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Reskinned



My first attempt to slam Snowcrash and Lovecraft together; I'm working on a new, more fleshed out, slightly-more-sane version, but I've got a soft spot in my heart for this one, and want to post it as-is, in all its weird, sleep-deprived nonsense glory. It's a bit more stylized(?) than my usual stuff -- I'd been reading lots of Lovecraft and Stephenson and the heart of the thing definitely took on a bit of that nineties, xtreme, flare of the latter, while I started to relax and let my prose get a little more flowery after piling through a few weeks of Lovecraft. All in all, it was a very entertaining thing to write, partly because it was so much less serious than the current version of Activation had been, almost a vacation where the story and the writing style could both be over-the-top if I let them. I'll warn you now, it gets pretty darn schlocky by the second half, and the dialogue's not my best, but the story's fun and people seem to like the world it happens in. I'll announce when the new version is ready, but this one will remain on the site, either way. Read on, enjoy, and as always, thanks for reading.


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    The building’s monitoring system knew who she was before she even trudged her way to the door. With all the crosstalk across the kludged-together net, it probably could have traced her all the way from her office if it had the inclination. Other people, companies with vested interests and daemons crawling across systems citywide likely already had.


    The reader didn’t work well, she had to jam her wrist right up against it, – the plastic surface somehow conspired to be sticky and greasy at the same time – before the door slid open and she dragged herself inside. It wasn’t a long walk, but her exhaustion was a compound thing.


    A dozen face rec scanners – some of which were actually supposed to be there – lit her up as soon as she was visible.


    “Good evening Aline.” the mailroom loader said in that autotuned synthetic voice every designer too cheap or crude to risk the uncanny valley defaulted to. “You have- One... unclaimed package.”


    Aline stopped halfway across the foyer. Slowly, her head cranked around until the screen and window were more or less in her field of vision. She blinked at them with bleary eyes, trying to bring them into focus, to distinguish their blurred colors and lights from all the ones around them. After the last few weeks, she’d almost mastered filtering out the cries and appeals of a world designed to catch her attention, but something here had registered through the fog of exhaustion and prescription medication.

    The spotty emitters flared up and the mailroom hologram flickered like a b-movie ghost. For a moment, a shipping co rep smiled at her, vivid in every detail.


    Something clicked. “Say that again?” She said to the otherwise empty room.


    “You have- One... unclaimed package. Sender unknown.”


    Aline blinked, slowly, remembering. Then her eyes snapped open and adrenalin fired through the meds and exhaustion.


    “Oh, thank god...” She said, grabbing the box from the loader arm.


    Advertisements whirred and screamed and flashed as she clanged up the metal stairs, twenty stories of screens and holograms and claxon speakers forming a din of color and noise to either side, each instance precisely configured to set itself apart, to claw at the primal roots of her attention. For all its constant chatter, it never quite faded from consciousness.


    “Having trouble sleeping Aline? Ask your company pharmacist for Ambisium!”


    It's the end of the month, and we need to clear our inventory-


    Aline! Your primary tablet is two years behind the average on power and storage... and four years out of style! The Tech Conglomeration can help, and your student discount will keep it reasonable!”


    She'd lived in cities before, it was hard not to, but never as deep or dense as here. Hopefully this would help. The plastic shipping box clutched protectively to her side, positively wallpapered with bar codes and shipping annotations from a hundred countries and a dozen forwarders, was both reassuring and, in its own way, terrifying.


    -like the Chrysler-Subaru-Ford RAT, the perfect vehicle for a difficult city commute, or travel across the wasteland!


    Try Kraft printed meats, guaranteed sterile by design, a certified non-vector for biological agents and organic disease!”


    At the time, this apartment had seemed like... well, if not a reasonable deal, then a survivable one. A fourteen meter square studio, one of those identical turn-of-the-century, modular heaps in an old stacked building on the edge of a rough zone, its only real advantages were a low murder count and its proximity to a transit hub – both of which were touted prominently on its infopage.


    But for a recent grad on the eve of a new job, without money or transportation, just being close enough to walk to work felt like the most reliable of many bad options. She couldn't help but feel she was being screwed, but nothing else stood out as a solid improvement, so she pulled the trigger and tried to live with it.

    After a week, she'd thought she'd go insane.


    She transferred stairways and kept climbing through the noise and glow. The elevators weren't safe. Her eyes had unfocused again, somehow it made distinguishing between holographic sales agents and the real people lurking on the landings and steps somewhat easier. The real ones left her alone.


    In-n-n-n-n-surance for every need! Remember, we’ve got you covered!


    Aline, your office clothes are looking just worn out! Make a better impression with dryWash auto cleaning solutions!


    She watched the other doors on her landing warily as she jammed her keycard around in the reader slot until the door unlatched and grated open just enough for her to slip inside. She forced it shut and savored the momentary silence between it and the second door. Mantrap style, just enough room for one. She hit the interior thumbprint and stepped inside.


    If she'd hoped for a reprieve from the outside world, for safety and seclusion and peace, she wouldn't find it here. If anything, the peal and flicker of adverts was worse inside. Screens covered every surface but the floor in patchy, ad-hoc sections, clearly expanded out from the original, grainy display covering one wall. Colors flashed, explosions and alarms and screeching voices sounded, and text in stupid fonts flickered and scrolled and thumped.


    In the weeks it had taken the box to arrive, she'd become something of a connoisseur of commercials, even the subliminal ones. She could spot good design from bad, and sense the professionalism just in how they dragged her attention out of the noise.


    You may be a winner! Scan here to find out!


    Thank you for remembering the Shipping Co! For everything you need, but can’t print yourself, we’re still here!”


    The building was mostly leased out to fresh graduates, interns, and 'young professionals' just making their start, all of whom would flee as soon as something better came up. To fit their broke clientele, the absurd downtown rent was subsidized by the advertisements – but the estimate she'd been given up front had assumed she'd stay in the room with them running for at least ten hours every day. Turning them off, or even turning the volume down, cut the advertisers' money coming in, and the counter on the old thermostat was quick to list the raise in her fee, guaranteeing that every second of peace and quiet felt like it cost her a fortune.


    Somehow that had seemed doable while she was still far away and desperate to find a place, but the non-stop grind of voices and music, all calculated to draw her in, was driving her insane.


    She slept in fits and starts, even with the earplugs and blankets wrapped around her head. Most feeds could tell when she slept and adjusted themselves for the subliminal ads that wormed their way into her dreams and did who knew what to her mind, and some just got louder.


    Her performance at work had barely had a chance to flag before the office pharmacy cut her a prescription. Couldn’t have her work quality slip – didn’t she want to make a good impression? They’d helped, kept her going and awake, medicated and motivated, focused enough to look busy for the cameras and logs and managerial spot checks, but a fog had settled on her that left her listless and numb.


    A tech professional like you needs real hardware! What are you, a wannabe?”


    Exhausted, but rushed with the thrill of the long awaited delivery, she folded cross-legged to the floor, and sawed through the layers of tamperproofing with the switchblade she kept in her pocket. Foam pads and trackers, plastic wrap and scan shielding. Finally, she reached the product packaging itself, – plain black and white cardboard, text in a dozen languages with one xeroxed-looking picture describing its contents. Aline smiled when she tore through and saw the version and design.


    It was the latest in adblocker tech from some no-name company overseas – the make and model suggested by her fellow interns. There were thousands of these things out there, all guaranteeing some kind of reprieve from the madness, both inside and out, but the right blogs and threads and users all claimed this one was the best. It cost most of what she'd already scraped from her laughable paycheck, but if it worked, it would be entirely worth it.


    She held it up for a moment. She'd always thought the things looked goofy as hell, even moreso than the rebreathers and masks some people wore, but they were getting more common, especially in this district. Some bought them as cheap augments, cheaper than good infoglasses, while those few who still cared wore them to take back some measure of privacy against the face rec and iris scans tracking their movements and behaviors. But most used them to isolate themselves, to cut off the companies and propaganda, to sort the real from the fake. Aline supposed she was a little of all three.


    It wasn’t the most stylish model, if such a thing could be called stylish at all. It looked like a close-fitting metal visor; a blank faceplate that covered from her cheekbones to her forehead and wrapped around to cover her ears before latching behind her head. Examining it briefly, before bothering with the instructions, she hit the slide switch beneath the right side.


    The outside of the thing fired up in a shifting, snowcrash kind of digital pattern, custom malicious code injection designed to confuse the face-rec cameras, biometric scanners, and all manner of identifiers around her into thinking she wasn't blocking them out. That was the hard part – anyone could blindfold themselves or rig up a simple filter with VR from decades ago, but tricking the adverts into paying out without having to see them, that was what she'd paid for.


    It was common practice these days, a war of escalation that had somehow overlooked this apartment complex full of young tech specialists with the usual lack of respect for ULAs and click-through contracts. She supposed the place was too cheap and hacked-together to justify the upgrade costs.


    She held it up in front of her, looking inside at the heads-up display and uncalibrated screen. Already it was starting to work, chopping out certain images and holos like they were frames on a webpage. Aline grinned and tore into the manual.


    Calibrating the device took the better part of an hour, and, in a fit of paranoia, she brought it into the bathroom for fear that one of the companies would detect it before it was ready. The blocker had to be adjusted both to her vision and biometrics, and to her location, so it would know what configurations to use – what companies and governments it had to trick. When it was finally ready, she slipped it over her eyes, pulling the padded plastic and metal arms of the thing around her ears, latching it behind her head.


    Silence. Aline opened her eyes and looked around. She blinked twice, trying to detect some sign that there was a display and cameras between her eyes and the rest of the world. She couldn't find one. She looked at herself in the mirror above the toilet-sink combo. Another tech-faced drone still wearing her business formal. She'd blend right in.


    She could still hear her footsteps, the tap of her fingers against the rim of the sink. She turned on the faucet and listened to the running water and wondered how the blocker could isolate it so well from the din outside the room, or if it was a canned sound.


    Time to see if it worked. Bracing herself, Aline opened the door.


    A perfect one-to-one vision of her apartment, indistinguishable from her own eyes met her, different only by the fact that the myriad garish, colorful, endlessly moving and screaming adverts had been replaced with a repeating, default image of a peaceful mountain lake.


    She bit her lip. Good. That part down. Now she just had to see if it really worked. She didn't want to think about giving up this silence now that she had it, but if it cost her money or got her in trouble... hell, she wasn't even sure she'd be able to return the damn thing.


    Aline crossed to the security center/thermostat/entertainment system/cost tracker combo box by the door. Her eyes panned across the electricity, water, heat, gas, and finally the deduction for the ad revenue generated by her views. It hadn't changed. No warnings were issued.


    She breathed a sigh of relief and folded against the door. For the first time in more than a month, she had real solitude and quiet.


    She slept for the night and most of her day off.


***


    The city cop glared at her as she passed. Though faceless themselves, they didn't like when civilians strolled around with their eyes covered. They'd gotten used to pointing identity scanners at them all day long and this sort of thing smacked of an impending riot. It was so common these days though, that there wasn't much they could do about it. Not until the blockers were illegal again.


    Aline was grateful the thing hid most of her face. She’d practically been raised on the mantra of nothing-to-hide, nothing-to-fear, and had gotten accustomed to knowing that if she’d been flagged for anything, by any system, she’d be stopped and held or at least charged as soon as a cop laid eyes on her. In fact, this was quite possibly the first time she’d ever walked past one without taking that risk.


    It made her feel guilty and glad they couldn't ident her.


    She was wearing her comfortable street clothes now, hiking boots and cable-fibered jeans and her impact-plated synth-leather jacket. The kind of clothes someone normally too cheap to hire a cab or waste a train credit tended to wear on their own time. Someone accustomed to walking everywhere, even through bad zones.


    The city looked so different when it wasn't screaming at her five stories high. Everywhere she looked, the device intercepted the talking heads and swirling text and replaced them with calm, still images – sometimes even a reconstruction of the building’s facade, normally hidden by projections and illusions built from tech and physics so complex as to be low-rate magic.


    Out of habit, she checked storefront windows as she walked, taking in her surroundings in the reflections. A tall man in a long coat – maybe the dress version of a soldier’s armored greatcoat, had been following her for a few blocks, but with so many people out, it was inevitable that someone would. Still, she made a mental note and kept an eye on him, as her hands settled comfortably on the knife and aerosol taser she carried in her pockets. Come to think of it, the blocker probably had a rear view, if she could figure it out.


    She felt strange wearing this thing in public – it was easy to forget you had it on, or so they said, but she still noticed it. Some people gave her weird looks, but they were familiar ones, worn-in reactions to another wirehead, mask-wearing weirdo. She was hardly an early adopter.


    The train wasn't far – one of those places where the tunnel entrance was set into the door of an ancient building, almost blending in but for a sign lost in adspace.

    Why not? She smiled… with the blocker running, she could leave the ad frequency turned up through the night and shave a little off her rent. She could spare a train cred here and there, and most of her time off today was spent already.


    The tunnel was lit with phantom light, neon colors cast by sources hidden behind digital illusions painted directly onto her eyes. The blocker didn’t have to trick these adverts, so it had extra processing power to spare, seamlessly overlaying images from century-old scans. The old concrete and murals restored at long last.


    It was nice. Peaceful almost. The murals, even simulated, were kind of pretty, well made, at least back then. She supposed they were covered in a decade or two’s worth of grime and mold by now.


    She lingered for a moment when she realized that one of the blocked adscreens was showing an error message instead of a default picture or texture reconstruction. That was odd, why would the device show her an error belonging to the company?


    Gibberish rendered in plain black text overlaid a patchy, corrupted image, blocks and lines of neon color. Weird... but not a huge problem. These ads didn't benefit her any, so she didn't particularly care.


    Briefly she worried that the system would detect the error and flag her – maybe even alert the ad company so they could send a daemon to track her, but she shook it off, hurrying on her way down the narrow tunnel and into the station proper. It looked oddly regal rendered in clean, unobstructed stone and cement instead of its usual grime and shabbiness beneath the colorful screens and wires, old posters and holo emitters.


    For a moment Aline heard a skittering static sound, like hard-shelled insects, and she decided she didn't really like the device trying to paint a nicer picture over reality. She'd have to configure that away at some point.


    She cleared the security gate, turned the corner and stopped. The entire hallway before her was covered in error messages. The same as before, they covered the walls and ceiling of the tunnel.


    “The hell?” she asked. Briefly, she paged through the device's menus and status screens, but nothing looked relevant or amiss. After a moment, she pulled the visor off her head, to see if the screens were glitching on their own and the blocker just wasn't hiding them.


    She jumped back reflectively when a man in a suit appeared in the tunnel a couple meters away. She could have sworn she’d been alone. The man gave her a look reserved for scorning crazy people, but kept walking.


    “What the fuck...” she muttered, wondering how she'd gotten distracted enough that she she failed to watch her surroundings. Bad habits.


    The ads were normal without the visor, colorful beaches and dream vacations, flashing products and cacophonous audio overlay; shoes and tech and drugs and food. A dozen services she desperately needed, which only one company could provide. She shook her head and put the visor back on.


    This time the mountains and lakes were back. She breathed a little inward sigh of relief and started toward the train platform. As she walked past though, each screen reverted to the error message from before. Aline just walked faster.


    She reached her usual platform a minute later and looked around.


    Across the tracks from her, scrawled almost floor-to ceiling in black spray paint, read the words     “BEWARE THE BOSSES” and in smaller letters: “COVER YOUR EYES”


    The paint was faded behind the grey residue from the trains, almost the same color as the brick it was painted on, sometimes barely showing through other equally-dated graffiti.


    Aline frowned, and checked her surroundings, momentarily disoriented. She would have remembered that from before. But she was in the right place, standing in the same spot on the same platform she normally did, when she used it at all. The same familiar details of architecture and structure were all there, but this was new.


    Then she remembered the blocker and looked back at the words. They must have been there before, under all the advertisements.


***


    When she woke the next morning, the pristine expanse of repeated, poorly-ratioed mountains and lakes was marred by one of those error messages. Briefly panicked, Aline bolted from her bed to the thermostat, only to breath a sigh of relief when she saw that the fee had not increased, and no warning or error message was displayed. Still, paranoid that she’d already been caught, that the companies knew, she crouched down in front of the adscreen to figure out what was going on.


    The error message was mostly gibberish floating over a corrupted digital pattern of neon colors but it seemed to indicate that it was an error in the ad itself and not the visor. She studied it for a moment, trying to make sense of the text and even the strange, almost-edge-detect pattern formed over the glitching background, before taking the visor off to see if it changed. Sound and light and color made her jump, suddenly surrounded by loud appeals and smiling faces, but the adscreen had gone back to normal.


    “Weird.” She checked the time and was shocked to see it was almost six. How the hell had that happened? She was going to be late.


    The ad companies failed to send the army of lawyers and company soldiers she’d imagined in the time it took her to finish a quick shower and find fresh clothes, so she hurried out the door without a second thought.


***


    The security woman manning the checkpoint in the office lobby managed to look bored while still exuding hostile authority from every pore.


    She held Aline’s ID tag up, looking from her picture to her face like she didn’t believe any of it, despite the battery of scans and tests the intern and card both went through to get this far.


    “All-your-devices-in-the-storage-locker.” the woman merged the words together with the ease of repetition. “Weirdo goggles too. Pick them up at the end of the day.”


    Aline nodded, trying not to get annoyed at the manager breezing past the checkpoint on her phone some fifteen meters away.


    She went back for her ID.


    “You're not on your medication.” the security guard said.


    “Um,” Aline blinked. “...no, I'm uh, I’m getting enough sleep now, so I don't really need...”


    “Well I am going to have to report you for neglecting your company health advisory plan. If you want to go off your meds, work that out with the medical staff and get a signed release. Understand?”


    “Uh, sure. Yeah, sorry.”


    The woman handed her ID back to her. “Alright, you’re free to go.”


    Before the blocker, the office had been Aline’s sanctuary from the battery of the noise outside. Not that she could relax here, of course. She was under strict, auto-monitored surveillance at all times. Everything was timed, everything was watched and appraised to determine if she really wanted to work here.


    She climbed the spiraling stairs from the lobby up to her floor. The hollow core of the building was a massive, stark thing rendered in marble, concrete, brushed steel, and glass, almost majestic in its lack of the vibrant colors splayed across every surface outside.


    Her own workspace was less impressive, grey sheetrock and carpet surrounding a waist-high cubicle farm. She looked up at the ceiling almost involuntarily as she badged in. They could easily have installed tiny, unnoticeable cameras for security’s sake here, but the reflective black domes served as a reminder that they were being monitored at all times, neatly stripping away any illusion of privacy or unaccountability while on company property, using their machines.


    The day crept by slowly – even moreso without the drugs. She found her mind wandering more than she could afford. Her fellow interns asked about the new blocker, what she thought about it, how well it was working, talked with forced positivity about the work they’d been handed.


    She saw five or six more of those error messages on her way home, and the glitching screen in the corner of her room was still there when she got back, though the corrupted data behind the text had taken on a more distinctively strange pattern, almost like it had been forced through that filter again and again – the hard digital blocks smoothed with rounded lines and shapes, like some sort of haywire edge detect started drawing pictures out of the corrupted information.


    The week continued much the same from there. Five more days of pretending to be busy for the cameras and managers and regular employees, of trying not to look at the clock in the corner of the screen because the eye-tracking software would note it, of doing busy work, contradictory work, and other employees' tasks, and saying yes sir, yes ma’am to people who didn’t bother to look at her. She took as small a dosage of her drugs as she thought she could get away with, and tried a couple times to convince the doctor to take them off her health plan.


    Allthewhile, the error messages appeared more and more frequently around her commute, that strange pattern getting more and more common and advanced. The one in her apartment in particular gave her something to stress over. She could have ignored the weirdness if it stayed outside, but whenever she caught a glimpse of it in her home, she found herself wondering if it knew or not. Was it reporting back her activities? Was it smart enough?


    The wall behind the panels was a mess of tangled wires, tamper sensors, hell, even mercury switches, so she couldn’t get any idea of what brand the screen and scanners were, nor of which company owned them. She was afraid to mess with anything back there lest she get charged for damages or sued for ‘hacking.’


    Folding neatly into her newfound paranoia were a series of bizarre glitches, which got creepier as time went on. She wasn’t sure at first if it was the drugs or the blocker, or maybe some combination thereof, but they stood out so starkly against the mind numbing regularity of her routine that her days soon seemed almost defined by them.


    They started simply enough, easy to dismiss; she’d hear her name called on the street or while in her apartment; people in the crowds around her would suddenly vanish or glitch from one position to another – probably just the visor struggling to sort the holograms out on high-traffic days.


    Then they began to change. Sometimes she seemed to be surrounded by an army of clones, or weird, distorted faces shaped deep in the uncanny valley, but if she removed the visor, her vision was so swiftly overwhelmed with holographic crowds and signs that she couldn’t actually get a baseline. It was easy to forget how vibrant and bizarre an army of virtual solicitors, each designed to attract attention where others had failed, could be.


    Sometimes when she tried to sleep, she heard a faint, ticking static reminiscent of chitinous insects crawling and falling and clicking against each other. She couldn’t hear it over the adverts when she removed the visor – or even when she turned their volume off – so she spent a few hours trying to figure out if it was the noise-cancellation, and why it didn't happen outside her room.


    In some places, it seemed to reveal the filth and grime and general shabbiness of the place hidden behind illusions, and in others it seemed to paint over it with picturesque color and vibrancy. And on rare occasions, she could have sworn she'd bumped into someone who wasn't there, but it was hard to tell, for in the time it took to remove the visor, whoever it was had been swallowed by the crowd.


***


    Aline blinked the sleep out of her eyes and looked at herself in the mirror. She looked exhausted, maybe moreso than she had back when the company had her on the drugs. Running on autopilot, she found her toothbrush and paste and glanced back up as she started brushing her teeth.


    Her reflection met her gaze. It wasn't holding a toothbrush.


    Then it smiled and winked.


    Aline screamed and lurched away from the thing, stumbling into the wall and out of the bathroom door, half falling until she was sitting on the floor just outside. Her hand hit the side of the visor as she tried to recover, and she stopped.


    She was wearing the blocker.


    “What the fuck?” she asked, wild-eyed and bewildered.


    She didn’t wear it for the rest of the morning, just to make sure she wasn’t seeing things on her own. She avoided casting a reflection in the mirror though, and she watched it carefully while in the bathroom, as if afraid her reflection would press its face against the glass.


    Once she hit the street, she put it on again, more for proof it was the problem than for anything else. Everything seemed normal, but she watched her surroundings carefully, trying to spot any discrepancies. Several times she tried taking it off and comparing reality to her filtered version, and everything seemed normal, though the details were lost as usual in a sea of virtual solicitors. Eventually she left it on, tentatively enjoying the relative peace and wondering if she’d somehow imagined her early morning fright.


    She was almost to the office when the next one happened.


    “Hi there miss!”


    Aline jumped as a hologram ripped through the filters across her vision, almost through reality itself, piling out and crowding her space. She reeled back from that exaggerated face, its soulless eyes and and its inhumanly wide smile.


    “Our biometrics have detected that you’re all fucked up on drugs! Have you considered insuring your liver and kidneys against their eventual failure?! Paragon Biologistics can help! Replacements are expensive, especially for someone in your wealth bracket, and with our help, you can receive Paragon synthetic organs! Guaranteed to have a better warranty than your originals! Ha Ha!”


    “Get out of my way.” Aline snarled, as she tried to shove past it, surprised and confused that the blocker had already hit a genuine failure, rather than another odd glitch. She wasn’t even near any of the big advertizing hubs where the tech might have been different.


    The hologram wasn’t fixed though, it didn’t stand in place like a regular ad-man but glided in front of her like an overlay on her screen. Slowly, it’s face seemed to warp, like soft wax, it’s smile becoming terrible and its eyes demonic black pools.


You’re going to die, bitch!” it exclaimed in a thrilled, awful voice, and it threw back its head and laughed.


Aline ripped off the visor.

***

She found Mikael in the building cafeteria, a decent sized buffet cubbied off the side of the main lobby, sculpted plastic tables and chairs clustered around its open wall. They weren’t friends or anything, but they got along alright, and he was the local authority on adblockers, and one of the ones who’d recommended this model to her.


“Hey, I need to talk to you.” she said told him, stopping him along the buffet counter.


“What’s up?” he asked, suspicion and concern crossing his face at the force of her words. He let the reader scan his hand and deduct the sum from his pay.

“Something's wrong with my blocker.”


“What?” they stopped halfway to the door. She’d caught him off guard – probably been expecting some minor crisis of office drama. Took a moment for his brain to recalibrate. He gestured and they found a table in the big open area, hundreds of floors stretching above them to the glass-roofed sky.


    She leaned in close. “It's- someone's messing with me. Maybe it's subordned, maybe just malware, I don’t know but…”


“Really? 'It's a virus?’ You sound like a user, Aline.”


“I'm serious.”


He looked at her for a moment. “Alright alright, what's it doing?”


She didn’t know where to begin. “Like, low-rate augmented reality gaslighting bullshit. It started with weird glitches and overlays, then it started getting creepy... adding people to crowds or changing them into monsters, playing tricks on me with my reflection, like making it smile at me.”


“That’s fucked up.” he opined. Then he looked around a little without turning his head, leaned in himself. “You know they monitor out here, right?” he asked, voice barely audible, as if that would matter.


“Yeah. I don’t care.”


“Alright. Like I said, fucked up.” but there was doubt in his voice. “But, how could it even- it doesn't even have an augmented reality capability. SandmanOverkill knocked points off his review for a lack of a real HUD and gaming/sit-awareness potential. It’s why I haven’t switched over yet.”


“I don’t know. I’ve been all through the guides and forums and I haven’t found anything. Maybe it does, maybe it was just buried features, locked out. Maybe someone tampered with it, maybe it's built to do this by design, I don’t know, but it’s fucked up. I thought you might have heard something”


“Nothing like that.” he thought for a moment, took some bites of his French toast. “Alright, listen. I don't have that model but Sandra does, and she hasn't had any problems. Maybe we can compare your rigs some night and see if they're different at all... and I'll put out some feelers, ask around and see if anyone’s seen anything like this. That sound good?


    “Awesome. Thank you.”


    “Yeah, no problem. It’d suck if you ended up with a bad unit or something, especially for that price.”


***


    Aline hurried through the vaulted tunnels of the station, watching her surroundings nervously. The number of errors thrown by the blocker were increasing – and more and more they displayed those strange error patterns, making her wonder if she’d missed news of an update to whatever software they were using to render the ads.


    Part of her wondered why she was still wearing the damned thing, but it seemed like the unfiltered world had changed since she’d started. The holograms and adverts, once neutrally annoying had become hostile – not overtly, at least not often, but in little ways. The knowing, hateful look in their eyes, the almost sarcastic mirth in their voices, the whispers that escaped when she shouldn’t have been able to hear them.


    Logically she knew that glitches shouldn’t matter here, after all, she wasn’t seeing any profit for the ads, but they still made her nervous. In fact, a faint sense of dread had been knotting her stomach for her whole day off – paranoia at the way the Transit Auth. cops watched her pass, at the surreal and myriad errors and glitches the blocker was displaying, and the feeling of being watched… normal for someone in this city but somehow growing more intense and hostile by the day.


    She turned to check behind her, and caught a glimpse of another blocked adscreen, its strange, colorful, almost-organic error patterns forming what briefly looked like a skull rendered in neon. Once the focus of her vision settled on it, however, it had shifted to some nightclub scene advertising headache medicine. How it got through the blocker, she didn’t know.


    “Fucking messing with me.” she muttered. “Doesn’t matter, almost home now.”


    She was alone in the tunnel approaching the platform. Normally that was a good thing, but for some reason, the dread welled up, almost stopping her cold.


    “Next, train in, twelve minutes.”


    “Almost home.” she kept walking, but the fear didn’t recede.


    She turned the corner and saw it.


    The figure stood most of the way down the platform, facing away. Far enough that she shouldn’t have worried, but something about it hit those low instincts, deep under the veneer of consciousness and personality. Somewhere in the back of her skull, her lizard-brain screamed for her to run. She took another step, more because she’d already been walking than because she wanted to get closer.


    It was dark, like a silhouette, hard to make out the details, but the ones she could see were right, it was the proportions between them that were wrong. Too tall and thin, stretched like a bad image manip.


    The figure was looking away, but at that moment, it took two steps and turned around until it was facing her. It cocked its head to the side, watching her, seeming to smile though she couldn’t see its mouth…


    Then it changed. It threw out its limbs, stretching them to the walls of the tunnel as it clipped from the ground and surged towards her hellishly fast, its too-long torso swinging back and forth in a tangle of terrible, darting arms and legs.


    Another man seemed to see it, he bolted for a connecting tunnel and ran, but Aline stood frozen, her mind stumbling in that brief panic where one has too many options. Her hands groped for her taser spray and knife but she knew it wouldn’t help. For a second, she saw it in greater detail. It was pure black, like a hole in reality, or a glitching character model with no textures applied and bad variables stretching its limbs crazily.


    Then she ran.


    There was no thought to her flight, no plan or strategy. She didn’t know where she was going and she sure as hell didn’t look back.


    Wall and grates, tile and cement and brick flashed past in a blur. Sometimes she was in the somewhat-polished commercial platforms and tunnels, sometimes she was in the grimy grey, dirt-and-rock-and-soot halls of the train tunnels, all ‘I’ beams and tattered chainlink fences, and sparse old incandescent lights.


    It kept after her with merciless ease, gliding and skittering along behind and above her, and she plunged into unknown territory, heedless of whatever dangers lurked ahead, because they couldn’t hope to match the thing behind her.


    Finally, after what felt like hours of blind, desperate running, her body gave out. Years of walking everywhere had helped, but nobody could run forever. She collapsed, smack into the damp tunnel floor, gasping for air that did nothing, felt too thin, her chest burning from the inside, mucus and blood thick in her mouth. She took in her surroundings with wild eyes, hand fumbling for the aerosol taser.


    She was alone. Alone in a dark, narrow, rectangular tunnel, and it was a tunnel, God knew where. She cast about looking vainly for some sign of that thing, taking in her surroundings as she did so. Brick walls, smooth under layers of old red paint and lined with cable conduit piping met her eye, a cracked cement ceiling studded with mostly vacant light sockets, and a matching floor. There was an unevenness to the place – the lines of the bricks would shift up and down to match the cracked, wavering ceiling, and when she tried, weakly, to regain her feet, she almost toppled again. The tunnel was tilted, sloping downwards. She’d been fleeing deeper underground.


    For a brief moment, Aline considered turning back, saying ‘fuck that’ to descending further into… wherever this was, but one look back into the darkness above was enough to change her mind. She could almost feel something watching her from the shadows. No way in hell was she going back up there with that thing waiting for her. Either way she'd be sneaking through unknown tunnels trying to find her way back, the only difference was, she knew the danger lurked somewhere behind her.


    Better to keep it there.


    She started walking, slowly this time. Even after that brief rest, her legs and back burned and ached from exertion, her heart was still pounding, and her lungs felt ragged. But she couldn’t stand to linger here. She had to get moving.


    Sweat soaked her shirt and jeans, and her feet in her boots. She would have removed her jacket if it wasn’t for the faint comfort of the armored material, and the fear of leaving her back exposed to the darkness above. She was grateful for it soon, as the sweat cooled in the unusually chill underground air.


    At one point she passed a workman’s light, a bare lightbulb on an extension cord, caged with rubber-coated wire, clamped to the conduit piping. Somehow it was wonderfully encouraging, a reminder that this place had been built and accessed by humans – that she wasn’t alone in some isolated cave or ruin.


    It also reminded her that she was trespassing.


    She kept glancing behind her as she walked, but she couldn’t see any sign of that many-limbed figure. It was all too easy to picture that thing surging down the narrow passageway like a great spider or centipede, her with no place to run or escape to, but it didn’t appear. Eventually, her tunnel opened into a wider, perpendicular one, this one arched and better lit, the occasional old sign or metal doorway studding the walls.


    For a brief moment she looked cautiously in either direction. Left seemed better lit, so she chose it and started walking.


    After a while, the lights grew more scarce and the walls and ceiling sometimes opened into that peculiar tangle of jumbled stairways and passages and levels that complex tunnel systems often formed over time, wrapping around themselves. Slowly, Aline started to ascend, cautiously drawing closer to civilization.


    Not long after that, she heard voices. Just to be sure, she took off the visor – her world darker and quieter without the blocker's volume and brightness cranked up – and listened carefully. There were people somewhere ahead.


    Following the voices wasn’t easy, the rooms and passageways got smaller, until she was following rows of cables and pipes, squeezing sideways through rough, narrow holes cut through stone and older cement. And though she knew now that it had probably been some glitch or joke, the idea of being trapped, stuck in there when that thing drew upon her was terrifying, and she often found herself panicked, rushing and forcing her way through the spaces, old pipe mountings and prods of stone scraping at her clothes and skin.


    Finally she managed to crawl out into some sort of equipment room – the ceiling low, rows of silent old machines sitting on concrete platforms in the near-total darkness. A faint rectangle formed an open doorway, and outside it, the circle of a flashlight danced and skipped thinly against the brick.


    She stepped out into the hall, one shoulder against the doorway. There was a sound from the source of the light, and the beam locked onto her.

    Jaysus!” A man exclaimed. “Who the hell’re you?”


    If she hadn’t been so scared and tired, Aline might have laughed. It must have been a surprise of a lifetime to see someone just standing there in the darkness.

    “Come on out of there!” Another man said. “And don’t make any sudden moves!”


    “Alright, sorry!” Aline said. Slowly, she walked towards them, hands held out at her sides. In the light of their main tunnel, things didn’t feel so bad.


    “Who the hell’re you? And how the hell'd you get down here?” The two men were wearing some kind of uniform – not cops, maybe private security, maybe just maintenance. Both were middle aged, but toughly built.


    “I’m sorry, I was lost… I, there was a tunnel... I came through-” she tried to gesture back behind her.


    “Lady there's nothing back there but the stairs and there's a security gate. Take those damn goggles off so I can see you. Fucking VR junkies.”


    One of them went back to the room she’d come from and pronounced it secure, though he griped that “That door’s supposed to be locked.” while the other one asked helpful questions like “Alright, what have you had and how much?”


    Aline didn’t understand how they’d missed the cable conduit or whatever it was she’d come through, maybe it was hidden better in the light, but they weren’t about to let her back there to show them. There was talk of bringing her straight to Transit Authority, and at this point, she didn’t even care.


    One said “Alright, lets go.” and with her in front, they started back the way they’d come.


It was just luck that she’d turned to look back at them.


    Slowly, the spiderlike, glitching silhouette crawled and stretched itself along the walls behind the pair.


    “Behind you!” she gasped, pointing. It surged towards them, with a sort of silent roar, and she ran, boots slamming the concrete. Faintly, she heard the words “I can’t believe we fell for that.” behind her.


    Then she was lost in the tunnels again.

***


    There were racks and racks of heavy tech. High-grade corp-gov stuff, old, but still running. She knew it was old because the prevailing color was beige, but she didn't know which of the decades that had been in professional style for these had come from.


    And through the noise of the fans, she could hear something moving.


    She didn’t know who it was, or what, but she didn’t think it was that creature. As far as she remembered, it didn’t make sound. She moved carefully, crouched in the darkness, watching up and down the rows, and through the metal grills of the server racks. She was grateful for the coat now because this room was cold. Thinking back, it was probably where all the chill breezes she’d felt earlier had been drifting up from.


    There was a ting and clatter, like light, fallen metal hitting the floor, and she dropped lower into her crouch. It was somewhere to her right, past rows of metal grated racks, machines and airflow space.


Peering through the perforated metal doors, cables, and tech, she caught a bit of motion. There you are… she crept along the racks to the end of the row and started, silently under the whir of thousands of fans and pumps, towards them. Whoever this person was, she wanted to lay eyes on them before she repeated her last misadventure with strangers down here.


    Aline crept along a wall that transitioned from cement to brick to cement again, a mess of materials and additions from different decades, like so much of this place, crisscrossed with hundreds of cable conduits and pipes. Slowly, she passed row after empty row, the darkness thinned only by status lights and old LED screens.


    Not far ahead, she heard the clatter again, followed by a muffled curse. She pressed herself against the cool metal of the end of the row and peered around the corner.


    It was a man in jeans and a sweatshirt – one of those ones with the stiff, auto-hardening material on the elbows and forearms, shoulders and along the torso that freerunners and builderers sometimes wore – with a backpack and flashlight.


    He was working on a computer.


    He had an old-style monitor propped up on one of the machines, pulled out on its rails and was crouched on one knee, reading off the display. Several other, opened devices were scattered around the floor in a nest of gutted technology.


    He was a younger man, probably close to her age, thin and with short-cropped hair, though it was longer than hers. He was wearing some old-style infoshades, but he had a blocker sitting nearby. Far enough away to be non-threatening, but close enough she could probably hit him with her aerosol taser if she had to.


    Fine then, lets see if he knew the way out. Aline stepped out, the complex, cartridge-loaded plastic-framed spray-gun of her taser hanging ready at her side.


    “Hey. What are you doing?” she asked.


    The man jumped up, startled. He almost tripped backwards over one of the old processing rigs, but recovered himself, taking a few more steps back as he did so and Aline stifled a curse. She doubted the spray would reach that far with any power.


    “Who the fuck are you?” He demanded. His eyes locked on her taser and before she could react, he’d drawn a gun from behind his lower back.


    Shit.


    It was an early model coilgun, a lumpy, scifi looking thing. Probably an antique these days, but popular with street kids for their relative silence, smooth-bore barrels, and DIY maintenance and construction. They were growing more common with her own crowd of broke professionals, retro-tech hipsters, eccentrics, and paranoids.


    “I asked you first.” she said, eyes locked on the muzzle of the gun.


    “Ha.” the man fit the laugh into one syllable. He seemed to have recovered himself. “There's two kinds of people. Ones with guns, and ones that explain themselves. So who are you and how the hell’d you get in here without tripping one of my sensors?”


    “I’m Aline, Aline Brooks.” she spoke slowly, trying to deescalate the situation. “I didn't mean to trespass or anything, I just- I could use some directions, okay? I’m not looking for trouble or anything-”


    “What about that?” he gestured towards the taser.


    Aline flicked her eyes at the gun in his hands and raised an eyebrow. “Buddy, if I’d wanted to zap you out, I could have done it before I said ‘hi.’”


    He considered that for a moment. “Good point.” he conceded. He lowered the gun but didn’t come any closer. “Sorry. I’m Joel, archeotech, urban explorer... sometimes looter.”


    The end of his sentence stretched into an awkward silence.


    “What is all this?” Aline asked, looking around. “It yours?”


    He cracked a smile at that. “Nah, this had all been running for years when I found it. I work for a little firm up on Hartwell, fixing in-built legacy systems, ripping data from dead ‘ware. Boss pays a commission for any special parts I can scrounge for certain jobs. Found this place when I was uh, exploring. Only thing keeping the dust off was the auto-scrubbers.” he looked around for a moment.     “So, you said you’re lost?


    “I think I know about where I am,” she lied. “But I wouldn’t mind better directions to street-level.” She didn’t want to admit that she had no idea where she was, and probably couldn’t find her way to safety if he tried something.


    “Oh. Fair enough.” he turned to watch the monitor again. “To be honest, I'm pretty impressed you found this place – normally it seems like the hardest part of urbexing these days is finding a single spot that's not jammed to the walls with squatters. But far as I know, you're the first person 'sides me who's found it. And with all this tech running, that's saying something. How'd you do that anyways?”


    “Um, I don't really- I just sort of walked here.” he looked sidelong at her and she shrugged. “I'm just having a really bad day, okay?”


    His eyes flicked down to the blocker she was still carrying and he nodded, his expression unreadable. “Yeah… maybe you are.” he gestured at the visor. “That thing acting haywire?” he asked.


    Aline twitched, almost a startled jump. Nice poker face, there. “Uh, yeah, I… I think it is.” doubt crept into her voice. She remembered the second time she’d seen the spidery form melting from the darkness behind those two transit authority guys. Had she been wearing the blocker then? Had she put it back on?

    “You’re seeing weird stuff? Weird patterns?”


    “Yeah.”


    “Describe them.”


    She blinked. “Uh, they look like some of that old AI learning stuff, synthetic imagination images, except, really complicated, fractal.”


    “Anything else? Anything weird?”


    “Like what?” she asked, guarded.


    “Creepy stuff, seeing copies of yourself in the crowd, holograms going haywire, people getting distorted, monsters climbing around on the walls.”


    Aline looked at him for a moment, and took a chance. There was something in his face that she suspected mirrored her own.


    “Well... my reflection smiled and winked at me, holograms keep bursting through the filter acting all crazy, and I got chased down here by some stretched out… thing with these long arms and legs climbing all over the walls like a corrupt avatar.”


    The man nodded, there was a knowing – she swore, almost haunted – look in his eye. He produced a fold screen and swiped through to a well-drawn image. Held it up. Aline recoiled as soon as she saw the stretched out, spider-like silhouette.


    “Yeah, that’s it. What the fuck?” she looked at him, equal parts baffled and suspicious. Then her eyes narrowed. “What do you know about that?” she demanded. Her hand tightened on the plastic grip of the taser.


    He gave her a tired look and turned back towards the screen. “I didn't have anything to do with it, if that's what you're worried about. Almost wish I did. I started seeing things like that a while back. Before I worked my way down here. Wish I could say it gets better but, it doesn't.”


    She let the words sink in. Scrolled back through the buffer and played them again.


    “Wait, so the glitches are consistent? You've seen them? Other people are getting them? What model hardware do you-”


    “Hardware doesn't matter, least, it doesn't for me. Look, if I start trying to explain this stuff, I'll just be some crazy conspiracy nut in a creepy basement and neither of us wants that. My advice is go home and try to ignore it all. I don't think you'll be able to but hey, maybe you'll get some really good drugs or something. Let me finish up with this, and I'll show you the way out, no trouble or strings attached.”


    He chewed his lip, looked to her, then back at the screen. Thinking.


    “But...” He said after a moment. “If you're anything like me, and you can't, then meet me back here tomorrow night. I wasn’t quite honest before… about why I’m down here. There’s something going on, something crazy, and... maybe you should see it for yourself.”


    “Just like that?”


    Joel laughed, looked back at the screen for a long moment. Near the end, he seemed to almost shrink into himself. For a split second, all the paranoia and confidence slipped and he just looked exhausted.


    “To be honest? Yeah. Yeah, just like that. Fuck it, why not?” he looked back at her but wasn’t really asking. “I’m so goddamned tired, I just don’t care anymore. Before you showed up, the only people talking about this stuff were deep secret paranoid types, trading stories and pictures on dark burner-forums with heavy crypto, trying to stay under the radar. But yeah, we’re not alone, there’s other people out there.


    “You can go crazy living like that too long, not knowing if it’s real, having to track them down again every couple days, thinking you made it all up. So I don’t care if you’re some government shill, at least you’re acknowledging it and it doesn’t take hours to have a two-sentence conversation with you.”


    So he was as crazy as she was. Well, that explained the gun, at least.


    “Okay, but can we meet someplace that isn’t the creepiest server room on earth?” she asked.


    The man cracked a slight smile. “Alright, there’s an arcade on Broadway, little cafe with a big VR warehouse set up down underneath. We can meet there – the door in the back is how I found all this in the first place. Used to work there. They still let me through. There’s stuff, deeper down that you have to see. Bring a backpack and lots of food and water.”


    She thought for a moment. “That… thing.” she gestured towards the fold screen but he knew she meant the spiderlike entity. “What the hell is it?”


    “Damned if I know. All I can say is all the others were seeing it too and it’s real consistent. Certain drug trip reports used to mention it too – different cultures, different drugs, doesn't matter, eventually it shows up. If anyone had ever pointed out the repetition I might have thought it was staged but most of it was date-tagged and far as I know, we were the only ones to make the connection. I hate it. Half the time I feel like its watching me, some of the others say it’s always in the room with them, but I never knew how much I could trust them not to mess with me.”


    “Great.” Aline looked over her shoulder. “And this place? What is it and why isn’t it secured? What’s it do, who owns it? The city? Transit? Utilities?”


    “I don’t know that either, but no to all of those. Whatever this is, I think they’re leeching off the grid. They’re all running hot, working at near-100% utilization, far as I can tell, they’ve been running for a long time, but I can’t make sense of any of what it’s doing. But for what it’s worth, its the least of the weirdness down here.”


    “Great.” she said again.

***


    He was neighborly enough to guide her out – even walked up ahead to put her mind at ease, though that didn’t stop her from taking a circuitous route home after they split, stopping at a restaurant and a cybercafe to watch the crowd and even cutting through some dead zones to lose any cam-net tracker-crawlers like a fugitive using a stream to hide their scent. She had to use her taser once to keep some punks away from her in the unlit, unpowered area, but she made it home alive and, to her knowledge, unfollowed.


    She didn’t know for certain if she’d go tomorrow. It wasn’t really feasible: she had work and calling in sick wasn’t a simple prospect – they would want to know why and with what, they’d need biometric data and written reports on her condition and a proposed plan for how she’d make up her time.


    Mostly she’d agreed because starting an argument with a clearly crazy man while trapped alone and lost in the tunnels (probably while trespassing) wasn’t something that would even occur to her. Especially when he had a gun.


    They didn’t exchange contact information or phone idents – theirs wasn’t the kind of association you formalized with the government or companies. All she had was a single meeting time and a first name.


    Part of her desperately wanted to know what was going on, but something told her that whatever she learned wouldn’t improve her life – after all, Joel was still rummaging around down there, paranoid and scared, his problems still far from solved.


    And that was her plan, to go to work like usual and blow off their meeting. Until she woke in the morning to find several unsmiling, silent corporate holograms standing over her. Until she saw that the error message had been swallowed entirely by a psychedelic tangle of neon fractal shapes, almost forming people and buildings and eyes – and that it was spreading like a growth to other screens. Until she looked, her vision unfiltered and unchanged by the blocker, into the bathroom mirror, and saw the all-black void of the thing from the night before, it’s ‘face’ wreathed with thin, insect-like appendages, staring back at her.


    “Fuck this.” she said when she’d managed to regain some semblance of calm. She found her dusty, dirty, stained street clothes from the night before and put them back on.

    ***

    She managed to catch Mikael while he was still on his walk to the office, still able to answer his personal phone.


    “Hey, Mikael I need a favor.”


    “What’s up? Problem with the blocker?”


    “I need you to tell them I’m calling in sick.”


    “What? Aline, that’s not how it works. They need-”


    “I know, I know, but this is important. Please, just take whatever shit they give me and tell Rios and Brady I’m out. I’ll owe you, seriously!”


    “What’s going on?”


    “It’s the weird shit from the blocker, I think I might have a lead on what’s causing it, and I need to know.


    There was a pause. For a moment she thought she’d lost her connection.


    “Aline, what drugs do they have you on?”


    “What? I haven’t taken-”


    “I know, but what did they give you?”


    She shook her head, rummaging through her memory as she forwarded a copy of her prescription. “Covalan, Amberogen, Xanthil-”


    “That’s not an upper, Aline, it’s an antipsychotic.” he said, reading off her list. “Hell, half the pharmacy they had you on can be used to treat paranoia, suppress hallucinations…”


    “What? Bullshit. I was never even on any meds before this job. Seriously, you have to believe me-”


    “Sure...” there was something odd in his voice. “Alright, maybe they included it to balance something else… you said you were having trouble sleeping, maybe it’s just to suppress any hallucinations from sleep dep or something. My brother’s the drug expert, not me. But if you ask me, you really ought to come in and talk with the medics… whatever you’re looking for, it can wait right?”


    “No, it won’t. I don’t think I’ll get another shot at this. Please!”


    “Fine. I’ll talk to them. But you owe me! Big time.”


    “Yeah. Yeah I do. Thanks.”


    “I still say this is a really bad idea. If they review my logs and pull up this conversation, who knows what they’ll think-”


    “You know what?” she said, realizing mid-thought that it was the truth. “I don’t care. Just tell them!”


    “Yeah. Be careful, alright?”


    She left her phone off after that.

***

    Somehow she’d never been as nervous walking in daylight, on a crowded street as she was right then. Maybe it was the sense of wrongness, of being away from her routine, her purpose, the tightly-regulated schedule she was supposed to follow. Maybe it was the memory of the nights before, of the two guards or techs who’d caught her trespassing on Transit Auth property. Had they been wearing bodycams? Had they identified her?


    Walking towards a group of city cops drove a cold spike of fear in her chest. It was too late to change her course – it would have seemed more suspicious, so he just followed the flow of people and tried not to stand out.


    They looked at her with that faint hostility, but it didn’t mean much. Sometime in the past, peoples' faces had become their license plates, and once that happened authority figures wouldn’t take kindly to covering them up.


    Getting past unscaithed didn’t help the pit of dread in her gut. Their inability to scan her didn’t mean she was in the clear. For the first time in her life, she didn’t know if she was in any sort of trouble – did she have warrants out? Had her company filed a report? There was no way to tell, other than to go back and risk the consequences.


    She was scared the rest of the way to the cafe.


***

    It was a retro-punk looking kind of place, trying to conform with yesterday's vision of the gritty future, catering to the hardcore VR crowd. More a place to hang around while waiting for friends to show than a regular restaurant. Those, supposedly, were downstairs.


    Randomly-sized monitors covered the the walls, showing news feeds and local artists work rather than ads, and colored wires, string lights, and patchy metal seemed to fill the space between them. It was a corner shop, but didn’t have many windows save for the narrow ones on either side of the door, covered in chicken wire and neon-tube signs. Every mismatched table had an old-school, curved-glass monitor set into its surface to go with the order system buttons.


    Aline sat at a high-top corner table in the back and watched the flow of people from the front to the stairs. Reviews said the arcade downstairs was massive, hundreds of games and even a few specialty restaurants so it made sense that the street entrance would become a meeting place.


    One of the staff brought her a cup of instant coffee without asking. Caffeine was water here, and Aline was grateful for it, tired as she was from last night. Though if there was one thing her nerves didn’t need right now, it was probably stimulants.


    She sipped at it as she waited for Joel to show. High on the walls, above the door were several monitors showing the street outside, just another part of the style, and she watched them for any sign of him.


    A few minutes later, she slipped down to her feet. People were approaching outside, and they looked like company security, all dark grey armor and yellow highlights. And the man who walked between them, in the suit, looked familiar.


    They couldn’t be there for her, could they? Though she did wonder why they were approaching the cafe at all – they were not its intended clientele.

    She looked to the bathrooms across the way, then to the crude stairs descending through the concrete floor.


    People looked at the suit and his muscle like they stank as they stepped inside. Sure, half of them probably worked corporate jobs, but they had the decency not to dress the part in here. Aline watched for a moment from the staircase as they looked around, but when they started to fan out towards the back, she turned and hurried down out of view.


    The stairs were rough, crudely cut through floors and foundation walls, the sides bricked up or filled in with cement. Soon, they opened out on a narrow landing overlooking a huge room, probably an old train station or such at one time. From up here it looked like a neon fairground or convention hall, dozens of booths surrounded with themed displays, lit with lasers and spotlights from metal tracks high above.


    Looking back, she saw grey armored legs and hurried, as casually as possible, down one of the side stairs.


    The arcade floor was easy to get lost on, rows and rows of platforms and booths, some even set into the floor or raised up high, each decked out with a different theme rendered in paint and injection-molded models; plastic plants and robots and skeletons, tanks and knights, giant monsters, mech suits, aliens, and adventurers from every genre.


    VR gamers, wireheads and casuals crowded the aisles, though the real crowds wouldn’t start until later.


    Aline kept moving, heading slowly towards the back, trying to keep eyes on all the company men, lest one manage to sneak up on her. What kind of trouble could justify this effort? This expense? She’d half expected to be fired for obviously skipping work with no explanation, but all this for a lowly intern?


    A thought occurred to her then. What if they’d heard Mikael’s call and knew she’d stopped taking their drugs… what if they thought she was crazy, a liability to the company?


    What if they knew about last night? What if they knew what that server room did, knew she’d been there while Joel was tampering with it? What if they knew she knew something was wrong... because they’d had something to do with it?


    She reached the back wall and found the door, mostly hidden behind an abandoned booth. She slipped through and stopped for a moment to let her eyes adjust. The company men were too spread out now. If she stayed out there, sooner or later one of them would find her.


    She looked at the hatch near the back wall. She’d just have to wait down below and hope they didn’t know you could reach the warren of tunnels from here, and that Joel would find her.

***

    She’d been descending for a while. At first it had been because there was no cover. Because any casual cast of a flashlight’s beam would light her up if one of them poked their head down here. Then she didn’t know why… maybe she’d gotten tired of waiting, maybe that awful draw she felt from the darkness was more than just an intrusive thought.


    She was somewhat prepared this time. Her backpack was half filled with all the cheap instant meals she tended to buy, along with a blanket, flashlight, canisters for her taser, several knives which were now scattered through her pockets, and a homemade dart gun – a holdover from her old neighborhood where the restrictions on firearms had been stricter and the people more clever at circumventing them.


    She wished she could take some confidence from that small armory, that she could feel better about this, but that sense of dread had welled up as soon as she set foot down here and hadn’t let up. Something terrible was lurking down there, something she didn’t want to know about, didn’t want to face, but she couldn’t turn back, couldn’t leave it to fester where she couldn’t get to it. And something told her that she wouldn’t get another chance if she tried to go back to her life now.


    Her hallucinations or whatever they were were back too. Mild and unthreatening for the moment, but unmistakable nonetheless. Had the company’s drugs fucked up her brain that bad? Was it the blocker? Something else?


    The walls were strange here, irregular, almost dug down rather than drilled and dynamited… it made the place feel old. Ancient, in a way. Shiny panels set into the uneven walls – or perhaps the polished surfaces themselves, cast her reflection back at her.


    Voices called, she heard her name and theirs, while flickers of creatures danced in the darkness, like the shadows themselves were crawling and alive wherever her light didn’t touch.


    In the reflections she saw herself as seven generations of warriors, come to this place before – a furs-clad witch woman, a knight in armor, a man in a suit with a strange flintlock pistol, a soldier in splotchy, sleeveless cammo and a net-covered helmet, flamethrower at the ready. And others stranger still. She stopped where the tunnel dipped and turned, a smoother, larger reflection facing back at her. For a moment all of them seemed to stand in the same place. Then she was just herself, jeans and leather jacket, boots and metal visor and a taser that wouldn't do shit down here.


    Some adventurer.

***


    In the end, she found Joel much the same way she did before, by creeping up on a noise from out of the darkness. He’d been surprised as hell, and confused as to how she’d come up behind him, but they didn’t have time to investigate.


    They descended through the warren seemingly at random – staircases, dead escalators, ladders and ramps. Once they scrambled down a bundle of cables hanging through rough square holes cut in the concrete floors. Aline could almost feel a heartbeat in the wires.


    They passed through the server room where they’d met the night before, or one that looked much like it, and after that seemed to be following a run of wires hanging from the ceilings and bolted to the tile walls, sometimes just draped across the floor, over railings, and across empty expanses. Once or twice, Joel’s path diverged from the cables, but he always seemed to know where he was going.


    Aline was hopelessly lost.


    She’d known the roots of the city were massive, but she’d had no idea they went so deep. Even here, electricity hummed through ancient copper wire and light danced through glass. The depths were alive with an unimaginable flow of data and almost moving with a tremendous power – the summed needs and wants, knowledge and plans of hundreds of billions of people, of incomprehensible systems, corporations and organizations. It almost had a sentience, a life all its own.


    “The first blocker I bought was really basic,” Joel was talking quietly, in that serious, worried-you’ll-think-I’m-crazy way he had. Just the facts ma'am, stated how they were. “Not even adspec, really, just a basic holo-filter. It was popular with freerunners because it was fast and it lit up anywhere Civic Center was trying to use holograms to cover up damage or discourage climbers – basic safety for them, really. I liked it ‘cause it had built-in night vision.


    “Anyways, first time I found the server rooms back there? I was wearing that thing. Couldn’t find this whole area without it. It was right about then I started seeing the weirdness. First the errors and patterns, then the entities. These days... I can get around on my own. I swear this place is changing. They’re digging new tunnels, sealing up old ones. Something.” he shook his head.


    Riiiight.


    “But what’s going on down here that’s so important? What’s it got to do with me going insane?”


    Joel cringed. “Alright, I know this is really cliched or maybe suspicious, but you need to see it for yourself. I don’t want to start talking conspiracy theories because I didn’t believe most of that shit until I saw this with my own eyes. But trust me, there are things being done, up there and down here that don’t make any sense no matter what context you look at them with. I used to see it every day at work… people, entire companies, acting on orders that don’t make any sense, tech we don’t understand being deployed all over... and what’s happening to us? It’s connected somehow. Trust me on that.”


***


    “What. The hell. Is that?” Aline whispered, watching as the ragged form strode jerkily down the aisle.


    “The stuff urban legends are made of.” Joel replied. She looked at him and he shook his head. “I have no goddamned idea,” he admitted. “But it’s not human.”

    She turned back, watching it again. As far as she could tell, he was right – it wasn’t human at all, at least, not anymore. She couldn’t even write it off as a heavily-modded cyborg, some poor soul who’d been through a meat grinder of an accident. It was a movie monster, a special-effects monstrosity called up to scare people off transhumanism.


    But it was, unquestionably, at least partially made from a human being.


    They’d been watching this place for a while before it glitchingly lurched into view. It was a largish room, filled with rows of glass tanks, the walls lined with racks of running hardware.


    “First time I found this place, I saw it right away. Lucky, else I would have gone down there.”


    It inspected the rows of tanks and machines, interfacing here and there with direct connections, producing tools when its work called for it.


    “What’s it doing?”


    “Seems to be maintenance and security. I got close a couple times, back when I was checking that tech out, but those things are faster than they look. And they pack heavy caliber. Almost got caught by one on the other side, down near Belltower, and they came out of the woodwork then. Next time I got close, the whole place was sealed up. Every tunnel.”


    Christ, that far?”


    “This place is big. Make no mistake.”


    Aline looked back down there. “Who the hell would make something like that?”


    “Yeah. Exactly.” Joel nodded. “I might be crazy but even I don’t believe Civic Center, Transit or the Utilities would make something like that, not when they’ve got real hardware at their disposal. I mean look at that thing. Setting aside the meat, it’s like seven kinds of antique garbage. If they wanted this place secure, they’d have guys and perimeter defenses and walls.”


    He pointed for a moment. “And those big cable trunks, they feed into the same junctions as the rooms higher up. Think they’re working on the same stuff, that’s why I can’t make any sense of it. It’s dangerous poking around here though, so I’ve been too scared to come any further down. Banging my head against those fucking numbers up there.”


    “So that’s it?” Aline asked, unfulfilled and angry at missing work, at maybe losing her job, for such a non-reveal.


    “Nope. We’re going down there.”

***


    The floor of the huge room was surreally reminiscent of the fairground-layout arcade upstairs. Dim lights lit different areas in the tanks around them, crimson reds and sulfurous yellows mixing like neon with the dominant blues and greens.


    “It looks like… meat.” Aline said, puzzled, her face almost pressed against the glass, trying to see through the dark blue light. Wires and nodes and chromed hardware were tangled through it. Some pieces looked weirdly familiar, almost calling out to her to recognize them, but this whole place was a surreal mess of the conventional and the strange.


    “Okay, we’re clear.” Joel said, watching as the thing lurched around the far end of the aisle.


    They moved across, and Aline tried another tank. “Some sort of biological setup? Never seen anything rigged up like this.”


    It was true. The place had a weird mix of new, top-of-the-line hardware and positively ancient gear working, apparently, seamlessly. But she’d visited a great many biological computing centers in her time at school – mostly antiques and curiosities in these days of black metal, of quantum tech, and none of them had looked anything like this.


    She looked around worriedly for another lurching animatronic cadaver, and peered into another tank.


    Then she clamped her hands over her mouth, as if to hold in a scream. There was a skull. Nestled in the mess of meat and wires, looking at her, appealing to her with sightless eyes. It whirled over and over in her mind. There was a human skull! A human skull in there!


    “What the fuck! What the fuck is that?” She whispered, stumbling back. Joel turned from his post at guard, looked side-eyed into the tank.


    “Oh god.” he breathed, as if new fears had been confirmed. “That’s new.” he looked back around, scoping their exit. “Worse than I thought. Alright, let’s get out of here.”


    The pair started back the way they’d come, but the whir and click of servos cut them off. The… thing from earlier had looped back around, lurching past a few rows ahead. It was the closest look Aline had gotten.


    She’d seen bad accidents before; you couldn’t take the highway across the wasteland without seeing one… that horrible entanglement of a human being and their machine. Meat and bits of hair wrapped around twisted, torn metal and shredded plastic until you couldn’t separate them. Familiar, mundane items, a logo or stick shift protruding, cheerily recognizable amid the carnage.


    The creature was that wreckage brought to life. Cargo loader frame struts tangled with WW3 prosthetics, screwed and bolted to bone and flesh, wrapped modestly in rags bound with cable and cord. Here and there, some familiar, consumer electronic part stuck out, and it swept back and forth with camera eyes in a metal-bracketed human’s skull.


    As it walked, it let out a low, pained moan.


    Joel let it pass, then motioned to Aline, leading them to cross behind it. She followed, numb. Who would create something like that?


    Before they got near though, another one appeared, further back, closer to their destination.


    Joel changed course again, and again, they found a mutilated affront to technology and nature limping through the rows.


    Christ, cut me a break will you? Rush hour down here in hell.” Joel muttered, though Aline doubted it was a prayer.


    He lead them back, towards the wall opposite how they came in. “We’ll take cover, wait for this to die down or find another route.” he said.


    They reached the tunnel on the other side without incident, looking out on a vista swarming with the things. For a brief moment, Aline had visions of one of those monsters lurching out of the darkness ahead of them, late for the party, but they plunged deeper and didn’t cross another one.


    After a while, she started to wonder why they hadn’t stopped. Her or Joel. He seemed to sense her thoughts.


    “I’ve never been this deep in.” he said. “Always got scared by those things.”


She could feel it. This might be his only chance to see what was in here, what was behind all this. Live or die, it might be hers as well. And for the moment, this way was safer than back, so, by mutual, silent agreement, they pushed on.


    “Woah,” Joel stopped after what felt like hours of creeping through the darkness. “That’s the first time I’ve seen that down here.”


    “Seen what?”


    “That symbol. The Machine God symbol.” he risked brightening his light to the visible spectrum.


    “What’s that?” Aline looked at the Gear, oddly reminiscent of a cross or scientologist’s eight-point.


    “One of those transcendental tech churches, I forget which religion they branched off of. We used to see them a lot in the whole archeotech gig – they get up in arms about companies trashing their old tech before they dump it the way environmentalists get up in arms about the wastelands. Gave us a real run sometimes. Make their flock do a lot of work for free, hard to compete with that.”


    They found a sheltered spot near there and ate. Aline suspected it would take more than a day to climb all the way back up from here, even without other dangers. Like hiking a mountain in reverse. A day of total silence, not even phone activity, would warrant some attention, especially if she’d been right about the company pursuing her. The cops might very well be waiting for her on the surface. In a way, it made all this that much more important.


***


    They found the next horror almost by accident. Red light in the distance, it seemed in every tunnel ahead. Apparently they’d passed through an area under expansion, and things were a good deal more active here.


    It was another station of some sort, an ugly jumble of opened foundations of long-buried structures. Not a big room, not even a proper room really, more a warren of openings and alcoves, like some dug-up ants nest, the main hall formed where everything else was tangled over with pipes and cables, curtains of man-made moss.

    It was here that the cult of the Machine God had built their shrine.


    Aline had no doubt that they were a cult in the oldest sense of the word. They’d kitted themselves out to the hilt, red robes and even honest-to-god candles burning under the harsh red light. Their symbol sat atop an alcove filled with living skulls, tangled amid wires and tubes and tanks, the walls as alive with scraps of humanity as they were with electric current. Members stood in ranks, distinguished from the things out there only in the limit of their changes – these ones seemed to have retained most of their skulls and could probably walk the streets without drawing looks of horror.


    Their leader wore simple vestments, looked almost normal. But he was surrounded by a gruesome cadre of animatronic butchers, soulless, mindless, their minds stripped away or locked out, and their dance was carried out to the sound of his dripping voice.


    Watching them, Aline could see the ages past, as she had before, at the start of her descent. The years of harvest in this place, of crude, programmed, possessed surgeons doing the good work, sacrificing hundred of kidnapped innocents to the endless arrays. Without empathy or compassion, their scalpels and spinning silver disks pared away the impurities of flesh and screaming pain, blood seeping into the metal grates underfoot.


    The pair watched as the cultists lead or dragged a young woman into the room. She wasn't one of them – in place of their robes and jumpsuits, she wore street clothes, a grimy white tanktop and baggy olive-drab cargo pants tucked into black boots, though her shaved head revealed four rows of shiny metal studs, and two curved access plates, one above each ear. She was probably close to Aline's age, though her wide, staring eyes and the way they lead her numbly by the hand, made her seem younger. There was something wrong with her, an uncomprehending feebleness, but Aline couldn't tell if she'd been brainburned by all her augmentics, dosed by her captors, of if she was just strung out on drugs at that moment.


    Aline had no doubt they'd grabbed her off the street. Homeless, wirehead kids disappeared all the time and she had the kind of standard, tech-punk counterculture look: crudely mismatched but functional ports and wires and protruding chrome hardware in the place of piercings, bioscreens and subdermal matrices in the place of tattoos – though she had her share of the conventional modifications as well.


    They lead her towards the scalpel and splice of the cult doctors, and the metal grate of a surgeons-table altar.


    “What do we do?” Aline asked. Instincts were firing but she didn’t want to mess up whatever his plans were.


    “What?”


    “They’re gonna kill her, like all the others!” she tried to point to the horrible tangle of metal and meat but he pinned her hand to keep it from view.


    “Yeah… they are. But we can’t go down there.” he said, biting out the words. He didn’t like it. He hated it, but he was afraid too.


    “What? We can’t let them-”


    At that moment, the girl stopped, hard. For a moment the cultist tried to pull her along, to resume the ceremony without interruption, but she wouldn’t budge. People… things down there began to pay attention to her.


    She looked right to where Aline and Joel were lying and said two words. “Help me.”


    “Fuck!” Joel snarled as the cultists turned, searching the red-lit tangle of pipes and cables for whoever she was addressing. And before Aline could say anything, he’d launched himself over the edge, dropping into the room below. Her breath caught as he landed nimbly, the crude coilgun he’d held earlier firing in his hand, supersonic bangs resonating from the metal and cement, and it was Aline’s turn to cuss as she hurried down after him. What else could she do?


    For the size of the congregation and all their fearsome modifications, the two terrified, desperate basics hit the ceremony surprisingly hard. Many of them didn’t react at all, and those that did were thrown into chaos by the sudden interruption, either falling in a heaps spreading with blood and oil, or running this way and that, trying to flee in the confined space, trying frantically and hamhandedly to rally their auto-piloted compatriots though some obscure ritual.


    To her right, Joel was firing as he plunged towards the girl, while three robed and metal-armed cultists charged towards her from the left. She sprayed the taser in a wide arc and they toppled to the floor in sparking, spasming heaps. One, more modified than the others, staggered towards her until its legs gave and it dropped to one knee, just as she kicked out, driving the heel of her hiking boot into its forehead. There was a metalic crunch as its head snapped back, and it stopped, at least for the moment.


    Turning back, the girl was moving towards them, and most of the room appeared to be on fire. Either she was hacking their holo emitters, or she had one of those fuel jets mounted in her wrist. The lead cultist, writhed in multicolored flame and screaming, lent credence to the latter option.


    “Come on!” Joel yelled, throwing one of the automated ones, grabbing at his head and face, to the ground and stomping it hard. “Before the air’s burned up!”

    He started for the door and Aline cast about to see the wirehead girl wandering slowly towards them. Cursing this entire mess, she hurried back, grabbed the girl, and dragged her from the room. Strange, she thought, that she could hardly smell smoke or fume.


    Outside, Joel had cleared the hall of the two guard… creatures that had been flanking the door. He was, standing higher on the steps, beckoning them onwards.

    “Come on! We have to go, now!” he said once they were within earshot.


    “What the fuck was that?” Aline demanded, unsure of which part of the last few minutes she was even was asking about.


    Joel ignored her. “If I’m right, there’s tons of those… places down here to match those other rooms. If they’re all active, there must be hundreds of cultists. We have to get away from here before they organize and pin down our location.


    “What about her?” Aline said, shaking the numb girl.


    “If she can run, bring her! We didn’t do that for nothing!”

***


    The next few hours were some of the worst of Aline’s life. Running and hiding, creeping through the dark and dreading that every noise was the footsteps of a cultist or one of their DIY cyborg monstrosities. Their newest compatriot managed to keep up, for the most part, though Aline sometimes had to drag her along when she got distracted or entranced and started to stop or wander off.


    They managed to steal some conversation from the few moments of peace and calm they found, stopping to force down food and water, though adrenalin tightened their guts.


    “So what’s your name?” she’d asked, handing the girl one of the self-heating meals.


    “Huh? Oh, thanks. Friction. People call me Frick.”


    Aline prepped her own meal. “There an interesting story there?”


    “Nope.”


    “Fair enough. How come you’ve got some of their symbols for tattoos?”


    “Oh.” the girl seemed to see them for the first time. “Yeah. Those. I used to go to their clinic for some of my jobs. It was free if you listened to them preach” she smiled secretively. “But mostly I played Doom in my head while they did it. Sometimes I’d go in for a mod job and when I woke up, I’d have another tattoo too. Now I guess it’s the bosses’ way of branding their cattle.”


    “What?” Aline blinked, trying to decide if she’d gone unlucid for a moment there. “Why there? How can you trust anything they put in you?”


    Frick shook her head sadly. Shrugged. “I can’t. I knew they were weirdos, I just didn’t care. It was free, and I’d run out of ways to get high.”


    Aline looked at her with disbelief. “God...”


    A change came over the wirehead girl. The look of lucidity Aline had learned to watch for faded. She laughed. It was a quiet, crazy sound. “God is a man with all-black eyes... he looks like a human, like a basic... but he's not. They ripped it all out, every cell. Nothing left, nothing you can see or understand.” her eyes were wide, staring as she turned to look at them. She locked onto Aline like a targeting array. “They see everything. Understand everything. Things we can't even start to imagine. They're quantum, deep tech all the way down. And they hear the voices out of the blackness. It's what drove us all insane.”


    “You okay?” Aline asked, acutely aware that this girl had somehow set a room on fire an hour ago.


    “None of us are.” she breathed. “Not while they’re staring into the void, making plans with it, with each other, against each other. We’re all just cattle, moving parts in their machines. Like a fly in a window, can't even see what's holding it back. But they see it.” she looked from one to the other, as if making an appeal, then seemed to give up, to burrow into herself, folding forwards and staring at the floor, her arms hugged to her chest. “Consciousness big as space, and their plans, these insane plans, they only make sense to them. We can’t understand. A thousand realities crashing simultaneously. No feelings. No love or empathy not even hate! I’ve seen it. We all did when the church men came. They don't call it a flock for nothing. You don't get it, you're not their enemy, this was nothing! Even if you attacked them directly, they wouldn't recognize it for what it was! They’re too big! We’re just cogs and cattle.”


    “Hey…” Aline hesitantly moved to sit beside her, wrapped an arm around her. She made eye contact with Joel. She didn’t like the look in his eyes. It was distant, haunted.

    “That make any sense to you?” she asked.


    “Yes.” his sighed the word. “I used to hear stuff like this from the others. Pieced together from the crazier ones and their contacts. I always- always wrote it off as conspiracy bullshit, or people messing with us.” he seemed to weigh his words. “You ever hear about the bosses?”


    “What, like the conspiracies about the CEOs and presidents and all that?”


    “Yeah,” he nodded glumly, spoke almost in a trance. “Our version goes something like this: The more important people get, the more they change themselves, the more they strip away and replace, until there’s nothing of them left – it’s not the cutting that makes them like that though, it’s what they see in the darkness, the sense they read from infinity. Quantum computers like oceans of black metal linked straight into their brains, they see so much, make plans so big, they can’t remember what it’s like to be like you and me. And they’re doing something, something huge, making plans out in all that darkness.


    “Maybe I already believed some of this… you can see bits of it sometimes, all the pieces are constantly moving, companies and governments, but some of it is only done for them. All the little people jacked up on fake authority know if they keep things going, do what their systems tell them, scrounge up these resources, move this there, don’t ask any questions, they’ll live easy, but nobody knows what’s really being done. We’re messing with physics we don’t understand, can’t comprehend. Things that shouldn’t make sense, shouldn’t be possible. Nobody even knows where it’s coming from.”


    He looked at Frik. “That sound about right?” he asked. Then he smiled a faint smile.


    “I’ll give you an easy one.” he said. “Holograms. Always wanted to be a holo designer. Used to play around trying to build an emitter, just as like, a portfolio piece, but you can’t. You can ask around anywhere, libraries, wikis, even your corporate R&D, they’ll all assure you they’re built on solid, established sciences. But if you press for details – eventually they’ll have to point you to another company and another company and another doctor or physicist, but they don’t have answers. You can find the white papers and the build notes if you dig deep enough, but if you actually try to follow them, to build it all from scratch, you can’t. There’s parts in them nobody knows about, they’re on some schematics but always mislabeled, and you can’t trace their provenance.


    “The bosses made them. Dreamed them up out of the void. They do something to break our rules, to shape light and mass. For-real deep tech. And they tossed it down to the masses to keep us entertained. Or worse.”


    He looked at them, tucked the scraped-clean remnants of his instant dinner into his backpack. “We’ve got to move. Wasted too much time.”


***


    They kept going for awhile. Aline watched Joel carefully. She didn’t like how he’d been since their conversation. He’d retreated into himself, like he was waging some inner argument. Now and then, she’d catch him muttering almost silently.


    Their words had shaken her some, but she supposed it was worse for him, to have heard all this before, to have a terrible limit set for his fears, and to, in his mind at least, have them confirmed. For her part, Aline wasn’t sure if she believed the two of them, but she was starting to.


    The shadows felt alive and crawling around her, wherever she couldn’t look, wherever the light didn’t fall. Once she swore she saw the spidery, lightless entity, crawling along the walls, its head turning to face her no matter which way its body twisted or spun. Frick seemed to see it too.


    Before long, they reached what she would later think of as the perimeter. Luckily they heard the creature posted in the tunnel before it saw them, it’s moan of pain slipping out of the darkness ahead, giving Joel the preparation to sneak up and scout it out. It was a no-go. They backtracked and tried another route.


    And again.


    And again.


    Every tunnel at a certain point was locked down with a small team, one machine closer in as a sort of early-warning device, while the cultists and their drones lurked further back. Always their numbers and positions made an attack look like a lethal proposition.


    Failure after failure, until Aline began to despair of ever finding a way out. Joel seemed to be thinking the same thing. His muttering stopped, he seemed to have made a decision.


    “We go back” he said, speaking aloud for the first time.


    “What?”


    “We can’t fight our way out. They’ve got the numbers, the cover, and the resources and all the time in the world. They’re going to trap us down here and slowly sweep the complex. Hell, if they take their time, they might starve us to death before they find us. Even if we killed the ones at any point, we can’t guarantee they’re the last ones, and they’d only have to stall us for a few minutes, until hundreds of them get there.”


    He looked at her with and there was a feverish light in his eyes. “But there’s another way. We turn back, we go down deep, hit them while they aren’t expecting it, while all their people are out here trying to stop us from leaving.”


    Aline blinked at him. “That’s insane. There’s three of us, we’ve got a gun with what, half a clip left? A civilian taser, and a switchblade. We can’t fight an army of cultists and fucking monsters!”


    “Magazine.” the wirehead supplied. Aline gave her a dirty look.


    “I’ve got some other ammo in my pack and I can swap the barrel for a smoothbore and fire almost anything ferrous, screws, nuts, washers, as long as I can get a charge. Also got a combat knife, and she was throwing that fire around… I’d bet she can do other stuff too, if we asked.”


    “You’re crazy. That plan is crazy. We’re not soldiers or cops, we’re techs for God’s sake and she’s some punk kid with a headfull of charcoal and bad wires. They’d need an army to get through this!” she gestured around the darkness, trying to keep her voice low.


    Joel considered that. “Yeah, they would. Between all the unmapped passageways and the resources the cult’s got stockpiled, they could hold out a hell of a siege – and the Gov couldn’t even risk a bunker buster to dig them out with the city up above. But nobody’s ever going to send an army down here. Think about it... think about how long these people have been down here, the entities they’re working for… Civic Center’s not going to do shit. Nobody’s going to send the cops or army. Everyone in charge knows life stays good for them as long as they don’t mess with the plans of their betters.


    “But all the disadvantages they’d face, all the tunnels and passageways and murder holes, all the resources available, those can work for us. Like, guerilla warfare, except we’d do it to them.”


    “That’s insane.”


    “Yeah?” some of his manic energy seemed to fade. “Yeah it probably is. Hell, maybe we all are. When’s the last time everything made sense to you?” he looked away for a moment. “Look, we can’t go up. And every time we try one of these tunnels, we’re risking being spotted. And once they lock down our location, they’ll swarm the area and make sure we’re trapped. I don’t want to die like that. Not after all this.


    “So we hit the high-value targets, the deep tech down below, the processing racks, the power lines, anything, and we hurt them for real. Maybe we die, or something horrible happens to us. But you know what? I’m so fucking sick of this place and these people and their awful plans driving me insane…” he looked at her, arguments all run out. “It’s like they say, the way out is through.”


    Aline thought for a long moment. Let that tumble around in her head. What did she have waiting for her on the surface? Cops? A severance notice? Ticket to a company asylum? Even if she could get through, she wasn’t sure there was anything to go back to.


    She sighed. “Alright. The way out is through.”


    Joel grinned. Then, remembering, they looked to the wirehead girl.


    “We can’t fight them.” Frick said, hopeless. “Nobody can.” she looked up, met their eyes. “But… I didn’t have anything else planned for today.”


***


    Their descent was fast, and somehow less frightening than their attempts at escape. Before, Aline’s every effort had spent been towards survival; focused tightly on getting through this nightmare and returning to some sense of normalcy or sanity in the world above. She’d had her entire life to lose and had watched in fear as it slipped between her fingers.


    This was different.


    They didn’t waste time trying to plot the best course through the maze, or plan any more than one step ahead. Plans were for people who, deep down, believed they’d live through the day, that they’d win and somehow go back to the way things were. This was something else, more akin to suicide, and it brought with it that same preemptive relief. The courage of despair.


    Looking at her companions, she saw that they wore the same serious, businesslike expression, but it was there, an undercurrent of camaraderie and an excited thrill, an adrenalin rush. None of them would mention it – it felt fragile, like too much introspection or examination would crumble it away to dust. But it was there nonetheless.

    Deep down, they knew striking back was insane, that this was it, the end, the dumbest thing any of them had ever undertaken. No strategy, no weapons, no time to stop and think. It would kill them.


    But they didn’t care.


    “Can you break into any of their systems down here?” Joel was asking Frick. “Get us eyes and ears? Open doors, mess with their defenses? With their whole purity-of-the-machine deal they shouldn’t be very secure.”


    “I don’t know, maybe. I used to. I used to be really good, but I can’t remember most of it now.”


    “How about the fire? How’d you do that?”


    “Oh, that was just the holos. Not a real flame, just light and heat pretending. It’s scarier for us if it looks like fire.”


    “How’d you get it so hot? Bad failsafes? Overrides?”


    “I don’t know, it just comes natural now. Those make sense, lots of things kind of make sense but I know they shouldn’t.”


    “I’ll take it, just give us a heads up before you start slinging fire around, okay?”


    She smiled a little. “Sure.”


    They burrowed as deeply into the cult’s territory as they could while avoiding detection, no real plan save for ‘keep moving’ towards the unknown heart of the uneven, cancerous infection the cultists had built in the underground.


    Most of it was that same mix of rooms, stations, tunnels, and foundations, their course climbing and dropping and twisting as they passed more of those godawful shrines, workshops, improvised storerooms, conventional data centers, and even crude sleeping quarters. Sometimes the rooms were ancient holdovers from who knew what, other times they were no more than stacked cinderblock walls resting on tiled floors.


    The only consistent factor in the place were the cables. Hundreds of thousands of the things, they covered the walls and ceilings, fell draped across the floor, hung taught through holes knocked in the stone and across open spaces, sometimes through a room or hallway at face or chest level. It was clear that they had priority here.


    Aline could feel the vibrations of electricity coursing through the wires, the power radiating from them, forming some sort of ad-hoc nervous system, a massive, tangled net that shot through this place as if the rest of the tunnels were built around it. A parasite wrapped around the spine of the city's infrastructure.


    She didn’t like the feeling of being inside something so big and so alive.


    The screens and monitors were everywhere down here, bolted randomly to the walls in empty tunnels and corridors the way a normal person might hang a poster. Their strange, fractal imagry was moving now, shifting, crawling. It clawed at Aline’s attention but she kept them in her peripheral. It was too easy to lose time watching them.


    The trio avoided confrontation for as long as they could, knowing that once it happened, every cultist and monster on the perimeter would swarm down here, inwards after them. But the place got more crowded as they went, and they all knew that sooner or later, they’d have to pull the trigger.


    When the attack finally happened – and it did feel more like something that ‘happened’ rather than something they inflicted – all hell broke loose.


    They hit the first group hard and with shocked success, taking them by surprise and rushing past before reinforcements could hem them in, but the downed cultists’ panic and silence in whatever hive mind they’d built was alarm enough, and the cult of the machine god surged into chaotic action, filling the tunnels like swarming ants.


    Joel’s pathfinding didn’t fail him as they rushed and hid, crept and fought their way deeper with every vicious scrap of self defense training, street fight experience, and raw instinct they could muster.


    Their need for total stealth abandoned, Frick lashed out with that holographic fire wherever she could find emitters and targets worth hitting – cables, server rooms, and slaughterhouse shrines all felt her wrath, scoured into so much ash and slag and fume. The wiring got thicker as they pushed deeper, great pillars of cables threading together through the walls, leading towards some central hub – their target if they had one at all – and she ruined them as they went.


    The cultists, for the most part, were no better trained than them – nutjobs and fanatics they might have been, but warrior priests or soldiers of god they were not. Most were only scarcely armed at first, but they had the numbers and stockpiles and organization. And theirs was a brutality untempered by mercy or self preservation. They might not have stood a chance against soldiers or police, but against the three lone survivors, they hit back, hard.


    Somehow, in the midst of all that noise and flight, the world began to warp. The changes around her must have crept up slowly, while she was distracted, until she couldn't help but notice. She tried to lock it down, straining her eyes like an exhausted driver trying to blink away double vision, but the tunnels warped and wavered and twisted around them, like the fabric of space down here couldn’t decide what it wanted to do. She locked her eyes on her compatriots backs, keeping them center no matter what her mind did.


    She turned a corner and they were gone.


    Aline blinked, her breath caught in her throat. Panicked and all too aware of just how little time she had, she backtracked a few paces, thinking she’d missed some sort of side passageway. But she couldn’t find one. The tunnel was empty and plain, and somehow, she’d been left behind.


    Voices echoed not far back, closer now, and she started running. There was no time to figure out what had happened, she just had to keep going, keep pushing towards the center, and either she’d find her friends or find their target.


    It wasn't an easy run; she saw terrible, skittering life in the shadows. Cables and pipes writhed and spasmed like living tendrils trapped by their fastenings, reaching out for her where they could. The tunnels shifted whenever her eyes left them, doubling back and folding in on themselves, flowing like some sort of dream. Holographic salesmen with demonic eyes hawked terrible, incomprehensible, wares, their smiles inhumanly wide and their voices shrill. At one point she swore she saw herself running across a parallel tunnel, only to find herself back where she’d been a moment before once she’d closed the distance. A cultist strolled past, parallel to her course, waist deep in the concrete floor. And for almost a mile it was nothing but the same right turn over and over and over again.


    And everywhere those damned screens, worse than the adspace up on the surface. She lashed out, cracking them with the butt of her taser, ripping them from their bolts in the rotted cement and plaster, throwing them to the ground as she fended off the vicious ensnarements of the cables growing like worms from the walls.


    Her enemies were far behind now, lost in this maze, but she knew where to go. It didn’t make any sense – sometimes she followed the pillars of cable inwards, sometimes that was wrong; sometimes she followed hallways, and sometimes the only possible way was a crawlspace so narrow she had to push her backpack and arms ahead of her to fit through.


    The spiderlike thing pursued her, and sometimes she pursued it, its blank face always turned toward hers no matter what its body did, how it contorted or stretched.

    Finally something rousted her from her flight. The hallway had twisted, her weight pulling her onto the wall, though she'd only gone twenty paces when she suddenly slammed back into the floor, the impact stunning her, lying there blinking, wondering why that had happened.


    The spiderlike thing watched her from the ceiling. Perhaps crazily, she flipped it off. It responded by turning its body around so it could crawl above her, watching her with its head twisted around backwards. But it didn't attack.


    Then she heard it. That low moan from up ahead. Something was waiting for her and Aline went to face it.


    The creatures at the door were huge hulking things, stout industrial machinery and what looked like more than one person each, twisted into something terrible and violent. They stood three meters tall, a brutish mass of metal sheets, spikes and spinning blades, whirring saws and firearms. They were armed, armored, and ready to fight.

    And they weren’t shielded or grounded against electric shocks. After all, who in their right mind would try to taze such a thing.


    Watching them stagger and short as the punctured taser cartridge landed between them, Aline decided it was ironic that crazy cultists would expect sanity from their enemies.


    She knew their loss would trigger another manhunt, or perhaps focus the ongoing one, but she took the time to hesitantly search the things, chewing a stick of gum and covering her nose and mouth with her shirt to lessen the rancid, infected smell.


    Disabling them yielded several military, or at least police-grade weapons. Most of which were too large for her to carry, though she was able to pry several explosives, meant to be launched from a gun which was at least part infected muscle, from their magazine, along with several shaped charges which the things were probably supposed to use to collapse the tunnel, should they come under attack.


She resumed her descent without much trouble after that, managing to ignore the parts she suspected were hallucinations and avoiding the ones that likely weren't.

    She stopped at the next screen she passed, to tear it down like the others, but for some reason she couldn’t understand, Aline found herself stopping and looking into it. There was something in those writhing shapes and colors – an image of incredible depth and complexity dreamed up by something less or more than human; mathematical patterns imitating buildings and people and eyes, so many eyes, hacked from neon colors and smooth, painterly edge detect. She felt a vertigo at the intricate layers and depth and scale of the thing, like she was falling into the sky. In the space of a centimeter she could see great ships and cities and worlds that made no sense, took shapes that had no place in humanity's small, solid reality.


    She could feel it tangling and scraping around her brain like tree branches as she burrowed her way into it, trying to make sense of it, only to find that each thread was a braided tangle of others, that every part was fractally complex. She could explore this thing for years and never see it all, never understand it.


    Then someone touched her gently on the arm and she jumped back, panicked, her taser coming up.


    Frick was there. Her mouth formed the words “come on!” but Aline couldn’t hear her. She squinted at the girl and blinked hard. Reality seemed to shift and bend a little, the hard edges and lines curving into incomprehensible patterns. Eyes seemed to form in junctions and corners wherever she wasn’t looking, until she focused on them, smoothing them out with her vision.


    Surprised and relieved and full of dread all at once, she tried to ask where Joel was but the girl just took her by the hand and lead her through the warped maze with quiet confidence. The weirdness in her eyes lingered as they walked, but after a few long minutes, things seemed to become solid once again. It was a terrible relief, like waking from a dream that made no sense, where everything was warped and wrong.


    Frick didn’t say anything as they went, or rather, she seemed to be speaking, but didn’t make any sound. Aline bit her lip. Had the sounds of gunfire deafened her? She’d heard other sounds, hadn’t she? No matter. The silent treatment was new but hardly the strangest thing to happen today, and as long as they were moving together, it would have to be good enough.


    It wasn't long before Frick's path detoured to another of those awful shrines. The cultists inside saw them before they gained the door, for Frick made no effort at stealth, and they charged out, desperate to protect whatever was inside. The leader, a strange mechanized thing built for its purpose down here, with goggled eyes and a dozen thin spiderlike metal limbs clawing up from its back threw himself between them and the door. He did something with his hands and eyes and summoned colorful fire from the air the way Frick did, and swept it towards them.


    Aline started to move, to take cover and then attack, new instincts earned in this place firing hard, but Frick was faster. She banished the flames with a gesture and summoned rays of blinding white light that stabbed out like burning spikes, skewering the cultists as she walked past.


    Aline started to follow, but found herself looking numbly at the two dead cultists, twisted around the burned holes scoured through their robes. For a moment, she felt like she had back in that tunnel... like she could see something and it made sense, even though she knew it shouldn't.


    She watched the dead men. In that strange place of her mind, she saw their past, traced the threads of their existence with an accuracy and understanding she could scarcely comprehend.


    They’d been a normal church then – like Joel said, just transcendentalists trying to achieve for themselves what the rich and powerful could buy, with none of these trappings of culthood or sacrifice, none of this reverence for scrapyard tech and sadistic surgical butchery.


    They worked carefully, slowly, then, raising funds for the newest and best, building themselves up better and stronger, hoping to achieve immortality through an escape from mortal flesh.


    Maybe they went too far, made too many changes, perhaps that’s what drew its attention to them. Maybe they looked too far afield in their quest, researched things they oughtn’t have known, or peered too deeply into the darkness, but something found them. It was huge and horrible and unlike anything they could comprehend. It stared through them with a burning emptiness and they broke. With an offhand thought it repurposed them, set them to some small task of its own, and with an cruel glance at what they’d been trying to do, it twisted them into a parody of themselves.


    She could see it in the details, the fine, almost artistic quality of the old work hidden beneath the crude and brutish modifications. The reverence they’d once held for their craft, if not their bodies. The people they’d been would never have done these things.


    When she looked up, the shrine was in flames, wall-to-wall. Frick was standing there, waiting.


    “Them too.” Aline tried to say. She couldn't tell if the wirehead girl heard her, but her intentions were understood. She set the bodies alight as they started on their way.

    She followed Frick she didn't know how far after that. Their way was somewhat easy – mostly open passageways and the worst of the nightmare entities didn't appear. For a moment, reality seemed to favor them.


    Then, from out of the darkness she heard the sounds of combat. Gunfire and screaming, echoes high in the air. Slowly, she crept up to the light, squinting her eyes and peering down from a high landing into a wide open room.


    There were cultists down there, a dozen or so scattered around, red robes and jumpsuits. One or two were shooting at the holo emitters high on the walls and ceiling. The rest were all firing on a single point, – some sort of ancient machinery – as they slowly encircled the two figures trapped behind it.


For a moment, one of the figures moved, and hope and fear flared in Aline. It was Joel. Trapped and surrounded; she had to help but she didn't know if she could. Then another figure appeared, dirty white tank top and chrome-spotted head, casting fire out of the dark, summoning pop-culture nightmares from thin air, and her breath caught in her throat.


    Shocked, refusing to believe her eyes, she turned back to look for her companion. But the wirehead girl was gone.


    She was alone.


    “A thousand realities crashing together” the girl had said. For the moment, that was the least frightening of her options.


    Steeling herself for the moment, Aline watched the chaos below. Her compatriots had worked out a system of sorts: holographic fire licked out with a cruel sentience, burning cultists and driving them from cover. The coilgun banged out then, sending blunderbuss sprays of metal debris slicing through the air, killing or maiming any that got within range. Soon, she knew how she was supposed to help.


    She had found herself in just about the best place possible – the landing ended in a staircase and a ladder at opposite ends, with the ladder dropping directly behind the cultists.


She fell upon them from behind moments later, flechette darts and taser hissing, cutting them down while their backs were exposed. Some few on the edges realized what was happening, but Frick and Joel were quick to help, striking while the cultists were trapped between two foes. Soon the room was secured and the trio shared a confused but enthusiastic reunion.


    “Holy- is it ever good to see you!” Joel exclaimed, emerging from cover. “I can't believe you're alive- you just disappeared, where the hell'd you go?”


    “I don't know, I just turned the corner and you were gone.”


    “We looked back and you were just missing. Thought you must have got caught. We got split up for a few minutes too but just for a few minutes.”


    “Where'd you get those bombs?” Frick asked, looking at the shaped charges hanging off Aline's backpack.


    “I took them from some big machine things before you found me.”


    The girl looked at her with confusion. “What?”


    So much for the hope she'd used a hologram to guide her back here. “Nevermind.” it had been a stretch anyways. “So what's the plan?”


    “Same as before.” Joel said. “We push deeper, try to take out something important. We're close now, I think. Grab what you can and lets go.”


***

    Aline lead the way after that, her peculiar sense of direction – the one that seemed only to possess one of them at a time – having returned. At times they argued over the best course, or whether one made sense or existed at all, but she usually won out.


    Only once did she feel that particular shifting in the tunnels around her. She had the lead at the time, but the other two slowed to a stop.


    “Aline, the hell are you doing?” Joel asked. “There’s no way through here.”


    “What?” she looked back at the tunnel ahead – sure, it was narrow but it was clearly there. “It’s right there!”


    He looked at her like she was stupid – probably mirroring her expression nicely. “No, it’s not. We'll have to backtrack and find another way.”


    “There's no time. Look, just turn off your light and follow me.”


    The echoes – and there were always echoes of cultists in here – kindled some odd urgency or trust in them, and he hit the light as he took Aline and Frick's hand. Working from her visor's meager night vision, she guided them through.


    They were moving upwards she thought. It was nothing compared to the distance of their descent, but it was still a good ways.


    Soon, there was no doubt that they were moving the right way. There was a hum in the air – subaudiable, but they could feel it, like a slow-building electric charge. When they finally emerged onto a high landing, they knew they'd made it.


    If the other rooms they’d raided had been shrines, then this place was a cathedral. Aline could hardly believe the sheer size of the room, this cavern, carved, warehouse-like, beneath the city. The ceiling was nearly lost to the darkness overhead, and she could barely see the far wall in the dim red light.


    The ruddy glow clawed its way up from banks of candles and rows of glass tanks far below, faintly illuminating great, crude murals and ragged cloth decorations spaced amongst the alcoves and tiers of flickering flame. High above, and clustered mostly around the center of the great room, electric lights of all kinds hung from random lengths of cable, like crude chandeliers or stars floating in the void. And though the dangling lights were miriad, their faint luminance did little but cast the distant walls into harsher darkness, by contrast with the focus of this place.


    From all over the massive tunnel system, the many trunks of cables and wire converged on this point, twisting together like an organic thing, like a great misshapen tree winding up from the deep floor, forking and splitting, all the way into the concrete roof overhead. People, or parts of people stuck out here and there – merged into the chaotic mess like mites or fruit in nested burrows of wire and surgical tubing.


    Below it, tangled in its roots, sat a massive black slab, like a glassy block of pure void. It was crooked, damaged along one side, crashed through that low platform of the floor in a sea of tumbled cinderblocks. Black metal – the new deep tech. What it was doing here, away from the closely-guarded vaults of the biggest corporations, Aline could not imagine.


    The cultists bonded into the machinery around it were the first, the originals, the central hub, she knew. Everything else, all those poor mutilated souls out there were distributed processing for these... units. Aline knew it, peering down at the twisting roots splayed out across the floor, as she knew so many other horrible truths.


    Ranks of cultists stood rapt between the roots of cables sprawled across the floor, every sense focused on a robed man standing on a platform before the glossy black slab.


    “These people and their cable management.” Joel muttered. He was trying to sound unimpressed and tough but Aline could tell he was still frightened by the sheer scope of all of this. “We should mine it from up there if we can,” he pointed to the ceiling. “It’ll be more of a pain in the ass to put back together.”


    “No.” both techs looked to Frick as she shook her head, eyes locked on that block of arcane technology. A computer built at the same level as the universe itself – a piece of a greater machine. “That’s the center of all this. That’s what we should destroy.” she took a breath. “We have to go down there.”


    Joel looked down at the cathedral floor and its many scurrying denizens. “We do, don’t we?” he asked with resignation.


    Frick nodded. “It’s already broken. That’s why- that’s why it had to be a tech cult. They made all the new connections and it took years of work and careful study. We can’t do much, but we can break it more, make them start over. Ruin all that work.”


    Aline forced a harsh smile. “Sounds good to me.” she said.


***


    Nobody noticed as they climbed the staircases and platforms and ladders down to the cathedral floor. Or if they did, no overt alarm was raised. Things here seemed routine, even the preacher and his audience had returned to whatever they normally did.


    Aline had tried not to expect anything here, too weary to be surprised again, but she was pleased to see that most of the moving figures she’d seen appeared to be automated. Just more jerky animatronics with human skin, unconcerned with their presence or anything outside their assigned tasks.


    Slowly they prowled down rows of red-lit glass tanks, troughs of burning candles, and scattered blocks of pews, working their way, in stops and starts, towards that black slab and the massive, twisted tree of metal and plastic and glass clawing upwards above it.


    Aline clutched the old, surplus military rifle she’d taken a few rooms back, as she walked, and tried to pick targets and routes and priorities as scenarios played in her head. She’d never been what she’d call imaginative, but her mind conjured all manner of dooms as she watched for threats. She didn’t know if she could really use the rifle – she hadn’t tried yet – but it was just as well that she had it: her taser was nearly empty and the dart gun had never been a great weapon.


    Truth be told, they made it further without interruption than she’d expected. And when they were finally caught, after so long creeping and hiding and fearing in the tunnels and awful shrines, it was almost a relief. Though the anticlimax of it all called up new, feral suspicions and worried her anew.


    There was no great cry when they were found, no maniacal laugher, no alarms or spotlights. Just a lone, plain-looking man in his early fifties, draped in generic religious robes that could have represented any faith, who stood up from a nearby pew to greet them.


    “Please, come in.” he said without preamble, no trace of guile on his serious, devout face. “I hadn’t expected your journey to bring you so far. But we’re all glad you’re here nonetheless.”


    Frick started, her entire body jerking back. “Father Mathias.” she said.


    “Alice.” He gave her a hard, disapproving look, the pious kind that could put a hole through concrete. “I’ve seen how you scorned our word and your true purpose, but your path has brought you back to us, so it shouldn’t be counted against you.” His voice was mild, even when he considered the many deaths and damage these three had wrought.


    Part of Aline, the part that had grown accustomed, even skilled at ignoring solicitors on the street, wanted to hurry past him, to destroy this thing while she had the chance. But she remembered the other cultist leaders she’d encountered. Who knew what terrible modifications, what weapons this one had hidden beneath his robes? And then there was the easy calm with which he spoke and moved, the confidence not just of a fanatic but a cold power that made the more feral of her instincts say this was the quiet before the storm.


    Frick was having none of it. She surprised her companions with the vehemence of her words, and surreally, Aline’s first instinct was to try and shush her, to smooth things out before she caused trouble – before she remembered exactly where she was. It was almost funny that here, in the deep, rotten heart of a buried cult temple, surrounded by cruel abominations of unwilling, living sacrifice, and after having killed people to make it this far, she nearly apologized to the leader of the mad butchers who’d done all this. She watched the weakly moaning animatronics working around them, some even forced into some semblance of prayer. Somehow she doubted Frick could make things any worse.


    The wirehead girl looked him in the eye as she spat the words “They shot five people – my friends – because they weren’t good enough for your goddamned purpose.” she was leaning forward, hissing the words. “I killed Brother Alton for that. They did something to us when they raided our club, made us all stupid. Rounded us up. But I was their best hacker. I found a way past what you did while he was leading me down here to slaughter, and I killed him. I burned him alive.”


    “I know you did, you stupid girl. And there will be penance for that, make no mistake. He did so much to prepare you for this life, tried to salvage you, and this is how you repay him. But in the end, this sacrifice is far from easy, so I suppose I can take comfort from the fact that even though your service, you will pay for what you’ve done.”

    Joel had managed to move behind the cult priest when the man moved close to Frick, and his coilgun nearly prodded the cultist's spine through his robe.

    “I don’t think she’s going to be joining you any time soon.” he said. Aline and Frick moved to the sides, so they wouldn’t be shot.


    Mathias turned his head – just his head – around to look at Joel and smiled. “Oh, I’m confident you’ll all join our flock. The machine god hasn’t said as much, but it sees everything that happens in this place, and, as I’m sure you know, we’ll need a great many replacement parts in the coming days. You two will take more work to prepare than our usual requisitions, but we’ll manage.” he looked at them, studying their expressions, and cracked a slight, reassuring smile. “Looking at you brings me back… I know it can be frightening at first, the changes, the pain, it’s not what you expected to do with your life. But sometimes your path takes turns you don’t expect, and you find purpose in something, a task you would never have considered your own. Like all of our flock, I can only promise that your sacrifice means something, it serves a purpose, one that none of us can truly comprehend, but it’s there. And in the end, what more could we aspire to?”


    Joel looked at him, incredulous. “You don’t even know what all this is for? What it does?”


    “Not specifically, that’s not my place. I’ve seen glimpses of the grand plan, though I couldn't truly understand it. But all of this is doing something important. More important than any one human life. And you will find solace in that purpose after your addition to our machine.”


    Aline and Joel exchanged a glance. “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to happen.” she said, surprising herself.


    The priest gave her a hard look out of the corner of his eye. Shook his head sadly as he walked towards her, ignoring the muzzle of the rifle she kept jabbed towards him. He placed a hand on her shoulder and his fingers sank in with an iron grip, forcing her downwards. “I fear your path is already set. I tried to stop this once, tried to free my flock.” he smiled. “Oh how wrong I was.”


    “Yeah…” Aline managed through gritted teeth. “No.” And fired several rounds low into his voluminous robes. The surplus WW3 rounds exploded in little impact-driven bursts and the priest staggered, swaying inhumanly, too many legs suddenly moving beneath his robes. Aline drew backwards, raising the rifle to her shoulder. “No, I think I’d rather smash your machine with a hammer.”


    The priest grinned, a fanatical light in his eyes. His forearm lashed out, too long, and smacked the rifle hard from her impact-numbed hands as she staggered with the blow. A metal ring hung in the air.


    “This disobedience will be remembered!” he cautioned with terrible glee. “You were ignorant before, but you now know the fate, the purpose that awaits you!”


    He waved his arms as he skittered back and forth on his mechanical legs, and swarms of nightmarish things descended from the shadows. Creatures born of cyborg drug trips, daemons given life through the eyes of a possessed, obsessive madman. Aline didn’t know how many of them were hallucination or hologram, and how many had truly been crafted from flesh and metal and plastic by this nutjob, but she bolted for the rifle.


    Some brief fragment of her saw Joel fire that magnetic blunderbuss into the man’s back, but he didn’t seem particularly hurt by it as he turned and smacked the gangly archeotech across the floor.


    The cult leader laughed. Fire burned above his hands, streamed out across the ground around them, and from the ranks of pews and glass and twisting cables splayed out across the floor came hundreds of those mutilated, mechanized slave-things.


    And then Frick was there. She stood boldly before him, looking small but fierce, and called up a storm of light like burning razors – no effort spared to hit that primal fear of fire. It disrupted some of his creatures where it hit them, and lit others aflame, searing flesh and melting plastic.


    “You think you can turn our gifts against me?!” The cult priest lashed back,


    Frick’s face twisted. “I’m going to kill you!” she screamed. “You ruined my brain! I’m not even me anymore!”


    “Ha!” He laughed. “Your brain was a cesspit, ruined by drugs and your own debauchery! It’s greatest failing is that you were the software running upon it! We salvaged it the way we salvage equipment and materials from dumpsters all over this city! We even left some of you intact, out of kindness or pity I do not know, but rest assured I thoroughly regret it now. We offered you a purpose, an opportunity to serve something, a being far greater than anything you can imagine! And you still will, but you will not enjoy it.”


    The cult priest’s shoulders slumped. Righteous indignation faded and he started to shake, until he threw his head back and laughed. The machines closed in.


    The holo emitters winked out all over the room. The light and fire and the nightmare creatures vanished.


    And Frick vanished too.


    “What the-?” the cult priest’s eyes grew wide. “Find her! Find her now!” he roared, forgetting whatever hive mind he normally used. And then Aline had to look away, to the living anamatronic monstrosities crowding towards her, cutting her off from the others.


    Her hands hit the rifle, her left one felt sprained all over but the gun still worked, and she fought for her life. Gunshots rang out and she darted and scrambled, spraying wildly at the mutilated creatures and trying to avoid their grasping, clawing hands and hooks.


    From there, the events came in flashes through the panic and danger. The cult priest had climbed up to the pulpit before the slab – she was close now, she realized, the glossy void and twisted tree towering over her.


    The cultist threw an arm up, laughed madly as silver-grey dust plumed into the air from his sleeve. Lightning arced through it towards them, crackling and scouring the ground wherever it touched.


    “Don’t let that shit get on you!” Joel yelled, firing blindly as he rushed towards cover, covering his nose and mouth against fear of the dust. Aline darted right, trying to work her around to the side, when something wrapped in bound rags with too many metal arms laid her out with a fist like a forging hammer to her temple.


    For a moment, she knew she’d been killed. A terrible pain and crack spiked through her skull as her head snapped to the side and her body went limp, twisting and smacking into the concrete floor.


    Her eyes were open but she didn’t see. She wasn’t exactly unconscious, at least not like anesthesia or sleep would have it, but she was blank, unseeing and unaware, numb to the world. It lasted less than a second, but all the panic and adrenalin in the world couldn’t restore her motor skills, and her attempts to escape as the creature grabbed and dragged her were weak and uncoordinated.


    Head lolling, she saw Joel pinned similarly, three of the things dogpiled onto him as he flailed viscously, until one of them closed a claw around his throat.

    “Brother, sister!” The priest boomed. “Welcome to our family! Now where’s the other one?”


    “S’aky.” Aline mumbled incoherently to herself. “Fricsstill outhere.”


    The chaos in the room seemed to open at that, revealing the wirehead girl, dragged into the clearing between two cultists. They forced her to her knees before the altar. She went. She was bloodied and looked beyond exhausted.


    “Ah, there she is.” He sneered down at her. “Did you honestly think you could turn our gifts against us you ungrateful little witch? He raised his mechanical right arm and the small silver disk of a whirring medical saw appeared from his hand like a magician's coin. “I’m going to enjoy carving away your extra-”


    The cult priest stopped mid-word, and looked at his arm with fear as it started creeping towards his head. The blade spun faster, sounding its terrible whine.


    Frick’s head rose up, chin jutted proudly forward, her face scraped and bloody. “Got you.” she grinned, and there was a terrible light in her eyes. “Just... took a while to remember how.”


    Panic twisted the cult priest’s face but his other arm hung limp. “You think the Machine God won’t remember this?!” he screamed. “You think it won’t punish you? Your every move has been seen! Witnessed! It knows who you are and there is no hiding from its wrath! It will punish you for this!”


    Frick seemed to think about that, head cocked, as the whirring blade grew closer. “Naw. I don’t think you’re important enough for revenge.” she said, as the leader of the cult screamed in terror and then in pain.


    Firing on pure instinct at the opportunity, Aline freed one of her pinioned arms and snatched her switchblade from her jacket pocket. The creature holding her worked automatically, slowly and methodically trying to reclaim the arm, and didn’t see the blade as it snicked open. The tip managed to stab into its neck, and Aline bucked up with everything she had, driving it with her arm and shoulder through the meat and plastic and cloth.


    Blood and oil poured down, and she battled her way free, almost wall-crawling out from under it, shrimping and kicking and then running, bolting towards the slab, her backpack under her arm, hands already grabbing at the explosives tied there.


    “Aline, now! Before the others can take over!” Frick swept an arm towards the tree. She had no fire but the creatures seemed to be fighting themselves around her.

    Some of the cultists tangled into the blood-dried cables seemed to look at Aline as she retrieved the charges tied to her pack. She didn’t get too close and tried not to think about them as she went to work.


    Gunshots rang out as she clawed her way up the damaged side with scraped-up hands and boots, the edges and points of the material sharp as volcanic glass. She placed the charges along against the damage, tangled in with the thousands of hair-thin wires the cult had reverently and precisely fused in place, hoping the already cracked surface would be easier to break. The grenades she wedged in the long grooves built into the top in the hope they'd split the thing when the charges set them off.

    The cult was already in chaos as hit the ground, and she sprinted and darted away.


    The explosion was deafening in the hard-walled, confined space of the cathedral. Aline didn’t look towards it since they were so close, but the hail of sharp black shrapnel, and the ruinous aftermath gave her a good idea as to how powerful it had been.


    The concrete floor had been crushed downwards and charred black for meters in every direction. The slab itself was less than a third its original size, appeared to be both broken and melted, as well as split in two or three pieces, surrounded in a even-layered carpet of glossy fragments. The ruined tree hung limp and fused over it, still burning in some places, charred meat and bone melted into the damage in others. She did her best not to focus on, or remember those parts.


    In the sudden calm, Joel walked once around the tree with the rifle, shooting at any part that seemed to be alive, though he said most seemed to be dead already.


***


    After that, the hike to the surface was surprisingly easy. Maybe it was the destruction and disconnection of the slab, maybe it was the death of Father Mathias or the living cultists fused into the tree. But something had thrown the cult in complete disarray, a pale shade of their former selves, either disorganized and listless or thrown into an outright panic, fleeing their own shadows, while their creatures of meat and metal and plastic either ran on autopilot or not at all.


    They took care to avoid the more intact of the surviving cultists, and any of still-functional machinery, likely isolated and unaware of the chaos. Aline knew they were missing an opportunity, that someone should hunt down the cult while it was weak, mop up its fleeing members before they could vanish back into the world, to start over someplace else. Someone should find all the biological server rooms and give the victims mercy, and their mechanical creatures too. But it wasn’t going to be her. She was so tired, burned out, and her companions weren’t any better. They’d done their part, done more than anyone had any right to ask. She just wanted to get the hell away from here, to find someplace safe and curl up and go to sleep.


    And so they climbed, pulling eachother along. Sometimes they ate or slept for a brief spans, but there was an unspoken need the little group had to reach the surface and it pulled them onwards.


    At some point, without quite knowing when, she realized they’d left the cult’s territory and returned to the plainer, seldom used, but wonderfully mundane tunnels and rooms of the Utilities’ and Transit Authority's underground networks. Not long after that, they heard voices and passed through a locked door onto a mostly-empty train platform.


    People glanced at them as they climbed numbly together up the ramps and escalators, burned out and exhausted, eyes still staring at the things they’d seen. It was only after the third or fourth glance and a moment of clarity in the subway station light, that Aline realized just how filthy she was – her clothes and skin and hair stained a fairly consistent reddish brown with dust and dirt and grease and mud, candle wax and dried blood and hydraulic fluid. There was blood crusted all over her hands, some from her own scraped knuckles and palms, but mostly from the Machine God’s cultists and creatures she’d murdered in the tunnel depths. Self consciously, she folded her hands and tucked them into her jacket pockets.


    Looking at the others she could see they were no better off, smeared and stained, their clothes burnt at the edges, bloody and favoring injuries, they looked like victims of a disaster, crawled out from an earthquake or collapse or fleeing a war. But there wouldn’t be anyone waiting with blankets and supplies and medicine for them. Nobody would help because nobody knew – nobody could know of what they’d done.


    By a sort of silent, mutual agreement they were headed for the street level. Aline didn’t know what they’d do after that – they had no plan before, and they certainly didn’t have one now. Even if the police and company security weren’t waiting for her up there, she didn’t know what she’d do from this point in her life.


    Finally they passed through a little-used door and onto the city street, blinking in the dull grey sunlight. Aline looked up past walls of advertisements and screens of twisting, crawling colors without seeing them. There was something else out there, up in the sky, above the tallest buildings, just above or inside the atmosphere – something huge, like another layer to the city. And it didn't make any fucking sense.


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