Selene Cayne had a package slotted into the courier drive in the back of her head with no buffer. It was an unknown that she’d picked up for delivery at the request of a friend. She didn’t think anything of it. Not until a car pulled up and some slick corporate suits stepped out and opened fire at her from across the causeway.
She ran hard, augmented legs pounding the pavement, shock absorbers dispersing the impact. Her cyberware, her enhancements, were ones that she had chosen to simplify her role as a courier. They made her more agile. It surprised her that the agents that were after her — after the package — were somehow able to keep pace. She found herself wishing that she were even faster.
The recent installation of warranty voiding modifications to key components in her body could give her that edge. She thought about activating it — the device that would overclock her joint motors. No. It wasn’t time. She could still outpace the suits. Besides, she’d never used it before. Didn’t know what side effects it might have.
She jumped and used the strength of her core to pull her legs up in front of her as she crashed through a window on the bottom floor of an office building. Covering her face as she landed, she rolled through broken glass, popped up, and sprinted through an open door and into a stair well. The sound of boots pounding on metal surfaces followed her as she ascended.
Selene slammed hard into the surface of a heavy door as gunshots rang out behind her. The door shattered as her weight connected with it. Bullets hit the wall and door frame. She wasn’t sure if the sharp pains she felt on the back of her head were the result of splintered wood or concrete shrapnel. Her hand shot up to the wound and felt the place where the impact had happened. She looked at the red sheen on the ends of her polycarbonate fingertips, suddenly wishing she’d sprung for the synthskin that would have allowed her to feel the damage done, to determine if she’d been shot. But there wasn’t time to linger on that thought, she had to keep moving. She had a delivery to make.
Moving up the hallway as fast as her augmented legs could carry her, she tried her best to get out ahead of her pursuers. She rounded the corner into a cubicle-filled office where workers were busy picking up phones, glancing between multiple monitors, and answering calls. Too occupied at their desks to notice the cyborg blur speeding through the floorspace. What they did notice was the men in black who burst in after and opened fire. There was no time to look back, to see the result of the automatic spray that cut through the backs of chairs and shattered screens. She could hear the screaming, the scrambling of people trying to escape tripping over one another, the squelching splash that followed the impact of hard target rounds hitting soft target bodies. Then the sound of an empty magazine hitting the floor, a slide being racked.
Selene reached the other side of the room and tried one of the windows, but upon opening it found that the office she was in was pressed into a fire hazards distance of the neighboring building. She turned quickly, scanning every corner she could, finally spotting an unlit exit sign dangling above a door between two vending machines.
Lactic acid flooded the still human musculature that connected her with the ‘ware in her legs and caused her to stumble. As she did the sound of automatic fire tearing through cubicles roared back into her ears. She thought fast. Made her decision. Her overdrive modification. That would pull her through. She hadn’t had a chance to use it yet, relying on the depths of her own human stamina and endurance to pull through most jobs. But as fast as she was, she could not outrun a bullet and the suits had closed in.
The button was under a secured clasp, a panel in her left wrist. She tore off her wristwatch, threw it to the ground and flipped the panel open. The inside was a tangle of wires, toggles, switches, and rods — piston components that moved as she flexed her fingers. A red circular protrusion sat on a black box connected to her ulna at the base of the inside of her forearm. Pressing it down, she held it until there was an audible click. An electric jolt flashed up her arm and traveled to her brain which, in turn, signaled her adrenal glands and the motors connecting her human legs to their carbon fiber extensions. Her glands dumped adrenaline. Her motors spun up.
Bullets tore through the wall behind her as she fired herself into a sprint towards the exit. Selene was through the door before she realized it opened up over an alley. And that the fire escape that should have been there… wasn’t.
A five-story drop should have killed her. The dead man in the garbage next to her was proof of that. Selene pulled herself over the body, up and out of the pile of trash on the wet concrete in the alley behind the building. She could still make it. The drop off point for the package wasn’t much farther now.
She could hear yelling above her. She glanced up for a moment, saw one of the thugs who were after the package standing in the open doorway. He had nearly fallen after her and his partner had just managed to catch him by the back of his collar. His gun had landed nearby. Selene picked it up, pointed it at the men and pulled the trigger, but her action was met with a dissatisfying and hollow clicking. She tossed the gun in the garbage as she ran away, still motivated by a growing heat generated by an overdrive mechanism she now realized she didn’t know how to turn off.
The alleyway cut around and descended down, down several makeshift ramps and cinder-block staircases bound together with plastic cable ties and rope. Cables hung over impromptu hand holds, presenting tripping hazards Selene tried to remain vigilant of. Had she not been there before, not navigated the slum rat maze down into the underworld’s underworld, she would have gotten lost. She was confident that even if the men had found their way down, they would not be able to reach her. Delivery of the package was all but assured at that point. But lost was not her problem. Her problem was heat, a heat that would not subside. Problematic still, her temperature seemed to rise as she decreased her speed, which she had to in order to navigate the tight corridors of the maze. Her vision blurred as her temperature spiked and sweat dripped from her forehead and into her eyes. But she was almost there.
The client was an acquaintance, a friend of a friend. The doctor who’d installed most of her augmentations in fact. The neon glow of the syringe and wrench on the sign above his door meant she’d made it, but her pace slowed. It was no longer a matter of lactic acid, of tired muscles and beat up bones. Selene couldn’t feel her arms and legs and she was becoming acutely aware of the weight of her implanted ‘ware. She pushed through, reaching the door and pounding on it with perhaps more force than she had intended, then collapsed in a heap as a surge fried her motor reflex interfaces. She lay wedged in the space between the door and the small set of stairs leading down to it, watching as the rusty portal opened to reveal the man she’d been hired to deliver the package to.
Hans Backslash looked down at her from behind a pair of modified goggles. He didn’t move to help her. Instead, he left her where she was and walked back into his shop. She could hear him digging around in an over-packed drawer, mechanical fingers pushing against various tools, looking for something. When he found it, he let out a sound she could only call satisfied. Backslash came back, diagnostic tablet in hand, and pushed Selene’s dirty blond hair to the side. He felt behind her ear for whatever access port he was looking for.
“What are you doing?” Selene asked.
“Checking the status of the package.”
“Courier drive, above the neural access port.”
“I’m well aware, Cayne. I installed it.”
He withdrew a length of wire from the side of the tablet, a fibrous coil of snake-like cable that seemed to writhe in his gloved hand. She felt pressure in the back of her skull as he connected it.
“You’ve overheated your implants,” he said after a moment of silence. “Worse yet, you’ve somehow developed robo-encephalitis.”
“A forced rejection of augmentation at a basal level. This was a problem early in development of cyberware technologies. One overcome with advancement of hybrid treatments — pharmaceuticals combined with repeated surgical and mechanical work done to encourage the body to accept modification. These days a person simply gets their parts and takes some pills for a few weeks. To put it bluntly… this should not have happened.”
He looked away from her and back down to the tablet. Selene could see his eyes flitting back and forth, strings of numbers and letters reflected off his irises.
“Do you know what you were carrying?” he asked her.
“No,” she said, her voice was becoming faint, slurred. “Just that I was supposed to get it to you. Did you know?”
“No. I was the middleman for another buyer.”
“It’s always how these things go, isn’t it?”
Backslash stood, shook his head, and stepped away from her, lips pursed as if sucking on some sour bit of truth.
“What is it?” Selene asked. “Can you help me?”
“The package has opened. I lack the technical expertise to repackage and extract it. Its files, some kind of self-deploying executable, have activated in the root directory of your synthetic hind brain. The chip that contained it, the one you slotted into your courier drive, has overheated. Whether through a part of its self-extraction process or the result of your use of an after-market performance-enhancing hardware hack, I cannot say. The drive and the chip are fused.”
“This has severe implications for the both of us,” Backslash said.
He took his tablet back inside and returned once again, this time to lift her from under her arms and drag her inside the illegal biomech clinic where he placed her on an operating table. The lights overhead flickered and strobed as she faded in and out. She could hear the occasional clinks and clanks of surgical tools being cleaned and placed onto metal trays nearby. Then footsteps. Backslash looked down at her from behind a surgical mask that looked as though it had been stained with what she hoped was coffee. His hand moved slow towards her face, placing a Schimmelbush mask over her mouth and nose.
“Administering halothane,” he said.
She took several breaths, felt the acute pain radiating out from ribs that she hadn’t known until that moment were cracked start to fade. Her vision blurred, sending the overhead light into a sickly bokeh. Then Backslash spoke.
“All you had to do was deliver the package and we both would have gotten paid. Everything would have been fine. As it stands, we now both owe our benefactor a great deal of money. I can’t extract the package, like I said, but your body contains lots of expensive cyberware. Much of it has sustained thermal damage, but what parts have not can be removed and sold. As can your biological organs. You are immobile, and I’ve dosed you so that this should be largely painless for you. Goodbye, Cayne.”
Selene wanted to scream. She wanted to thrash her way off the table, to grab Backslash by the skull and slam him into the ground before fleeing into the night. But she couldn’t. Her lungs were slowing, her vision fading. Then it was dark. Dark in an impossible way. Selene’s eyes weren’t implants. They were organic, flawed and imperfect in the way that human eyes are. She should have seen light patterns waver across the inside of her eyelids, the after image of electrical signals looking like Perlin noise on a black background. Grainy. But there was nothing. Nothing but an eerie black expanse spread out in all directions.
Until there was a spark. Faint at first. Almost imperceptible. Then another. A confirmation that the initial flash of light had not been hallucinatory. More and more pinprick lights shot in all around her periphery until they became too many to ignore. She decided she was in space, which was a more comforting thought than accepting that she was dead. Was she dead?
She trained her mind on reality, what her physical body knew was reality. Her lungs were still filled with air and she was exhaling carbon and halothane into a tube in a dirty room in an alley as the same man who she had once trusted to enhance her body took it apart. That momentary lapse back into the meat brought with it a rush of carnivorous saw-toothed pain and regret. Then she was in space again. Or whatever it was.
The expanse yawned before her, around her, and felt accommodating in a way that she eagerly accepted. Selene made an attempt at stretching, at sending signals into the limbs she knew were mechanical in the real. She stretched her arms and legs out into her field of vision, and saw that they were made of the same light as everything else. Light patterned after nervous systems on medical charts made three-dimensional and rotoscoped, set to glow. Her heart rate increased. A sudden but momentary grounding that pulsed then faded as parts were removed. She needed to disconnect herself from her body. She needed to sever the tether before the drugs wore off and the pain became too much to bear.
Selene could feel Backslash prodding at the back of her head, doing god knows what in an attempt to remove her courier drive. Then something whispered to her from out in the void, telling her to calm herself. She could hear the doctor speaking, but couldn’t quite make out what he was saying. The void swallowed his words and spoke its own, and as it did the courier drive vibrated.
Thoughts that were not her own tumbled free from the drive, wriggling in the space in her brain reserved for triggering instinctual actions of self-preservation. The drive thrummed and more thoughts mingled with her own. Something about focusing on her body. She was doing that, she thought. Then she looked down again at her lightform. The drive pulsed. This body. Not that one. Not the one back in the room.
The lightform body flared as she concentrated on it. A familiar feeling followed, a growing heat that compelled her to act. To move. To fly. Faster than she ever had in her life. So she moved. It was the kind of speed she had only ever dreamed of achieving before. The pinprick lights grew large, their size stretching in response to her acceleration. Flashes of light and dark, color and its absence, cascaded across her vision as she flew. Selene moved faster with every passing second, and with her speed, the distance between her new and old self became a chasm.
Hans Backlash’s voice had long since faded from Selene’s direct sensory reality. She could not perceive him, nor her old body. She was now whatever this fast thing rocketing through space was. But she was okay with that. She loved it.
Back in the clinic, Backslash sighed. He had tried his best to extract the destroyed courier drive from Selene’s head. Had he managed to pull it intact he could have maybe sold it as salvage, but during the operation he had torn loose parts of the woman’s skull and brain that decreased the value of all three of the components. He would make do with what organs and cyberware he could.
After he finished extracting the highest value parts in the body that was Selene, Backslash put the rest of her into a garbage bag. He carried it up and out of the clinic, to the alley where he had found her, and placed the bag into a dumpster. A sudden flash made him look up, past the dangling, mismanaged wires indicative of bootleg net connections and rerouted electricity, towards the night sky—just missing the approach of two armed men in black jackets and slacks.
The space far above, usually flooded with neon-tinged light pollution, was clear. For some reason he felt compelled to take a breath, as though the clear sky meant clean air. As he exhaled and coughed his gaze became fixated on a fast-moving streak. A blue dot with an accompanying tail sailing fast over the horizon. He traced its descent down into the blinding, violent flash of muzzle flare.
e.x.weis is a scholarly punk that uses his stories to explore themes of oppression and resistance to hierarchies through the lens of cyberpunk, body horror… and sometimes vampirism. He can be found on Mastodon @email@example.com and on his own website, neuroknives.com.
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