The Ghosts of Cloud City

Twilite Minotaur

“Don’t get your head stuck in the Clouds,” my dad would say. I used to think that was why our home was miles below the Earth’s surface, cocooned down near the mantle, the warm bosom of Gaia. I thought dad kept us down there to keep us safe, away from the pollution-sickened silver nitrate skies of the surface. But the Cloud was everywhere, no matter how deep you shoved your head in the sand.

Her name tag reads, ‘Cynthia’... Cyclops slices around the upper arm and down the length with an Xacto
Cyclops and I bunker down behind the counter of a Starbeans Coffee, getting a nose and mouth full of dust and cobwebs. The cold is chewing its way to my bones, my empty stomach is eating its way out, and my arm is killing me. Figuratively of course; the 9mm round lodged in my tricep we can dig out, and granted it doesn’t infect, I’ve got a good chance in this hell of surviving. My NeuroArm, on the other hand, is literally and definitely going to kill me, and is the reason Cyclops is fishing for bullets in my nature-issue flesh arm with a long-nose pliers. It’s been acting up lately, started glitching spastic while we were in a shootout with some raiders. It’s tough to hit anything when you’ve got cybernetic Parkinson’s disease.

The metal slug squishes out of me with a nauseating movie-quality slurp. My vision fuzzes white with pain and I hold back the scream, clenching my jaw so tight I feel it pop. We’re pretty sure the fucks who attacked us lost our tail but we’re not taking any chances. Cyclops douses the gory hole in my arm with hydrogen peroxide, and the bubble of sizzling white foam and syrupy red blood on my tan skin makes me think of strawberry pancakes. This pisses my stomach off more, on top of the peroxide stinging like a centiscorpion. Getting shot sucks.

“We should get you to a doctor,” Cyclops finds a tray of non-recycled napkins, dyed brown to appear eco-friendly, back when such things mattered to anyone. He tosses off the top dozen moldy sheets, and uses a fresh napkin to dab at the injury.

“It’s just a flesh wound, I’ll be fine.” But not if we don’t get this AWOL prosthetic fixed, I subvocalize. Cyclops appears unconvinced.

“We’ll be at Ebayzaar in a few days if we make decent time. They’ll have a doc there for sure.” I reassure.

The peroxide we scavved up from the carcass of a MegaMart. Most the aisles were picked clean as the ribcage of a dead whale, so we were surprised to find the bottles of disinfectant floating in a mud puddle in the pharmaceutical department. As hazardous and unpredictable as they are, you can always count on raiders and cannibals to fail to think things through. Guess you can’t blame them, they are mostly the descendants of the infamously infantile Chattering Class that went extinct when the internet and everything else went bye-bye.

The MegaMart had completely computerized self-checkout registers with RFID and biometric scanners for security purposes, having decided to do away completely with human clerks just before the world went belly-up. Now, I’m no urban archaeologist, but I heard that before The Silence, the MegaMarts sold cheap, Earth-killing, slave-labor goods to people who didn’t have the economic luxury of superficial presentation, so eventually they thought why bother with the flair of a human clerk?

Starbeans, on the other hand, was targeted toward the spoiled upper classes who sipped over-designed cups of this stuff kinda like weak stims in liquid form called “coffee”, while checking their “Twitters” and “Portfolios” and discussing “The Teabaggers” and “Fawksnews”. Not that the Starbeans’ supply chain was any less karma-negative, but patrons were paying for the feeling of sophistication and moral high ground. Fancy names like Cinnamon Dolce Crème Frappacino, fancy cups. They needed this thing called “experience” or “story”, which I could never understand no matter how many times old-timers explained it. I have plenty of experience, lots of stories to tell, nobody ever paid me. Sometimes I think The Ancients were all insane, maybe that’s what dad meant about getting your head stuck in the Cloud.

But the primary reason we’re in Starbeans is every Starbeans, unlike MegaMart, had several humanoid robots. Part of the simulated cafe ‘experience’ was having a human barista mix your ten dollar chai latte, but I guess the profit margin was much better if you didn’t have to pay real people once the robots got convincing enough. Lucky for me, the CLERCs (Cyber-Linguistic Empathic Relations Colleague) all come with the same line of robotic NeuroArms as the one attached to the stump where my right arm used to be. It’s a long story.

There’s one CLERC face down in the store room. It’s corroded and covered in silt, a rat's nest lined with shredded napkins and artificial sweetener packets is carved out of the android’s stomach cavity. Another is at the cashier counter, standing, hand outstretched as if patiently awaiting payment or a Starbeans Rewards Card. Frozen instantly, along with all other robots and androids as their CPUs were fried by EMPs in the Intellectual Property Wars decades ago.

Her synthetic skin is dusty and slightly sallow, but remains remarkably intact. Her face is locked in an eternal smile of a lightheartedness utterly alien in the wasteland. Creepily ironic how the only remains of the real humans, including her customer, are heaps of rag and bone on the floor while this replicant appears she might resume her conversation any moment. A fossil token of a vanished culture, caught in the amber of electromagnetic pulse. Her name tag reads, ‘Cynthia’.

“Hello Cynthia. Yes, you can take my order. One Venti Mochaccino, made with those Urban-Aggro beans please. A name for the order? Make it out to ‘Jericho’.” Cyclops laughs at my little skit even though he’s seen it before. I like to pretend. Maybe it’s my way of thanking them for letting me use their limbs. Besides, you’ve got to learn to enjoy the little things, even when you’re being pursued by psychotic sub-humans for your flesh, water, and ammunition. Otherwise what’s the point, right?

Cynthia’s ancient sleeve comes apart like tissue paper.

“Do you want the dermis too?” Cyclops holds up the naked arm.

“Fuck no. Just help me cut it open, funny man.”

Cyclops slices around the upper arm and down the length with an Xacto, pulling back like that scene in Terminator, except there’s no blood, just rubber and metal skeleton. I don’t need a womanly hand with candy apple red nail polish, and the cyborg look tends to frighten the dumber malicious riff raff. Mosquito repellant. Her NeuroArm looks factory-mint, she was probably on the job only a few months.

Cyclops unbolts it, unbolts mine. My prosthetic comes off, and there’s that disorienting feeling of soul-vertigo, that phantom-limb sense of deep wrongness. The feeling vanishes just as soon as the new arm clinks into place, somatosensory cortex settling down to luxuriate in the newfound sensory input. My personal bioelectric patterns are stored in a motor neuron implant that transcodes directly to the Neuroarm, so the new limb is operational instantly. None of that myoelectric stuff, painstakingly shrugging your shoulder, twisting your neck and squeezing your ass just to signal to your prosthetic to pick up a damn bottle.

“Better. Very much so.” I windmill the arm a bit, test the fine motor responses, pull the rifle from my backpack and take aim at the center of the peeling ‘S’ on the cracked glass storefront of the Starbeans. No jittering.

“It looks good, Jerry,” Cyclops says, putting away the Xacto and pliers.

He’s lying, of course, being a good brother. Cyclops doesn’t see the world like most people do. His eyes are blind as a cave shrimp, but he’s got some brain mod that pipes electromagnetic radiation directly into his frontal lobe from his shades, like some kind of third eye. Seriously bleeding edge tech, just before the world fell off the edge. However, a side-effect is he definitely can’t tell whether my new arm looks, “good” or not. The cortical implant bypasses subjective aesthetic valuation centers, old mammalian emotion modules buried deep, a floor above the reptilian brain stem. For him it’s pure abstraction, numerology; seeing a sunset is like reading instantly a spreadsheet on a sunset detailing the frequencies of red, yellow, and orange light due to Rayleigh scattering, seeing the pointers rather than actually experiencing all that qualia-rich, heavenly glory. Kinda how the ancients kept their heads surgically buried in their “smart” phones, experiencing sunsets, rock concerts, sex, their newborns’ first steps, life itself through empty 70-character nibbles of text, their worlds reduced to two inch touch screens. In consolation, Cyclops’ eyes apparently facilitate sensitivity to a certain monastic, Einsteinian beauty in seeing the “superstructure of the world”. That’s what the brochure said, anyway. At any rate, he’s truly clueless as to the appeal of my latest prosthetic fashion accessory. But it’s the thought that counts.

We search the Starbeans for any other useful material, but it’s been cleared out long ago. It’s not worth it to dissect the other CLERC for the extra arm; besides the fact that it’s covered in rat shit, these Starbeans are so goddamn abundant. I mean there’s one right across the street, what is up with that?

We pop open the Reebok knapsack, empty it out on the ground. A small can of pork and beans, a twisty-tied packet of a dozen raisins. It’s almost comical, except starvation has this peculiar way of filtering all the funny out of the world, especially when it comes to food. Cyclops’ head and thin shoulders slump, the skin is draped loosely over his emaciated bones like sheets over old furniture. A gust of cold evening air blows daggers and Cyclops starts shivering, so I shake the dust out of an Armani suit left in a booth next to a briefcase and wrap him up in it.

“We’re not going to make it this time, are we?” He stares at a raisin in the palm of his hand, shriveled and stale to the point of petrifaction. Closes it.

“Hey. Hey, look at me.” I squeeze his hand tight over the raisin. “We are going to make it, I promise.” He is suddenly so small and fragile. Everyone grows up so fast out here, there are no childhoods in the wasteland. It’s easy to forget he’s just a fourteen year old kid.

“But you said it’s a few more days if we make good time and we’re stuck here with no food, and it’s cold and those raiders are out there-“

“We’ll make do. We always do. They’ve got more food than you could ever eat at Ebayzaar. I hear they even have ice cream. You remember ice cream?” The corners of his mouth pull up, and I can see the episodic memories of birthdays back in the vault spooling through his mind like a freshly opened bag of jelly candies. The smell of icing and melted wax, adults in labcoats and military brass serenading out-of-harmony, no bed times for one night.

“Remember that time dad got me a bb gun and tried to teach us how to shoot cans in the water purification room?”

“Yeah, I was still crap at using my vision mod and kept shooting you guys in the butt. At least I couldn’t shoot an eye out.” Cyclops taps his bionic eye and we both laugh.

“Remember how he used to tell us those crazy bedtime stories when we were real little?”

“I always liked the one about the people who built their city on the Clouds.”

“They forgot about the real world down below. One day the Clouds evaporated, and they came crashing back down. ‘Their ghosts still haunt the surface to this day.’”

“I miss dad.” Cyclops pulls his knees together and the Armani suit tighter around himself. His machine eyes lack the tear ducts to cry, but I know him well enough to know when he is crying inside.

“Me too, Cy.” I gather up his Italian wool-swaddled body in a hug. I’m lying, about us making it. We’re at least a week, maybe two from where this Ebayzaar “Mecca of the Wastes” supposedly is located, according to an X on a map we plucked off a vulture-pecked body in a ditch on the interstate. For all we know, Ebayzaar is a ghost town, or worse, and out here, the universe’ dice are weighted towards “worse”. Maybe we’re the ghosts, haunting the city that fell to Earth, their streets, their steel-girdered castles, their simulacra of ‘the real world’ run and barista-ed by robot actors. Maybe we’ll fade away, at last, like the faux finished signs on storefront windows.

Desperation is an acid that will eat you faster than any cannibal.

And aside from the vague glimmer of someday finding our dad, Cyclops is all I’ve got keeping me going out here. So I lie, because I am a good brother.

For pretty much all our lives we lived in Elysium Vault, a cushy EMP/atomic shelter for United Territories of Guugol upper management, their families, and non-expendables. Dad, for the moment, met the non-expendable criteria and thus was allowed one of the much-coveted spots in the subterranean bunker/enclave. Or more specifically, the three pound sack of wet-ware in his head which was capable of the complex dance of creative imagination and synthesizing required for highest-level research met the non-expendable criteria, as the Network-Nations had not been able to automate the process. Not yet, anyway. Lower level scientists and research assistants had already been rendered obsolescent by poor-performing, buggy, but cheaper “science engines”, and were left to rot, like post-information age John Henrys.

We empty out all the money from the cash register onto the ground, pile on tooth picks and splintered Starbeans chair legs, start a fire.
Elysium was but one of many secret gardens that sheltered moguls of the pre-collapse internet-nations whose wealth made Bill Gates look like a starving post-print journalist. We had hydroponics, clean water, a self-repairing 10 MW geothermal plant, everything a post-apocalypse puppeteering enclave needed. It wasn’t exactly a normal childhood, but then the concept of normal didn’t really exist in the collapsed world anymore, gone as dodo birds and print culture. The closest thing to high school prom I’d experienced in the Vault was EMP strike emergency drills, giving CPR to the Yawpper CEO’s daughter, Candy. I think somewhere deep down I knew our little gated heaven wouldn’t last forever, but I filed the thought away on a back shelf, unable to live in that withering, corrosive state of paranoia, like we once had to block out, dissociate from the constant existential terror of EMP Armageddon, and before that terrorism, Cold War. Dad knew it too, and I’d only since coming to the surface realized that he’d been quietly preparing us all along; how to shoot, how to dress wounds, how to survive among the mindlessness outside, and the heartlessness inside.

Cyclops’ heat-seeking eye-voodoo susses out a couple of rats hiding out in the chest cavity of the CLERC and we snare ’em, which puts a damper on our food crisis and provides a much needed morale boost. We empty out all the money from the cash register onto the ground, pile on tooth picks and splintered Starbeans chair legs, start a fire. There’s a chance the raiders are still out there but it’s much slimmer at this point. Plus it’s night, now, so the smoke will be less conspicuous and we’re freezing our asses off and there’s no fucking way we’re eating raw rat meat.

We warm our hands, or hand, by the fire, pour the pork'n'beans in a coffee pot, shishkebab the rat meat. The raisins we save, they’re so hard and far past the expiry date we’d probably get more food trading them as handgun ammo. The rat and beans taste like New York steak and melt-in-your mouth golden mashers when you haven’t eaten anything in days.

“Man, I haven’t been that stuffed in… I can’t remember.” Cyclops flops back on a pillow of dish towels and clothes.

“I say we open up a restaurant when we get to Ebayzaar: ‘Cyclops and Jericho’s Ratburgers and Beans’.” I rub my swollen belly with my steel fingers.

“I like the sound of that.”

We kick back around the fire and blue-sky our entrepreneurial future in the culinary arts, talk old times till the embers burn down to a puddle of ash pocked with rubies.

“Ok, who wants to take first watch. Cynthia?” I hand the one-armed CLERC a SWAT M4 assault rifle.

“I’ll go first, I want to enjoy the sensation of having stuff in my tummy as long as I can.” Cyclops takes the gun.

I pop open Armani Man’s briefcase, it’s full of spreadsheets and large packets of paper thick as money. They bear titles like, “Re-imagining The Internet: The Cloud 4.0”, “Cost-Benefit Analysis of Converting Cities to PDMMS (Permanent Digital Massive Multiplayer Societies)”, And “Social Medianomics: How Individuals Selling Their Social Lives Can Overcome the Displacement of Middle and Lower Class Jobs by Robots and Computers.”

I flip through some of these papers; half the words I’ve never even seen before and it’s like reading a newspaper from an alien planet, but I get the overall impression this was a guy on a mission, trying to effect big changes, probably just stopped here for a latte on his way to a big ‘conference’ thing, when the shit hit the fan. I figure he’s not so different from us, we just stopped in for some rat-skewers before we’re on to bigger and better things in the new cradle of hopefully more civil civilization. I go under dreaming of re-imagining our future in Ebayzaar, running our restaurant in striped Armani suits, Cynthia waiting tables, Cyclops doing cost-benefit analyses of using rat versus mutant rattlesnake in the burgers, veritable captains of post-Silence commerce.

I’m about to take a bite of a juicy ½ lb rat burger when it vanishes from under my teeth. I open my eyes, rub the sleep out of them, Cyclops is prodding me with the handle of the rifle. “Your turn.” I take the gun, check the chamber. “Sweet dreams, man.”

It’s colder than a mutant girl’s tit out here, and my breath is blue opaque clouds in the half-moonlight. I really need to take a leak for the first time in two days, perfect timing, so I find the deflated tire falling off the rotten husk of a car, which strikes me as ridiculous just as I start pouring steaming golden streams down the rims. You can piss literally anywhere: in the street, on the windows, whizz on the biggest desk in the tallest sky-tower in the world, no one will give a shit. Maybe it’s one of those DNA memory things, pissing on tires.

Just as I’m thinking of more evidence to corroborate my tire-peeing gene theory, I hear a sound like a rat going through a trash can. I turn in the direction it came from, squinting, and I’m thinking about waking Cyclops to help capture this rat take-out for tomorrow when the rat explodes with a reverberatingly loud crack, and something whizzes past my ear. I splash urine all over myself as my brain puts the evidence together and realizes I’m being shot at, and I’m still peeing as I dive back through a spiderweb-fractured window of the Starbeans. Glass is still trickling down in sporadic cracks as I get behind the counter, making my adrenaline soaked nerves jump every time. Caught with my damn pants down.

“Wake the fuck up, Cy, we’re in some shit.” I shake him up and he’s got drool matting his hair, mumbling some dream nonsense, but he knows the tone in my voice and immediately stumbles over for the knapsack, pulls out a 45 ACP pistol. I have him run to the back to make sure the employee back door is locked and we take cover behind the counter.

“You little fuckwits are so dead, and you so fail at pissing, lol.” I can hear their raucous stupid laughter and hi-fiving so they can’t be very far. I white-knuckle the SWAT rifle, these Chattering Class spawn may not be very bright, but they are amazingly aggressive and ruthless, and we’re outnumbered. And they’re really out for blood since I took one of them out when they attacked us a couple days ago at a fuel cell station.

The story went that the Ancients, “Homo Twitterus” some called them, having outsourced not only their physical labor but their intellectual labor as well to machines, The Cloud and robots, had atrophied their minds to the point that they couldn’t even do simple math, couldn’t read any text longer than a blurb, could not put together a coherent sentence, couldn’t even cook food or wipe their own asses. They became instead experts at expanding their social networking “friend lists”, winning popularity arms races in reputation systems, “self marketing”, deciding which arguments to win then instructing evolutionary algorithm-based “debate software” to do the critical thinking and composition of message posts, hardened ad-hominem warriors in the Wars of the Flame on the battlegrounds of comment sections, anti-PR departments the size of 20th-cen countries dedicated to giving negative feedback on competitors. Masters at reality TV and political Truthiness, but failing at understanding reality and truth.

When the EMPs struck, self-driving supply trucks to cell phone towers and water purification systems, robot doctors to robot mechanics to robot farmers, all those gadgets dutifully keeping the cities running were fried in the blink of an eye as Homo Twitterus chattered, posted, and flamed away. But without their machine workforce to maintain the ephemeral Cloud, the sum total of their internetworked digital world, the chattering of Homo Twitterus at last ended in The Great Silence. Unable to sustain themselves, they died, clawing at their touch screens till their fingers bled, trying to reach through the glass for their small vanished worlds, turning on one another. Starving, choking on empty feeder-tubes, their final breaths spent in throes of infantile rage from internet withdrawal.

“Cy, are you getting anything on the infrared?” I scan wide eyed, but it’s so dark everything is just a gradient mush of blue and black, I can barely see a damned thing.

“Nothing, they must still be out of range.”

A burst of automatic gunfire hails into the Starbeans and we dive for cover. Fluff from booth seats explodes like blown dandelions, the cookie display windows shatter, and I hear the deep crumps of bullets impacting the front of the counter followed by a rain of coffee straws. A broken Frappe blending container falls on my head a second later.

“Ow, fuck!” Deep breaths. Remain calm, strategize, take it step by step.

I peek back through the gaping hole, fire off a few rounds on a murky shadow that appears to be moving, hear a satisfying, “Shit, WTF?”

“Wait, I think I see something. Over there, by the e-newspaper stands. It’s… little, though. Weird signal frequency. It’s… Metallica?” Cy head tilts.

Another peculiar little quirk about Cyclops’ vision system upgrades. He’d always be bursting out with nonsense from nowhere like, “Who is Charlie Foxtrot?” and “But I don’t know where Defcon 4 is.” We thought it was just another few screws that came loose near the audio cortex when hey installed his implants. Till one day, we were listening to some ancient band our dad liked called “The Velvet Underground” on an ePod. When we asked Cyclops what he thought, he said, “It looks great!” At that point we discovered he could not only see infrared and ultraviolet, but he could also ‘see’ radio and cell phone signals, wi-fi, practically the full range of the electromagnetic spectrum like some kind of human antenna.

The docs and neuroengineers were floored, never seen anything like it. Their verdict was his cerebrum had re-plasticised in response to the new influx of signal through his forehead, evolved new structure to interpret the signals, visualize them, like some kind of human transmission decoder. The brain, finding uses for things. It was the first successful mind-computer interface – the holy grail of the neurosci world – and it was wireless, to boot. They would’ve gone for a Nobel if there were still a scientific community. Cyclops was ‘seeing’ transmissions from radios within the base, and not only that, since the data was flowing directly into his brain – the ultimate pattern recognition system -- he could crack patterns in any encryption system in a few seconds as easily as we recognize faces in clouds. He would’ve been the ultimate Nahtzi code-buster in that Global War II thing. He liked The Velvet Underground, said they looked like red and black paint splattered on walls and volcanoes erupting.

“Definitely Metallica. It’s coming in faint in the gigahertz spectrum, but I’m seeing For Whom The Bell Tolls, unmistakably,” Cyclops pointed in the direction of the source.

“One of those raiders must have an ePod on him. Where the hell did he get a working- nevermind.” I can’t get a good clean shot from where I am, and from the way they’re spraying lead like firehoses, they’ve got a lot more ammo to play with than we do, so we’ve got to make our shots count.

“Ok, here’s what we’re going to do. Cy, I need you to grab the CLERC and shuffle her up towards the condiments area right when I give the signal OK? And let me know if those bastards change position.” He nods, not entirely sure what my plan is, but he knows I’ve got one. Another salvo of fire takes out the last remaining Starbeans Window and paints a little dipper of bullet holes just above my head in the “Happy Hour! 3-5 PM” sign.

“Shit, give me some cover fire.” Cyclops plants the .45 on the counter, firing blind in the general direction of the raiders, but it keeps them down. I dive into a tumble, ending up under the table of a booth on the opposite side of the room. I concentrate on breathing and wiggle the NeuroArm fingers to make sure it’s not gimping out on me at Crunch Time. I’ve got to nail these shots, the first time, otherwise- well, I can’t think about otherwise. I’m just thinking about all the delicious ratburgers we’re going to make when we get out of this.

Cyclops signals to me that ePod Guy hasn’t moved, I signal back “Now!”

When the alert came down from the surface that Elysium Vault had been breached, there was mass fingerpointing of the highest caliber between the surviving marketing and legal department remnants of Guugol, Norizon, Friendbook and other allied networks. US politics grade blame-shifting. Someone in the compound was turned, defected from Guugol across the Silicon Curtain to the United Aggregation of Eurasia, nuking the site safely from the orbit of another system. Or someone got too close to the surface dwellers, let the wrong one in, someone was followed on a reconnaissance mission, some fatal breach of protocol. Impossible to say. Like asking what was the specific Ferdinand Assassination event that led the Superpower Network-Nations to launch the EMPs at each other in Mutually Assured Disconnection? We’d never know. The high and low pressure systems were there, the specific butterfly wing-flap that initiated the storm was almost irrelevant.

It was utter confusion, then chaos, a flash flood of anomie, like the rapid phase transition of some kind of unspoken law of societal physics; a sudden re-distribution of the unevenly distributed future-hell, the pain not trickling but pouring down. Screaming, red flashing lights, sirens, blood, so much blood. The Netfreaks smelled the siliconey ozone of still-functioning computers, the air of the Cloud, and were drawn to it like vampires to blood. So many of them, there wasn’t enough ammo, and the corporate guns were overrun in minutes. Like the gameover cutscene to one of those Old World zombie survival horror games. They went for the AR headsets and smart phones first, clawing at each other to get their hands on touchpads and eyes engrossed in screens, refreshing for emails, text feeds that weren’t there.

Dad was away at Hoover Vault for research at the time, and one of Guugol’s black-ops guys I recognized as dad’s personal bodyguard locked us in our room with Candy, told us to stay put. Candy’s blouse was ripped, red scratches up her arms like the first stages of WiFi blood poisoning. She was crying, said her mom was outside somewhere, she tried to open the door to look for her but I held her back. Told her her mom would be fine, that we had to stay put. Lied. I can’t remember if she broke free and opened the door or if the Netfreaks broke it down, but I remember her screaming as their filthy, bloody nails latched onto her and pulled her through the doorway. I remember it all too clearly some nights. What followed was the first time I killed another person, if what I killed did still count as a human being, and not just the empty shell, the specter of one. Time fell away, all those deeply-programmed sessions shooting cans coming back as I raised my pistol, shot gory holes in as many faces as I could.

Seconds later the bodyguard pulled us through an auxiliary ventilation shaft, fleeing the only home we’d ever known that within moments had been destroyed. Just fifty feet or so from the exit, the Netfreaks found their way into the vent system and we were separated from the agent, who stayed back to hold them off, I still don’t know if he managed to escape. When we made it to the surface, we ran into desert night, no direction, no feeling, no thinking, just flight. We ran till our lungs burned holes in our chests and our legs turned to mush. Then we ran some more.

A second after the robot decoy passes in front of the tip jar, there’s an absolute shitstorm of gunfire so loud I can feel my brain rattling in my skull, but I block it out, focus. I pop up, there are sure enough two firing uzis full-auto from behind the e-newspaper stand, one with a pair of white earbuds on, both with drooling homicidal grins on their faces illuminated by muzzle-lightning, slightly caved-in foreheads characteristic of Netfreak descendants. In my peripheral I spot one behind the car that is covered in my still-warm pee, wearing a necklace of human teeth.

I aim, breathe, let off a burst once for each raider behind the stands, the NeuroArm thankfully eliminating muscle tremor and providing parasympathetic subroutines that autocompensate for the rifle’s recoil. Metallica Guy’s head pops like a cherry bomb in a ripe melon, blood streaking down the white headphone wires as his body collapses. The other raider lets out a choking shriek as he catches one in the arm, whipping it back in a puff of red mist. Feels good doesn’t it, fucker.

“I kind of want the ePod. I wonder if it has any Velvet Underground,”
The one behind the car screams something about ripping my head off and shitting down my neck and I duck just in time to feel his bullets parting my hair. The bullet blizzard abruptly haults, followed by clicking and smacking, and “WTFBBQ!?” followed by unintelligible strings of pre-Disconnect curse words . A beat later, there’s sprinting and I peek over to see this charging lunatic foaming at the mouth, waving a tire iron around like a medieval mace, the pure embodiment of Cloud-withdrawal rage, headed straight for me. Cyclops fires first, getting him in the upper thigh and shoulder, at which point he lets out a non-stop, vocal chord-tearing scream but keeps coming, from the look in his bloodshot eyes he is jacked up on spaz. I unload the rest of my clip on him, checkerboarding the chest of his black trench coat with red, which reduces his momentum, but his body remains in a drug-induced denial of how fucked it is. I deflect the tire iron blow with the NeuroArm, using his momentum to flip him over my shoulder in a Mountain Bomb throw. He crashes, back-first, onto a table strewn with coffee cups and long-defunct laptops, which collapses. The body spasms insect-like.

“Drop the gun!” The hoarse voice makes me jump, but in an instant I realize I don’t want to turn, knowing I’ve fucked up.

I turn to see the limp-armed raider, a giant rusty kitchen knife in his good, if twitchy hand pressed hard against Cyclops’ throat. This one looks older, wiry grey hair on his head and the tell-tale raccoon-marks around the eyes where permanent computer interface goggles once clung, ensconcing rapidly darting, distracted eyes of a pre-Silence Chattering Class netfreak.

“I said drop it you fucking troll!” I’m perplexed at first, then assume this insult is some sort of artifact of the Chattering Class. I’m under no illusion that this shit will slit Cyclops throat as soon as he sees his chance, possibly sooner. But he also looks like he’s about an inch away from cracking and the shaky knife hand pulls tighter, causing Cyclops to let out a whimper. I spot blood on Cyclops’ neck, and I decide to drop the gun, kick it aside. I’m sorry, bro.

“Now you’re both fucking dead!” His hand starts moving.

“No! Wait! I…” I’ve got about four seconds to think of something, and I think like our lives depend on it, which they do. I look down, spot the blood-soaked laptops and it clicks.

“I can get you some internet!” It’s so utterly ridiculous I just barely manage to deliver the line with a straight face.

“What? Where?” The look on his face is some mixture of junkie glaze and a child on Christmas morning, and for a moment I feel a twinge of pity, which quickly passes as I realize he was just about to kill my brother. He transfixes on me, and the knife falls away from Cyclops’ neck. Cyclops makes a break for it, and by the time the raider realizes what’s happened, he’s too late, completely missing Cyclops with his wild swing and throwing himself off balance. I take the opportunity to rush him, grabbing his knife hand in both of mine and drive it as hard as I can into the pit of his stomach. He staggers back, wobbling on his feet, then reaches his hand out towards something only he sees. “Internet…” he mutters, crestfallen, then falls.

In the morning we pack up the food and weapons, search the bodies. A couple Coke bottles filled with water, some bits of mystery meat, pack of cigarettes, no ammo left. Guess you have to give them an “A” for effort. Cyclops lingers over Metallica Guy. The white headphone wires are covered in bits of brain and black coagulated blood like Pocky sticks.

“I kind of want the ePod. I wonder if it has any Velvet Underground,” He finally says. Hey, that’s totally fine with me, I’m not cleaning that gore off.

Cynthia is a complete wreck from when we used her as an artificial human shield last night, uniform torn to shreds, metal showing everywhere, her one remaining arm hanging by a thread at the elbow. I almost feel bad for her. Her face is still caught in that bright, old-world service industry smile though her right cheek is falling off and her left eye is a black socket. A true professional to the end.

“Really sorry about that, Cynth. It’d probably never work out between us anyway, this town isn’t really me. Maybe you can come visit our place in Ebayzaar some time?” I duct tape her cheek back on as a token apology.

We follow the boulevard south through the ruins of windowless, slouching skyscrapers, picking up the journey to Ebayzaar. Cyclops finally manages to scrape most of the gunk off the ePod with the help of the Coke bottle water, plugs in to watch music. With the raiders gone, we’re walking lighter, freer, like a weight lifted off our backs. The ghosts of the Cloud City are left to rest in peace. The new captains of industry have a future to build.

© Twilite Minotaur 2011 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 13:24 Tue 28 Jun 2011
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