The shadow walks toward him, empty soles silent on the carpet.
Lazur reaches under the pile of clothes he removed from his body earlier, boxer briefs soft on the back of his hand. He pulls out his gun and aims at the shadow and pulls the trigger faster than he intended, still adjusting to his actual body, and he must have missed because the shadow keeps gliding toward him and there’s a crack on the window like the crack on his mind.
Then he sees the hole in the shadow, edges sparking around a coin of night.
The gun kicks in his hand, surprising him, violent bangs that hurt his ears. Then the gun is empty, silent with each pull.
Wind blows through the holes. The shadow moves slowly toward him, whistling high and eerie, then lunges, untethered from its coolant tube, unencumbered by a physical body.
Lazur’s punch sinks into the suit, tensors relaxing under his knuckles, swallowing his fist. A dark hand stiffens and slaps him and blood rushes to the side of his head. He grabs it and it deflates, then pops up with a sudden flurry of electrically-tensed fists.
They don’t knock him out like they would if they had the mass of a body behind them. But he can feel the bruises building on his arms as he blocks them, knows that when his suit is cut off postmortem they’ll see sleeves of purple.
The suit shouldn’t be able to speak. No. This was in his ear. Deeper. A voice in the field, crackling in his brain.
Do you even remember how you got here?
So little detail. Just a room. A device.
Have you looked out the window?
He runs around Cal’s shadow, barely avoiding the sweeping hands, the jacknifing shadows. The shadow turns, torso rotating faster than the legs.
Fighting so hard for something that isn’t real.
Their bodies fold together. Only a single heart beats in this struggle, sweating in multiple dimensions. The uncontested pulse fills the room like a drum, like a black pit.
Movie theater. The screen is a blur of bodies.
Calendula sits next to him in a burnt orange suit. The screen sharpens. Lazur begging on the big screen, a deep dream scream as bullets systematically perforate his body, careful to avoid major organs and arteries.
“I hate this movie.”
Cal lifts a fistful of Styrofoam from a bag, eating it like popcorn. “What’s wrong with it?”
“It’s badly shot.”
Bang bang on the screen as Lazur’s kneecaps blow up, spattering the lens.
Cal says, “The coup in Semi Nova failed. The shipment was intercepted.”
“Who did you contact? Your cousin in the government?”
Next scene. His naked body chained to the floor as the room fills with cement. He wonders if this is coming from his subconscious or Cal’s conscious.
Cal says, “Infiltrating a private corporation doesn’t fit your job description.”
“We never cleaned up those land mines either.”
“I am completing my father’s legacy. Not every son has the chance to say that.”
“Nothing. Nothing could possibly be worth what I saw down there.”
Cal leans back, staring at the ceiling with an unusually long pause. “If you caught me at a party 20, 30 years ago and tried to talk me out of it, you might have succeeded. I might have listened because of your compelling dark eyes or because I found your argument emotionally resonant or logically sound.”
He tilts his head toward Lazur, irises like holographic honey. His face is de-aged, the usual stillness coming across as bright and open.
“But for you to arrive now. Imagine an animal rights activist who only appears, not when the animal is born, or pastured, or being sold, but only when a single strip of flesh still connects the animal’s neck, large quantities of blood emptying out as the executioner prepares the final, perfunctory blow. And the grand achievement of your idealism is to tell him to stay his hand.
It’s just very awkward timing. You’ve come at the end of a long story, at the terminus of my arc, my friendships and deals and bargains. No morality, just momentum. And the same is true of you.”
Next scene. A bullet factory, gold casings on hypnotic assembly lines, the neat rows rattling and cascading onto Lazur’s bound body, bullets covering his eyes, filling his open mouth.
Cal says, “I don’t think anyone knows you’re here. Because if you told someone, they might tell me. Was that your line of thought?”
Next scene. Bound by barbed wire, spine folded backwards, blood running down his ribs. Sweat springs from the same place. He stands up. Cal rises at the exact same time.
Lazur steps back, seats scrolling past him like he’ll never get out of the aisle. He runs for the fire exit. Dark hallway, the ceiling pounding like his movie self is in a container behind the screen.
He emerges onto a poorly rendered street, blurred everywhere but his gaze, skyline burning orange. Calendula follows him, watch whispering sandstorm through the city. Each step blinks him faster than Lazur’s sprint, the confidence-belief-velocity of wealth.
Lazur turns around, out of breath. Cal reaches into the air and pulls a gun out, orange like a safety tip disease.
Lazur says, “You can’t kill me in here.”
Calendula points the gun at him and pulls the trigger and Lazur flinches away in the half-second of lag, grazed across the shoulder, his body chromatically aberrating, every movement leaving crunchy trails of pain.
He runs, psychosomatic blood fluttering through the air in blue petals.
Cal’s voice is in his head like a cold worm. I have permissions. I can summon props.
Another shot describes a line over his head, an orange tracer that doesn’t fade.
I can’t kill you. But I can generate stimuli. When you’re afraid, you excrete thermal energy. You bleed heat.
The technician hides in the procgen dark, squeezed into a tight space between buildings. The footsteps pass him. He hears Cal cross the street, then stop. He listens and waits.
Something stings his chest. He lifts his shirt but can’t find a wound. He flexes back, dropping into his body like a skeleton skewering meat.
The shadow holds a snap blade from his toolkit, the disposable razor sticking out shiny and red.
Lazur looks down at the cut on his chest. Blood glistens between ragged rubber, haptic sensors exposed, coolant veins leaking blue. He can tell it was a superficial wound but his pulse ricochets and he tries to catch it and it shoots past him and he can’t slow it down and—
He’s on the floor of the blacklight dungeon, vibrating on hands and knees.
The woman is a blur, motionless, how much time has passed? It has to be too late.
His heart pings faster and faster from all directions, multiverse pulses desynchronizing, accelerating, flanging, ping pong balls bouncing from the walls. He reaches for the woman’s body and his arm stretches, breaking in a hundred places, bending at endless angles, spaghettifying as he falls into the black void between neurons.
already dead dying forever still awake still awake
His arm is so thin he can barely see it, stretched into a nerve-cable. Slow signals pulse through it from hundreds of years ago. The arm is a wisp now. The arm is gone. He tries to open his eyes but they’re already open. Pure black forever—
Something slaps into his palm like a body off a twenty story building and he lands on the floor again, kneeling into the concrete. Her hand is wrapped around his, bicep tensed against the shaking of his body.
He can’t stop trembling, suit sagging in her grip, lung and cardiac distress billowing through rubber skin. She prays into his fingers.
“God is with us. His lower son is with us. The living creation cannot be destroyed.”
Her pulse fills his empty hand. His stray heartbeats merge into a single throbbing drum. He is filled with incredible gratitude.
He stands up. He takes the tool and starts stripping the caulk again. He rips away a big chunk.
A tickling in his throat. His air is being restricted in heaven. He holds his finger up like one sec and steps back through timezones.
Something is wrapped around his neck. In the window he sees the reflection of the shadow perched on his shoulders, strangling him with his own coolant tube.
He claws at it and the shadow’s thighs squeeze, haptic muscles hot on his ears. The heat might kill him before the choke does. In another second he’ll lose the capacity to do anything but struggle, and that’s what he’s afraid of, knowing how much his body would fight even as it knew there was nothing it could do. He digs his fingers into the tube around his neck. He gouges the shadow’s rubber legs, no skin to hurt. All he has are his own legs, stumbling across the floor, about to fold up.
He runs at the cracked window and flings himself into the glass. It shatters around him shredding red lines across his suit and he desyncs in a supernova of shards, every facet full of flames and flashbacks. Then the glass is glass and the air is air and he’s falling through it.
The ground is an abstraction of night lights and concrete. His pulse turns the wind into a red scream and when he hits the ground it will be in some dark chasm of his mind.
He jerks in the air like a marionette, dangling by the coolant tube. The scouring air runs through his sinuses and he watches drops of sweat fall into the distance. He doesn’t remember the name of the building, or what city he’s in. He feels his brain supplying him with the answer but he doesn’t know if he trusts it. Corporate retreat in the country, abandoned VR pavilion. There’s always a default waiting to fill in.
The wind is picking up, drops of rain hitting the side of the building in dark specks. He sticks his foot on an edge and hauls himself up by the coolant tube, taut and pressurized, an umbilical rope. He knows it’s sawing the glass each time he grabs it because coolant leaks down the tube making his grip slippery. Whenever it touches his exposed skin the pain is enough to blot out his awareness for being suspended above the killing earth, just for a micro-second but each time he fears some final subtle slip of musculature, the very thing he was trying to avoid when he threw himself through the window: locked into death, still struggling.
He rolls across the window in a crunch of broken glass and hits the carpet. Glitch fuzz suffuses the room, the bland environment thistled purpaleen and blisterblue.
He looks up at the window blowing black night and it is empty and silent otherwise. He flicks his wrist so he can bleed in another world.
A burnt corpse lays across the piano, staring blankly at the ceiling, holding his face like a mask. Milkblind features, lips symmetrical, teeth hidden, boy perfection. Flames ripple in the background perfectly synced to his breathing.
“What are you doing here?”
Lazur says, “Wrong address. What are you still doing here?”
“This is my house. Where I live.”
“Not for a long time.”
Rubicon sits up, rubber stretched tight around his skeleton, blond hair spiking over the shiny red mask. A suit like Lazur’s, modified for a broken body, extra coolant tubes sticking from his spine. “Oh. Yeah. Sure.”
“Rubicon. Do you understand you’re going to die if you stay here?”
Heavy sigh into the mic. “It’s just so hard, you know?”
Blue eyes pierce him like laser pointers. “You’re the same. You want to end it.”
“No one wants to die.”
“You would. If you suffered the repetition.” Rubicon flexes his scar-taut claw. “Sometimes I think. That’s why I want to blow you up. So I can make you like me.”
Lazur’s veins turn to fresh coolant, freezing around his heart.
“I’m reminded every time I move. Those little things like. I used to be able to toss and turn. Now everything is work. Flipping over is a project. It’s just so fucking annoying, you know?”
“I know. I mean. I believe you.”
Rubicon’s skin is a watercolor of red and purple pigment. “Everyone wants you to live. But no one wants to make your life worth living.”
He slams his bony foot on the piano, ivory on ivories. Flames shoot up candy red and Lazur falls back and hits the floor and it ripples to concrete—
She’s still sitting on the floor, clammy chest shining and heartbeating too fast but her face is calm eyes shut, inhaling oxygen and praying, lips moving inside the clear plastic, those bubbling blistered lips.
He goes back to stripping caulk, peeling it away with desperate fingers. Crack. Crack. Crack. Crunch. That sounded like glass. He rubs his hand around but there’s only metal underneath.
He looks back to see—
—the shadow climb through the window, light enough for the wind to brace it, broken glass glittering on dark rubber. It grips a shard tight, no flesh to hurt but his. Lazur turns to run and it grabs his tail and saws at it with the jagged glass until the tube sprays free and heat soaks Lazur like his skin was stripped away and his muscles are directly boiling. He crawls to his water bottle and squeezes so hard he crushes it, water exploding across his chest, cold in the cuts.
The shadow advances, shard held invisible before its dark chest. Lazur crawls back through his leaking coolant, a hot river under his rubber ass. His back hits the wall.
Smoke whirls from Cal’s shadow. The stench of hot electronics. It inspects its itself, then goes to the hardware station and starts screwing in the other coolant tube. Lazur feels the lack of his own, the fever enveloping him, poisoned by the heat of his own body. He stands up—
—in the blacklight dungeon. The floor is littered with ghostly white caulk. He sees the exposed hatch and tries to pry it open. His fingers slip because it’s sealed shut or his meatless hand has no grip or the heat is desyncing him and reality strobes—
The sky flashes orange with each gun shot, tortured riddled Lazur bodies projecting across the skyscrapers, their lengths filling with his corpses.
He takes a step and falls through the street, black asphalt swallowing him—
A red imp appears in the void, swaying sickly. Rubicon’s glamor flaps around him like a flayed bishounen, clad in the rags of his own body.
Lazur says, “Hey, roadkill. You’re going to burn up.”
Rubicon laughs through the pain. “What did you call me?” Lazur steps toward him and he scampers away, fire snaking behind him—
Cal’s shadow stalks toward him, coolant tube whipping like the tail of an inky cat, an evil sperm, an Osmosis Jones hunter-rapist phagocyte.
Lazur drunkenly squares up, so hyperthermic every thought catches fire, glitches cascading from every angle, reality crash cascade. He blocks the shadow in wireframe, takes a bruise in pixel sorted sand art.
Your brain is cooking.
Rustle bang in his toolkit, the shadow has a screwdriver now. It aims at Lazur’s tight rubber stomach, backing him up to the window where drops of rain sting the sweat vents in the back of his head, broken glass showing him where the suit is torn. He lays across it, too weak to find a better position, twisting away to cover his stomach, inhaling the smell of summer rain.
The shadow cautiously approaches, testing his periphery. It slinks into his blind spot, aiming the screwdriver between his legs, toward the soft inseam of his perineum.
Lazur kicks the shadow in the chest, his mass knocking the empty suit heels over head. He grabs the shadow’s tail and digs a piece of broken glass into the base, breaking the seal and ripping the tube out. The tailbone port sprays his face with hot coolant, pulsing into the rubber stretched across his mouth. He breathes out sharply, trying to keep it from going up his nose, but the smell makes him dizzy and his head rolls back, the shadow tensed against him in a swell of ghostly tendons, chest silently heaving as the shadow’s hydraulic veins empty out, thermal waste running hot into the bubbling fissure of their bodies jammed together.
Lazur gasps, almost blacking out from the heat, then rolls off, blindly fumbling until he finds the detached coolant tube trapped under his leg. Disconnected from a body, there’s no heated runoff. It twists from the pressure, unkinking and spitting cold fluid in a sky blue river up his body. His mask was torn at some point, a tuft of dark hair spilling over the rubber, dripping blue, scalp itching from the coolant.
He can think again. The harsh gradient map over his vision is fading to something approximating real world colors.
He turns his head and the shadow is inches from his face. Without eyes or skin or the sound of breathing, the vibration of a laboring body is uncanny—
Cal stares into his eyes, oozing sweat the color of his skin. His watch beats at the tick rate of the server, green hands creeping.
The woman in the green room. Her life is ticking down the same way. Captive on his wrist, encased in metal, just another dial made of dead girls.
Cal lifts the gun and Lazur runs—
—into a room of fire, piano burnt to the wires.
Rubicon spasms in stop motion, brilliantly red, a degloved succubus. He reaches out blindly, then twirls away, clutching his head as the pyrexic blaze chases his shame like air. Lazur puts his hand up against the heat and runs into the thick black smoke and—
The shadow leaves smoking footprints, a trail of stripped rubber on the carpet. As it nears Lazur, it bursts into flame. The room fills with the smell of burning rubber and rare earth minerals, the blast of its body heat slashing his vision with glitches. He runs to the door and opens it and on the other side, absolute black, everything is black, mask shorting out and—
His glove under the blacklight, pulling open the door to the sample elevator. Her body pushes past him, his suit flowing around her with the soft skin of a weak signal. She gently props him up against the wall like a coat. He sinks down, deflating—
—against a pillar, the words ZHYBER VALHALLA flashing on every surface, Cal’s shot sparking off the edge and—
—Rubicon’s lidless eyes spark, just teeth and eyeballs and a scream:
YOU CAN’T HELP ME
He clutches himself and turns toward the disintegrating wind of his own dehydrated brain. Embers strike Lazur in the face—
—the burning shadow lurches toward him, fists crackling as haptic actuators pop into flame.
Cal in his ear, cold voice, hot body. All this energy. For something that isn’t even real.
He never made it into the hallway. He must have locked the door when he arrived. He tries turning it anyways—
A deep harsh voice in the blacklight dungeon. “Shut the door.”
He doesn’t recognize her at first, jammed inside the sample elevator, oxygen canister stuck between her breasts, limbs crushed into her body, no room for circulation. He slams the door shut and staggers toward the control panel, skidding along the wall—
—he slides around the pillar, without the support he’ll fall over, helpless as a watch hand. Tktktk. Cal is just on the other side.
“Cortázar. You’ve conducted yourself with the maximal dignity your genotype is capable of expressing.”
“That’s the nicest thing anyone ever said to me.”
“I want you to know I’ll do my best to suppress a momentary feeling of pleasure at your demise.”
Lazur darts to the left and Calendula is there, pressed tight into the pillar and smiling, just the slightest pull at the sides of his mouth, lips relaxed.
The pillar disappears. Lazur runs and in the open space a bullet nearly hits him, citrine shock bursting through the ground. He throws himself behind a wall. There’s nothing on the other side except sterile blueprint, more walls and pillars. He could keep running, slow and afraid and weaker with each step. He forces himself to stop. Foley footsteps grow louder around the corner, then silent. Their watches tick at either side of the right angle, but he can’t see it, can’t recognize any part of himself, skin swallowed by a generic NPC suit.
Lazur says, “You must be used to a certain kind of safety. Being untouchable.”
Their hearts beat on opposite sides of the wall, drumming between their shoulder blades.
“Every time I face a bomb. The terror never leaves me. They teach that zen stuff, accept death. I can’t accept death. Death is horrible. It doesn’t make me stronger. It ruins me.”
“I understand, Cortázar. I don’t think our fears are very different.”
“Maybe not.” Lazur stares at the flat dark of the skybox. “But fear has been eating me up my whole life. And it never gives anything back. So when you talk about your scheme. It feels like you just had a lot more money to throw at your fear.”
“Conversely. You get what you pay for.”
“Maybe. Maybe I’m just not seeing the big picture. But I have to be small, to defuse a bomb. I can’t think of anything else but the contents of a single box. I have to leave everything else behind. All my stupid petty thoughts. The news. What I’m going to have for dinner. Terror. Hate. Love.”
He can see his watch again, the baby blue plastic his mother gave him. He places it against his cheek, eyes closed.
“But when I go out there. I guess part of me has to accept death. Even if that part is no bigger than a bullet.”
He steps around the corner and Cal shoots him.
The pain explodes in his chest, knocking his breath out, a star of pain that has already burst before he can process it, a thousand more stars burning in its wake, coalescing to rough pieces of torn metal. Every skyscraper burns to the beams, black cages of slag. He turns solid white default texture T-posing, blood raining from his side. A fatal cardiac event gallops around him. He swallows the air bound to each second, submitting to the storm of his body. His heartbeat surges then slows down, limbs relaxing, skin darkening, pixels smoothing, fingers gaining resolution.
He takes a step toward Cal and the man backs up, gunsmoke erect.
Lazur says, “You’re out of bullets.”
Cal freezes. “You can’t run out of bullets in here.” He pulls the trigger and it clicks.
A panic attack is a false death and I have survived it many times.
In here, there is only stimuli.
Lazur rakes his nails across Cal’s face and the man’s suit splits open, buttons popping, hair burning orange, mouth a black hole, face cracking, crows bursting from the sides of his head, an eyeball held in each gory beak, their feet raking his scalp dragging lines across his ears. Then he’s gone, nothing but the smell of burnt citrus and—
—the blazing shadow shoots through the room in a fireball of momentum. Lazur’s legs are numb, gravity pulling at him with violence. He feels a drip on the heel of his foot and he grabs his tail and squeezes, coolant dregs spurting onto his hand. He punches the mask, wet fist hissing at the moment of contact, shattering the fire-brittled fibers and—
—Rubicon flinches, flayed face covered only by his mutilated hands. His voice is slurred and lossy, wet in the center, breaking at the edges. “D-don’t look at me.”
Lazur’s fist splits open to grab the boy’s hand and bends it back, then to the left, toward his heart. Rubicon snaps from existence and Lazur falls through the empty space and—
—flings his suit at the control panel of the sample elevator, sensors dying all over his body. His hand slaps onto the button, ultradark under the blacklight.
Nothing happens. His suit sinks, limbs losing power.
A grinding sound. Humming. Rising upwards.
He leans against the wall, empty chest heaving. The motion that hit the button was a micro-spasm of his failing muscles. He is a floating nerve signal.
The room shakes and he reels as the blacklight strobes, blue red orange green ultimate and deathly. The power dies or his optic signal cuts out and he’s in the darkness below the earth.
He puts his hand out, hollow glove dissolving instantly. He waited so long for this. To reach for the explosion.
Violent white flash leaps under his eyelid and he’s gone.
He crashes back into his body, a charred shadow at his feet. It swirls with an atmosphere of smoke, the dread interior of a gas giant.
His gloved hand floats in the air, knuckles singed black, still painfully warm from striking the burning mask. It burns like Rubicon’s heart, a mirror-touch pulse that bled between bodies, just before the boy disappeared, mouth gaping in a shock of disbelief and dehydration. Blood and coolant drips from Lazur’s fingers, both regulating the heat of his body, red and blue glistening hot on his chest.