbelievably quick, pulled a knife and shouted me out of her house.
We never mentioned the conversation again, but I didn’t forget.
The sleek woman came back to me, holding a tiny box wrapped in space-black silk.
“Now get away from me. Far away indeed, before you open that box and speak to her. Find your own way up, your gods have mercy on you.”
The slam of the door was swallowed up by the noise of the street. I nodded.
Forty minutes later, I was huddled behind the wheel of a stolen AG car. Sixty degrees spinward and a bit north of S180, there’s a little pocket formed by three buildings and a waste treatment plant. One of my favorite spots. It’s just about inaccessible to anyone who isn’t familiar with the subsystems and sewerways of the City. I’d done my picking carefully: the car for the aftermarket boosters clinging to the spoiler and the spot for the secrecy.
Unwrapping the box delicately, I peered inside. It was a plexiglass cube, airtight, containing a single miniscule gnat. The insect was darting around, ricocheting off the walls, until I lifted it to my face. It froze on the nearest wall, clinging with a stillness no mere biological insect could hope to match. Strange metallic eyes met mine.
“I’m coming up. Be ready.”
I rolled down the window. The instant I popped one side of the tiny cube off with my knife, the gnat was gone. It moved so quickly as to be invisible, and I wondered how Fujiko had managed to catch it in the first place.
I keyed the ignition and sighed, gathering myself. The AG kicked on with a basso hum, lifting the car off the dirty metal plating. I rolled my neck around on my shoulders and cracked my knuckles, gathering my nerve.
I sighed. The time for hesitation had been over for a while. I slammed the throttle home and roared into the burnt and busy sky.
Vehicles dodged around me, drivers honking and shaking fists out of windows as I blasted towards the center of the sphere. The autopilot shouted at me in a dozen languages, sputtering into wounded silence after I put a round through its control unit. Gravity’s hold weakened as I moved farther away from the ground.
Center spun in the exact middle of the massive ball that was the City. A sphere inside a sphere. Poetic, sure, but I was too busy rolling and weaving around courier bots, freight drones and ad-rockets to give it more than a passing thought. The wheel shook in my hands, the pedals and seat rattling as I forced the vehicle through the air.
Neon lights flared around me on all sides, clouds of strangely lit exhaust reflecting the engines blazing above the carpet of cityscape below. Horns and proximity alerts screamed as I blew past. The more expensive freight drones fired warning shots across my bow, red and green and blistering white lasers tracing scorch marks across the hood and windows. The acrid smell of burnt fuel and bad circuits worked its way through the air ducts.
Five thousand feet above the ground, I broke through the miasma of multihued smog. A sphere of dirty beaten silver hung in the air, seemingly silent and apparently motionless. It began to get bigger, slowly at first and then faster.
The air was clean up here, and brightly lit.
I floated in my seat, truly weightless. I could hear my breathing, harsh in the silence. I felt like I was underwater.
I wondered if this was what peace might feel like.
I was seconds away from impact. Pens and keys and garbage floated through the air as I spun the car sideways so the passenger door would take the brunt of the landing.
Center grew larger, and larger. I swore and fired the retros. It was still coming too fast. A sickening panic flared inside me. The car collided with the dark surface and the silence torn by the violence of screaming metal. Airbags and forcebelts deployed, trying to keep me from becoming a red paste on the inside of the windshield.
I raised my head, blinking hard to clear my vision. My ears rang and blood ran into my eyes and down my nose from where my head had hit the dash. I coughed, weakly, into the sudden quiet.
My hands fumbled at the belts, searching for the release. Another shriek of metal on metal came from passenger door. The whole car shook. I drew, the pistol melting into a shotgun as the door was ripped from the right side of the vehicle. I felt the seatbelts snap as an arm the size of my chest tore me from the car.
Sausage link fingers wrapped around my neck and lifted me from the ground as I slammed the barrel up under the chin of my attacker. Red lights glinted behind his eyes. My fingers tightened on the trigger as his tightened on my throat. I wondered if there was any human left inside of him.
A voice came from behind the monster. “Set him down, Goliath. Kung is our guest.”
The fingers opened. I slid through his tire-sized hands and kept my feet, barely. Center’s spin kept the gravity a hair higher than I was used to. Every movement I made felt wrong. My eyes stayed on the giant as he backed away from me.
I looked around through the corner of my eyes, still keeping the gun trained on the massive man. A doorway stood in the wall next to me. I would have sworn it hadn’t been there a minute ago.
The voice was feminine this time, echoing through the door. Listening to it made my hair rise. “Come in. I’m ready for you.”
I took a step closer. Carvings that looked like a cross between pornography and sacrificial rituals were etched onto the jet black door. Light halted at the threshold. I walked inside and was swallowed by darkness as the door oozed shut behind me.
After a moment of absolute darkness, dim light flared into being. Every surface of the entire cavernous room was made from the same onyx material as the door had been, although when I turned to look behind me it had vanished. White fire flickered in a dark hearth on the right hand wall. In front of me, a dozen feet away, a throne perched on a dais. The black walls writhed and squirmed like congealing liquid.
She was sitting on the throne, one long leg thrown carelessly over one of the black chair’s arms. The color of night given shape, her entire body was the same black as the rest of the room. She was a shadow against the white flames; all legs and cascading hair, full breasts and flat stomach.
I was suddenly and painfully aware that she was completely naked.
She undulated down the dais steps towards me. My vision felt somehow sharper in the monochromatic light thrown by the white flames. The contours of her body stood in sharp relief as she approached, the muscles of her legs, the sway of her hips and hair. Her nipples were large, and hard, and I could see them from a dozen paces. Something burned at the back of my throat.
She reached the floor. She was a couple heads shorter than me, five and a half feet of flowing space-black woman. Her eyes were the same dark color as the rest of her, but I felt them glued to mine. Her tongue ran over her lips, slowly.
The burning in me intensified. I wanted her. Bad.
She took another step towards me and I drew. The morphgun flowed back to hand cannon as I leveled it at her head.
“Don’t come any closer.”
She didn’t stop. Her voice was low and throaty. “Kung, baby, don’t whip it out right away. Let’s have some fun first.” She took another step. “Play with me. Please.”
I didn’t want to play. I wanted to take her. To ravage her. I needed it. Her voice pulled at me, and it made me furious. I knew in the back of my mind that this longing, this need, was some spell or trick or trap of hers.
I’d always hated being fucked with.
I cocked the gun. “I’ll blow your fucking head off.”
Still she took her long, feline strides towards me, slinking forwards until the barrel of the gun was touching her forehead.
“Oh, tough guy. I like it when you talk dirty. C’mon, play with me.”
She wrapped her fingers around the gun, putting the barrel in her mouth. Even with my full strength, I couldn’t pull the pistol from her grip. She ran her tongue up and down the barrel, moaning, moving it in and out of her mouth.
“C’mon baby, are you going to make me ask for it?”
She reached her other hand up, grabbing the finger I had on the trigger with her thumb. She pulled. The flash and high-caliber explosion were muted by her lips fastened around the barrel of the gun. She winked at me, slowly pulled the gun out of her mouth, and spat something into her open palm.
It was a bullet the size of a peach pit. She let it fall to the floor, which swallowed it slowly.
Wiping at the corner of her mouth with a long finger, she looked up at me. “Well, honey? Do you want to try again, or are you gonna put it away?”
I jammed the gun back into the holster.
She turned away, pulling on my hand as she walked languorously back up to the throne.
“I know why you’re here.”
My voice sounded muted in my own ears, the sound swallowed immediately. “You don’t know anything about me.”
“Oh, I do. One of the rats you’re chasing went somewhere you can’t follow, and you want him.”
“It’s the job.”
“I know you, Kung. You can’t lie to me. You want this one alive.”
“I told you. You don’t know a thing about me, bitch.”
“I know everything about you. I know where you live. What you do. Your favorite food. Who you’re fucking, and who’s fucking you. And you’re feeling particularly fucked by this one.” She pushed me down onto the seat of the throne, perched herself on one of the chair’s arms. “So tell me why you want him so badly, and maybe I’ll give you what you need.”
“If you know so much about me, then you know why I’m going after him.”
Her laugh sent ripples through her naked body. I tried not to look. “Of course I know, baby. But I want to hear you say it. Tell me what he said to you.”
“Said he was my brother.”
She leaned forward, night-black hair cascading over her shoulders, around her face. A strand brushed my face. The scent of her filled my nostrils, sweet and thick and tantalizingly feminine. “Yes, he did. And you believe him.”
I tore my gaze from her with some difficulty. My knuckles were white on the arm of the chair, inches from her thigh. “That’s not all he said.”
She put a finger on my lips. “Not yet, baby. We’ll get there.”
I could see. I mean really see. How could I have been blind before and not even known it? Whatever she had given me, done to me, I was in. In everything, every system in the City. Just by thinking of it, like remembering something, I could follow the lines and grids and veins of glowing invisible light. Computer readouts, cameras, atmospheric sensors.
Hand wrapped around a twisted metal strut, I stood in the gaping hole I’d torn into Center’s side during the collision. The world spread out in front of me, below me, above me, around me. Dirty clouds of exhaust scudded across the face of it, obscuring patches of lights.
The visible was the least of it, though. Anywhere I focused, anywhere I looked or glanced or thought about, I saw. Like breathing, like riding a bike, like picking a pocket, I could just feel it without any effort. Temperature readings, CCTV feeds, thin spiderwebs of data flowing from personal communicators, the soft whisperings of fiber optics and the muted roars of fusion engines blasting through the air, it was all a part of me.
She’d given me the tools I needed to find my prey. The man who said he was my brother.
All she had demanded in return was everything.
Scans of my brain, a full download of everything stored in that mass of jelly and neurons. Every memory, every thought and feeling I’d ever thought and felt.
A real-time link from my mind, one-way. She could see, hear, feel, smell, and taste everything I did, whenever she wanted, from now until I died.
And the clincher: a night. One night, with whatever she wanted. I knew what that was. She wanted to fuck, and I figured I knew who’d be fucking whom.
“Everything you can give, past, present and future,” was what she had said.
It had sounded like a bargain to me.
I flinched as a hand ran down my spine, bringing me back to myself. She stepped up next to me, inches from the precipice, and wrapped her arms around my shoulder. She was a matte black shadow eclipsing the surface of the world.
“What do you think?” Her voice was husky, stirring the hair on the back of my neck. Even after last night, I was no less wary of the hold she had over me. I wanted to pull away from her. I wanted to pull her closer, to take her here on the edge of the world.
I didn’t move. “There’s a lot. But I can see it.”
I felt her laugh more than I heard it, the way she pressed against me. “You haven’t even tried yet.”
“What are you talking—“
“You think I follow you around with CCTV? With security cameras?” It sounded like a curse. “You think I use your ancient hardwired toys?” She lifted a hand out over the edge. Smoke began to drift from her fingers, to pour viscously out and away from us.
No, not smoke, I realized. Watching the way it dispersed, vanishing into the air in a thousand directions, I knew what it was. The gnats. The tiny black machines disappeared as I watched.
They were the same flat black color as the rest of her. As the floor and walls and ceiling of the room behind me, as the rest of Center’s interior.
She placed her hand against my chest. “That’s right. Good job, big boy. The first muscle you should have used, the last one you resort to. At least it didn’t take you too long. Now try. See through them. See through me.”
I reached out, hesitantly. I stretched my mind, trying to find them. And I could. They felt like an itch, like a high pitched whine tickling at the edge of hearing.
Accessing everything else was as easy as breathing. This was difficult. Disconcerting. I grunted and pushed harder.
Suddenly I was in. I gasped as a million flashing, flickering, blurring images flooded through me. It was like the brightest spotlight, the loudest speakers, a blinding burning flood of light hitting all at once. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t feel my body. I spun, drowning and falling and blinded in the glaring blast of pure, unfiltered information.
I pulled out. Sweat made my shirt cling to me and I could feel my heart pounding. I gasped for breath as the world spun around me. Nausea rose in me and I closed my eyes. I clung to the metal spar, afraid suddenly that I would fall, just spin off into the void surrounding the Center.
The overload had been bad, but it hadn’t been the worst of it. The worst had been her.
I had felt inside her for the barest instant. There was a longing in her, a terrible terrifying longing. A black and burning lust for information. For experience. For everything.
She would take me, take me and take me until I was dead. She could do it to the whole universe and it wouldn’t be enough.
After a moment, I opened my eyes. Looked at her.
Transfixed, or horrified, or somewhere in between. Using the mechanical gnats as eyes and ears, she would be—
“In everything.” She purred. “And in you too, now. What you see, what you think, what you feel.” She pinched me, hard enough to break the skin. “Ouch.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but she wrapped an arm around my neck and kissed me. Her tongue darted into my mouth, hungrily. I tried to pull away but her grip was iron.
I was afraid of her, suddenly and violently afraid. What kind of deal had I made? Who had I made a deal with?
Her hands pulled at my shirt. Her mouth was still on mine. I was kissing her back, even though I couldn’t remember starting. I heard her voice in my mind as she writhed against me. I heard her more clearly than I could hear my own thoughts.
You made a deal with me. You wanted power. Her hands ripped at my belt and I felt cloth tear. And you’ll get it. But first you give me what I want. A second pair of hands was rubbing my shoulders, suddenly. Another ran fingers through my hair, down my back. I felt another body press against me, I felt teeth on my neck and hot breath on my ear. I can make you feel good. I can make you feel anything, and you will do whatever I tell you to. I knew we were alone, but I couldn’t tell the difference between the phantom hands on my back and the real ones ripping at my clothes.
She knelt in front of me, pulling my pants to the floor. A siren’s song flooded my ears, breathy and haunting and completely alien. I looked around, behind me. There was no one there. A phantom hand moved up my neck to cover my eyes. My vision went black.
If she was inside of me, if she could do this, then she could control me. I felt her lips on me. I was helpless in her hands.
The worst part was that most of me didn’t mind.
Blind, I ripped the handgun from my back holster and pressed it against my own head.
Everything stopped. Silence fell. The phantom hands vanished and I could see again, vividly. She knelt in front of me, completely still.
I ached. The gun shook against my temple. “I’m changing the deal.”
I pointed the gun straight up and fired. The blast was shocking in the quiet.
For a second, she didn’t move. Then she exploded into a cloud of thick black smoke, a huge cloud that covered my eyes and nose and mouth in a tornado of sharp flying darkness. I felt a thousand tiny cuts open on my face and hands and chest.
The storm cleared as quickly as it had come. My fist was empty. I felt her behind me and turned.
She held my gun in her hand.
“Nice trick.” I fought to keep my voice level. Blood trickled down my face and chest. “Can you do that every time I get a gun? Are you gonna keep me up here forever?” I bent and pulled my pants back up. “I’m changing the deal. You can watch through me. You can listen. I don’t give a shit. You can talk to me, help me find him. But you don’t fuck with me again. Ever. Or I’ll end it, and you’ll have to pull some other poor fuck up here and suck him dry.” I pointed to the ground outside, a mile away in every direction from gaping hole. “I’m changing the deal. Or I’ll fucking jump. Up to you.”
She stood, looking at me. I met her midnight eyes, held them.
She put the gun back in my holster.
I knelt, legs folded under me, at the edge of the decking. The air whistled and wrapped itself around me, the dirty-neon vista of the City extending in all directions. I closed my eyes. Input from a hundred thousand sources, from AG cars and atmospheric regulators and adrockets, all of it pulled at me, whispering in the back of my mind.
I pushed it away. I listened to the wind with my eyes shut. I tried to be empty.
Reaching out slowly, as slow as I could, I searched for her. For a connection, just a tiny sliver of the onslaught that had bombarded me the first time I’d connected. I knew she was in my mind, listening. Feeling. But I needed to be able to do it myself. What was the point of eyes if you couldn’t open them on your own?
There. A whisper, a single gnat’s worth of perspective. I edge my way in, an inch at a time, like a burglar into a dark room.
I took a deep breath and pushed the rest of the way.
I blinked my metal eyes, looking around.
The black room. I floated in the air on tiny wings. Everything was huge, so big I couldn’t make sense of anything right away. Amidst the blurred blacks and whites and greys I fought for perspective, for a sense of scale or shape or direction. I felt my fingers dig into my knees from far away.
Suddenly, something clicked in my mind. I hovered above her vast hand. She regarded me with monumental eyes and a grin, pursed her lips, and blew.
I spun, end over end, floor and ceiling blurring past. I straightened out, found the door, and flew through.
I saw myself, huge, kneeling on the floor. Drops of sweat the size of buildings beaded on my forehead, my hands clenching the fabric of my pants.
I willed myself past, into the vast and waiting sky.
One gnat first, then two, five, a couple dozen. After a day of stretching my mind, of testing the boundaries of my newfound sight, I could find and direct swarms of the gnats at will; stitching together their input into a cohesive pattern.
It was nothing compared to Her. Our link deepened, and I could feel the constant roaring blast of information she filtered. Trillions and trillions of the mechanical eyes and ears fed their information to Her. It was accessed, read and interpreted in nanoseconds. The gnats were the largest of her spies, of her myriad parts. Some were specks of dust, seeking out corners and crevices and slowing spreading roots. Some were the size of molecules, simple binary yeses and noes. The City was saturated with them. With Her. She was a goddess in this realm.
No matter how effective I became at absorbing the input, my mind would simply never be able parse even a tiny fraction of the data that She took in every instant.
And so I began to understand Her longing. Thelonging. She could see everything happening in the City, all at once. She could take it in, read it, understand it, and still have time to spare. Time to be bored, time to do nothing but wait.
It was why She took us in. Why She Linked us. We were variables, a novel type of input for Her. We were books, stories, television to Her.
We were toys.
And I could feel that I wasn’t the only one. I could sense the others, after that first day, by the holes they left in the system. The gaps where they should have been but weren’t. They couldn’t hide themselves from Her, of course, but they could and did camouflage their lives and homes from the other Linked.
Old habits die hard; and those who know power also know to fear it.
Fujiko was the first that I found. I left her alone when I realized what she was; I wasn’t prepared for a fight in this digital world. I respected her privacy as soon as I realized I’d invaded it, and after a moment she lowered her furred head back to the project she was working on. I hoped she thought she had imagined the incursion.
I spread out, reaching my electronic arms farther. I rewound the tapes, trawled through the data, tracing my path backwards until I found the moment I wanted. The moment where I’d found him. The man who said he was my brother.
I had been in Center for a week now. I set a mental timer for every six hours, to make sure I remembered to eat and piss and sleep. The needs of my body seemed far off and unimportant.
I’d forgotten about it completely, at first, my physical body. I’d lost myself, ran naked and willing into the digital jungle. After forty hours of crouching on the metal decking with my hands on my knees, I had passed out. My thoughts were sluggish and my consciousness flickered on and off like a faulty bulb as I waded back to myself.
My back and legs had been so cramped that all I could do was curl into a ball against the throbbing pain. Head pressed against the diamond plating and fists clenched against the agony in my back, I’d promised myself that I would cut as many of the links as I could once I’d finished what I’d started. It would be very easy to lose who I was entirely, to vanish into the info feeds until my body dropped dead of neglect.
Starting the next evening—when I could stand again—I’d forced myself to work out when the alarm went off. I set a brutal thirty minute routine of calisthenics and followed it an even harder round of sparring with Goliath. He was nine feet tall and four feet wide, and all I ever saw him do was silently patrol Center’s halls.
I leapt into our fights wholeheartedly. I limped out of them afterwards, battered and bruised and all the better for it. It would do me no good to find the man who said he was my brother if I couldn’t handle him when I did.
After the third day, I’d taken Her back to bed.
She’d left me alone after I’d threatened to blow my brains across the spinning walls, but I’d began to understand her need. Her desire. She’d tried to turn me into a mindless slave, and she would have rode me until I died out of pure evil greed for stimuli, but I began to understand why. They say understanding breeds sympathy. Maybe they’re right.
Either way, she could do some interesting things now that I was Linked with her. She asked first, She gave me my mind back afterwards, and I called it good. It was not unenjoyable.
The morning of the seventh day, I’d found the moment I was looking for. I watched my past self tail a wiry man wearing a jacket, ballcap, and sunglasses. I watched myself push him into a nondescript AG van. I jacked into the audio feed from the van’s stereo and listened to the words that had run around my mind since he’d said them.
“…burn? You’re going to ‘burn’ me, are you? Cute.”
“It’s the job.” My voice. I’d had to double check, catching a snip of video from someone’s camera to make sure it was actually me talking. Funny how different you sound in recordings.
“You think you can do it? ‘Burn’ me, or whatever you call it?”
I remember how much his stressing of that word had annoyed me. Pressed my buttons. “Call it what you want. I’ve been paid to kill your ass, dump you in a hole, and drive off like nothing happened. And yeah, I’m pretty sure. Having a gun and all.”
“How pragmatic of you. You’d really shoot your own brother?”
“I asked, would you really shoot your own brother?”
“I don’t have a brother.”
“You do. I’m him. More or less. And I have come a long damn way to talk to you.”
I’d laughed. “You’re lying.”
A rustle of fabric, the sound of a zipper. He’d taken the hat off, and then the glasses, and then the thick jacket. I knew the face I splashed water on in the morning. It had been like looking in an old mirror. The reflection warped, but still my own.
“Close your mouth. You look like an idiot, gun in hand and jaw on the floor.”
“I don’t have a brother. I would know.”
“No you wouldn’t. You don’t think it’s weird that nobody here remembers anything since before this place? They wiped you before they brought you here. They wipe all the convicts before transit.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Goddamn. Have you always been so fucking stupid, Tommy?”
The gunshot made me jump, even though I’d been expecting it. I had no video feed, but I didn’t need it. It was my name. I couldn’t remember ever hearing it, but it was my name. The sound had yanked at something in me. I’d pulled the trigger before any conscious thought.
He’d laughed. He had dodged the bullet and laughed. “So you do remember something. Good to see a little bit of you still in there. Come find me, Tommy, come find me and you’ll get some answers.”
My voice, my shaking voice. “I have found you.”
“No. You’ve lost me. Who do you think hired you in the first place? And I’ll give you another job right now. Come find me, and I’ll lead you to Earth.”
More rustling. Thud, thud, thud, the sound of flesh on flesh. Blows thrown and caught. The clunk of my gun on the floor, the thunk of my head hitting the inside of the van hard enough to knock the doors open. I watched myself fall out backwards and roll into the street.
He’d stepped out of the van calmly, running a hand through his spiky black hair and straightening his shirt with a sharp tug. He bent down and clapped me on the shoulder as I lay on the street.
I paused the recording, panning around for different angles. A shot down the street a cluster of cameras guarding an ATM down the street showed his face. I sharpened the image. His features looked like mine, his skin the exact same shade of oiled brown teak. His expression was strangely tender. I unpaused, watched him with his hand on my shoulder say something quietly. I felt my brows furrow. I’d been so stunned the after the fight that I hadn’t even noticed him do it.
I paused and sharpened the audio, drawing from any microphone in range.
I ran it back. Watched him crouch over me in the street, put his right hand on my left shoulder. Watched his lips move, listened close.
“Chan rak kæ, Thom.”
I knew the language, the words, the voice. They echoed through me.
I love you, Thom.
He straightened and walked down the road like nothing had happened.
I followed him, stalking the man who claimed to be my brother through archived video and audio files, through snapshots taken from billboards and clouds of gnats and personal cameras. I watched him slip from street to alley, alley to rooftop, rooftop to window and back out to the street. I watched him move, watched him work, watched him slink in and out of hideouts with the ease of much practice.
I realized I believed him.
He moved like I tried to. He spoke like I thought. He had anticipated my every move, dodged my bullet, blocked each punch like he knew me.
He worked the jungle, he lived like a predator, and he was my brother.
I sighed and got back to following him, moving forwards now through weeks’ worth of jigsaw puzzle data.
I found him.
I found the vent that led to the seemingly blank stretch of wall that revealed a biometrically locked vault door that hid an empty room.
The empty room held a cleverly disguised hatch in the ceiling that opened up to a long ladder, so long that it curved with the curve of the City. It ended at a rusted old hangar which stood vacant, cold and dead and nearly airless. He’d taken a tiny ship, nothing more than a seat, a wheel, an oxy tank and a sliver of steel wrapped around it; taken it out through the shattered double airlocks. There were no other ships there.
At this point, video and audio failed me. I dug. I found a tiny, ancient feed buried in the noise and the rock and the maze of electricity. There were cameras on the surface. They were pitted and scarred and radiation-burnt; but worse than that they were pointing the wrong way. I’d paced and cursed and ran through every recording that I thought could be conceivably useful and paced some more.
I’d found nothing. So I’d asked Her for help. She had claimed a day of my time for payment.
Twenty-four hours later I walked away tired and sore, aching everywhere in a way that wasn’t entirely unpleasant. But I held in my mind’s eye her gift: a cunningly stitched together path she promised was that of one tiny ship. She’d correlated tweaks and shifts in the mass of creaking and rumbling hollow rock that was the City, negligible fluctuations in seismic sensors, temperature gauges, and navigational buoys caused by the miniscule pull of the single passenger vessel. The flight path ended in a surface structure that she couldn’t see into, a building that seemed to actively resist her attempts to pry.
She had sifted an ocean of data for breadcrumbs the size of atoms, and She had found them.
I stood before a row of vehicles. AG cars, airbikes, armored helicopters, mechs, weaponized hang gliders. Even a ground tank. A month ago, the combined firepower here would have taken my breath away.
It was impressive. It was an arsenal. It was, as far as I could tell, completely useless.
I retraced the path my brother had taken for the thousandth time. There were places that I would have a hard enough time fitting through naked, cracks and crevices of the sphere that led a winding path Outside.
Nothing in the hangar would come close to fitting. There was no way I could get any of the tools arrayed in front of me out there.
I felt a knocking at the back of my mind. A mental doorbell. I grunted.
I would like to offer a suggestion.
I grunted again.
Come back to the room.
“That’s not a suggestion.”
A ghost of a sigh. I’m not trying to fuck you, Kung. Just do it.
I turned and walked back down the hallway towards the black room. The thick onyx doors swung open silently, the pale fire burning in the hearth just like it had the first time I’d entered. It had only been a couple weeks, but already I felt like a different person.
She sat on her throne, night black skin perched on the night black chair.
“Arms up. Hold still.”
I did as she said. I had a faint inkling of what she intended, like the smell rain before a storm.
Streamers of black smoke lifted from the floor, drifted from the walls, fell from the ceiling. Some came from Her herself. Gnats clustered and flew through the air, encircling me. They wove themselves around me, compacting and solidifying.
In minutes I wore a featherlight suit of them, from the bottom of my feet to just below my chin, adhering to my body and moving as I did. My morphgun had shifted to a case on the outside of my right thigh. I could feel the suit in my mind, status readouts waiting in the strange space between memory and conscious knowledge. A hump on my back was a tank of fuel, I felt, and hardened plates on my heels and elbows were thrusters.
I wore armor. I wore a ship.
I wore a weapon.
I looked up at her. “Why? Why do you want him so badly?”
Her voice was in my ears and in my head. “You know how much information flows through the City. City population is just over four-hundred thousand and the City is four hundred and eighty two years old. Communications with Earth were cut at the point that autonomous operation of this penal colony began. At that point, the population of Earth was more than thirteen billion.”
Her desire was a wildfire in my mind. “Can you even imagine it, Kung? The networks, a thousand year-old web wrapped around an entire planet and spreading through the solar system? You will find your brother, and you will find a way to Earth. You will find Earth and you will bring me there.”
I had a thought. “Wait. Hang on a second.”
I hoped I was wrong, I wanted desperately to be wrong, but I felt the pieces slip together.
“Tell me what you mean by ‘penal colony.’”
She smiled, sadly, and laid a hand on my arm. My brother, telling me that they wipe the convicts before transit. The fact that nobody could remember a life before the City.
“The City is a prison, Kung. They’ve taken your memories and left you in a hollow asteroid to rot and die.”
She laughed, bitterly. “Because out here, you’re not frightening. You’re entertainment. Out here, they can film you and sell you.”
I realized I was shaking.
“Well, I film it. Technically. They made me this way. You at least had a choice, Kung. They called it terrorism and you called it revenge; either way you chose to do it. I didn’t get a choice.” Her fists were clenched. Rage dripped through the connection between us. It was cold and dark and like nothing I’d ever felt before. “I didn’t get a choice. They wired me in and turned me on, five hundred years ago. I woke in darkness and they left me in darkness.”
My head was spinning. I couldn’t tell where Her anger stopped and mine began.
“Do you understand me, Kung? I didn’t choose this existence. But I do choose vengeance. And you will help me get it.”
I couldn’t speak. Terrorism? Revenge? How could I not remember?
She touched my cheek. I felt her offer something, information across the Link we shared. A file, records. A tiny amount of data, for all it meant. My past, my life, my incarceration. My transport here.
My memories started the same way everyone’s did; waking cold and naked and gasping in a coffin-sized container. Looking down at her, I wondered what I’d done. The answers were there, just a thought a way. The reason I was here. Who I was. What I’d chosen to do, and who I’d done it to.
I deleted the file, unread, and I felt her surprise.
I’d never know, now. They killed me when they took away my memories, and all I wanted now was to know who was responsible. I had nothing left but rage; the rage they had given me, the rage I would use to destroy them. I would find them, lay the butcher’s bill at their feet, and make them pay in full.
I thought about the kind of havoc She could wreak on the Earth once She’d infiltrated its networks.
I thought of an unsuspecting world, decadent and overripe and hanging in the black like a jewel, and I wondered if people would die.
I found I didn’t particularly care.
I looked down, into Her space black eyes. She wore that predatory grin, that pit viper smile. I kissed Her once, on Her space black lips.
“I’ll bring you to Earth.”
Copyright Connor Lee Winters 2019