Vault

The YuriCo offices occupy an entire block of uptown, thrusting from the hill like shards of blue metal rammed into the concrete by an exploding air carrier. They stand at kiltered angles, some leaning against one another, some crossing through one another, many surrounded by pools of placid water or leaping fountains. In the way of most of the corporations in the city, YuriCo has made an effort to blend the fringes of their campus into the city, renting out retail space throughout the campus and bunking their employees in apartments above the shops and bars. 

Iris leads me to a tilted spire intersecting with the central corporate tower. The glassine walls of the building glisten with a liquid light, their integrated active displays reflecting the pedestrian traffic around them while editing out all of the streets and surrounding buildings, replacing them with a synthesized vision of the hilltop as it might have appeared two or three hundred years before: waving grass, stately trees, rolling hills and valleys unfolding away to the gleaming ribbon of river. 

“The data vault is a hardened chamber on the seventh floor of the office tower. Multiple hermetically sealed doors. Directional EMP generators built into the lock rooms so they can scramble any hardware on the way out if unauthorized intrusions are detected. Armed guards at multiple stations between the vault and the exit.”

“And you expect me to get us out intact? Hate to tell you, but I’m not a superhero. I don’t even have a gun.”

“You just do your thing, Talbot. Follow way lead and deal with anyone who tries to stop us and we’ll make it through together.”

“From what I’ve seen you’re pretty good at doing that on your own.”

“Not this time. Is your hacker friend ready?”

I check my handy. “Javier’s got over then thousand zombies ready to hit the network in about thirty seconds. If you can take care of the internal systems, he’ll keep them flooded from the outside.”

“No problem.” 

“It’ll probably be harder than whatever you pulled at the hotel.”

“Easier,” she says, blinking innocently up at me. “I’m using Araboa’s access codes to insert an appointment as we speak. With the chaos your friend is about to unleash nobody should notice that the meeting was just added.”

“You’re the expert. I’m just here to stab whoever gets in your way.”

She approaches the rotating doors of the office spire. I follow, fighting back images of the armed guards who must be posted just inside. Iris’s body was built for infiltration and assassination, but must surely be vulnerable to the same data erasure techniques as any other android. And there’s no way her synthetic chassis won’t be detected if there are scanners embedded in the frame of the revolving door.

Yet I follow her. 

The door turns ahead of us, servos driving it just ahead of our steps so our hands never touch the pristine glass slabs. We step into the lobby, footsteps echoing on the glossy back floor, muffled by the soft undercurrent of ambient music. Employees, contractors, and visiting citizens of other corps stand in small groups or sit in ovoid seats of flexible grey metamaterial surrounding low tables. 

This is too easy.

A security guard approaches us, dressed in a black and grey suit that probably cost him as many credits as a I scrape in a month. On the street it would be easy to mistake him for a businessman, but here, seen in context of other workers in their riotously different clothing and hair styles, the clean lines, trim hair, and broad shoulders of the guard cary an implicit air of authority. The bulge of a pistol beneath his unbuttoned suit jacket confirms my suspicion. 

“Welcome to YuriCo, sir. I’m afraid I have to ask your business here,” the guard says. His voice is low and genial, carefully pitched to not carry to any of the work groups around the lobby. The voice of a man who has had as much training in public relations as breaking fingers.

“We’re here for a private meeting on the seventh floor,” Iris says, stepping forward to stand between the guard and me. She modulates her voice as well, employing every bit of the algorithms that drive her presentation to manipulate the emotions of her human audience. Taking another half step forward and turning her head merely a few degrees to the right, she pitches her voice half a step towards frustration and  says, “Talbot, did you forget to forward my schedule to YuriCo security?”

“I sent it this morning, ma’am,” I reply, keeping my voice differential as I shoot a scowl towards the guard, hoping that she’s got a plan to deal with this. If I have to murder a man five steps into the building, we’re in for a difficult extraction.

“You may wish to check your records before you make me late for my meeting,” Iris snaps. She takes another step forward, testing the guard’s willingness to make a scene by blocking her in public. 

The guard maintains his composure, for the most part, but I do spot a flicker of uncertainty cross his face as he glances between me and Iris. He steps back a bit, obviously trained to balance security with decorum, and falls into step beside Iris as she stalks across the lobby. I watch him as we walk, trying to gauge whether I can best him in a fair fight. Judging from his broad shoulders and the easy cadence of his stride, my only chance of winning against him is to strike first, and that’s not accounting for the weapon beneath his jacket. 

All seems well until Iris stalks past the security desk and continues moving towards the elevator bank at the far wall of the lobby. The guard calls out and places a hand on Iris’s shoulder.

Half a dozen scenarios instantly play out in my mind, only a couple of them resulting in a positive outcome for everybody.

Iris begins to turn. I catch her scowl and know that she expects me to act. That eliminates the versions in which she instigates a fight or immediately shoots the guard in his face, but still leaves plenty of room for my daemon present deadly outcomes. 

I move forward and put my hand on the guard’s shoulder, knowing in that instant that we are down to perhaps three possible options which don’t end with blood.

“Sir, I need you to keep your hands away from…” I begin.

The daemon cackles and time slows to a crawl as he releases Iris’s shoulder and turns, right hand reaching towards the inside of his coat. I dance to his right, sliding my hand down the inside of his arm as I shift my left leg to rest between the guard’s feet. His hand is already half way into the jacket, mere inches from the butt of his pistol, when my fist locks around his wrist, middle finger digging into the nerves and numbing his fingers. He grunts and tries to twist and swing his left fist towards me, at the precise instant when I jerk my right leg up, ramming my knee into his groin, then plant it back down to trip him if he continues turning. The grunt turns into a muffled moan (his decorum training is clearly impressive), and I take the moment of ball crushing disorientation to pivot my hand around and grasp his index and middle fingers in a crushing grip. I twist, pull, and augment the action with a sudden blow to the left side of his neck from my free hand.

The guard falls to his knees, conveniently dropping his groin directly atop my knee for a second agonizing crush, his right arm twisted up behind him at a painful angle, fingers bent back as far as they will go without breaking, as the left arm hangs limp from my blow.

One set of potential lethalities avoided, a whole new branch unfolds as the guards posted to the security desk begin scrabbling for their weapons.

Iris steps towards the security desk, mustering as much indignant rage as a four foot tall pre-pubescent girl can muster. “Is this how you treat your guests? No wonder you’re in need of a buyout. I want all of your names, now! This bastard will be lucky to avoid exile, but I’ll settle for busting the rest of you down to repairing cleaning drones.”

The guards hesitate, unsure how to react to the spectacle.

“Kill the alarm and check your ancillaries,” I growl, my voice just loud enough to be heard by nearby groups. “My employer has an appointment and you’re acting like it’s her fault that the security in this building is incompetent.”

“Ancillary access is down,” one of the guards at the desk says. 

“Oh bloody hell. I’ve half a mind to let YuriCo collapse and just buy out the structures in the bankruptcy auction,” Iris shouts. She waves towards the elevators. “Do these bleeding things still work?”

A guard nods. 

The guard at my feet opens his mouth and emits the first syllables of some word, but rapidly twists them into a howl as I bend his fingers back further, popping one of his knuckles. 

“Does she have to tell you to double check your appointments?” I snap. 

One of the guards, clearly more intelligent or desperate than his companions, begins tapping at the desk screen. An instant later his face blanches and he taps an older guard on the shoulder. 

Both of them look up at the same time, wide eyes fixed on Iris.

Two minutes later we’re riding an elevator up to the third floor, where we cross through a security checkpoint without even stopping and make our way across the skybridge into the central office tower. I continue to walk two steps behind Iris, scanning every space we pass through for threats.

An eager young man in a pantsuit the color of an oil spill greets us at the next elevator, platinum hair slicked back hand extended. “Good afternoon, madam Ersae! Please allow me to extend the full welcome of the YuriCo family and escort you to your meeting.”

“After the reception I had downstairs, I have no interest in YuriCo hospitality,” Iris replies. She stops in front of the elevator and oil suit eagerly presses the call button for her.

“My deepest apologies for that, ma’am. Our network is suffering a severe denial of service attack at the moment and it has, unfortunately, disrupted all ancillary services. I’m told that ancillaries are slow or offline across the city.”

“A poor excuse. Item two on the employee reeducation agenda once my buyout is complete: Reading a bloody schedule at the beginning of the day, rather than depending on ancillaries for everything. Got that Talbot?”

“Heard and remembered, ma’am,” I reply, raising a sarcastic brow at the slick functionary. 

The elevator chimes and glides open. Oil suit is in the car, pressing the hold button before either of us can move. He offers Iris repeated awkward half-bows, clearly nervous and obsequious, but thrown off his game by her unexpected arrival and improbable appearance. Once we are in, he taps the button for the seventh floor and turns to face Iris, his body still awkwardly bent at the waist. 

“Much of our executive team is currently attending a leadership conference at Ms. Grey’s estate. I apologize for their absence.”

“I know. My purpose is to inspect your security arrangements as a condition of the merger talks which will be undertaken when I arrive at the conference this evening.”

“Merger, ma’am?”

“Surely you are aware of YuriCo’s financial difficulties, mister… I am sorry, but I do not believe you gave me your name,” Iris says, fixing oil suit with a glare that manages to make him shrink back from her, even though she is a good two feet shorter than him. 

“Apologies ma’am,” he replies, bowing twice in rapid succession. “I am David Walther, second Vice President of Public Relations.”

“A PR flack. Lovely.”

The elevator opens and Walther guides us down frosted glass corridors and presses us through two security checkpoints, berating the guards to check the master calendar each time, while Iris stands indignant beside him. The guards appear competent and might have given us some minor difficulty if we didn’t have a corporate secondary Vice President pushing us through. YuriCo clearly takes the security of their offline data seriously, as well as whatever research is housed behind the frosted glass walls of this level, but even data integrity appears to be secondary to following orders from an executive. We pass a common room equipped with privacy glass, allowing me only a brief glimpse of the interior as a blue-haired researcher dressed in nothing more than an oversized black t-shirt pushes through the door and nearly bumps into us in the hall. She sees our group, absently waves her photo ID in our direction, then turns down a side passage still carrying a half eaten muffin.

We arrive at the third checkpoint just in time to see the guard setting his handy in its cradle and turning to smile at us. 

“Mister Walther. Madam Ersati. Thank you for taking time for your busy schedules to visit-“

“Can it. Open the damn door and let me get on with my inspection,” Iris snaps. 

“Of course, ma’am,” the guard says. He nods to his partner who steps through the security scanner and proffers us a plastic bin. “I’m afraid I have to insist that you hand over any items which can cary data. Key drives. Holocubes. Handys. We can’t risk any viruses getting in to the vault, you see.”

“Do any of you have implants?” the second guard asks, still holding the empty plastic tray. “The vault entryway is designed to scramble all electrical devices if the security AI detects any unauthorized computer access and, frankly, it’s better to be safe and impolite than risk a mistake.”

“Ah, well, that could prove a problem,” Iris says.

“I’m sure we can come to some accommodation,” Walther replies, dropping his handy and a pocket folder filled with key drives into the tray. “Obviously the fields can be turned off to prevent damage to medical implants and…”

“Sorry, sir, but Legal won’t let us allow anyone through the access passage without signing the waver. Too much risk if the restrillect gets jumpy and fries somebody’s wetware.”

“Well, if I have to sign a waver…” Iris says, extending her hand as if to press her palm to a tablet screen. 

I see it in her posture. The angle of her back set to redirect the blast of the gunshot through her shoulders and down her spine, into her hips and legs, then into the floor through firmly planted feet. I flick my left wrist, unleashing the blade sheathed there.

The guard opens his mouth in shock and begins reaching for the panic switch on his desk, but then his head erupts in a spray of blood and brain as Iris’s palm gun fires a fragmenting bullet into his face.

I swallow bile and swing forward, grabbing the other guard by the top of his hair and slipping my blade into his left eye. It glides through the eye smoothly, hesitates at the skull, then pierces into the brain as I give the hilt a gentle tap. I grip the hilt and jerk backwards, extracting my knife along with a delicate spurt of blood and cerebrospinal fluid. 

Walther stammers. He’s the public face of the company, accustomed to trading barbs with the press and formulating strategic disinformation campaigns against dissident employees and rival corporations. He’s never seen violence like this outside vids and games. 

I almost feel bad killing him, but we don’t have time to deal with a hostage and if the security restrillect is active it will already have triggered an alarm. So I make it quick. An elbow to his face to stun. Step behind. Knife forward. Blade biting through soft flesh and protective cartilage alike, severing the spinal cord and devastating the brain stem. He’s brain dead before he hits the floor. 

“Hold it together,” Iris says, looking down at me. 

It’s only then then that I realize I’m laying on the floor beside Walther. Iris has already retracted her palm gun and looks ready to press forward. The pool of blood already extends a foot or more from the heads of both guards. 

“Christ. Sorry.” I stumble to my feet. Check my hands, arms, legs for blood.

“You still a believer?” Iris asks, turning away to approach the entryway to the data vault. “Not many swear like that since the plague. Tends to upset people.”

I wipe my blade on Walther’s sleeve, adding a streak of red to the oily shimmer of his suit, and slip the knife back into its nest in my sleeve. “I suppose.”

“Not a popular thing these days. How’s the guilt working out for you?”

“No worse than it ever was. Family church was a throwback congregation. Not fans of people like me.”

“Professional killers?”

“Anxious queers.”

The door pops open with the hiss and pop of pneumatic locks releasing. We step around the dead and into the security corridor. In practice and purpose it is very much like the entry into Javier’s rooms, but in industrial design it shows the presence of limitless budgets and a distinct loathing of both color and corners.

“With any luck that will all be gone in a few years,” Iris says as we step into the entry passage. The door closes behind us. 

“Religion? We’ve been working on that for a while and I don’t think humans will ever give up.”

“No. Prejudice. Think of it Talbot: How can you hate somebody for how the look or who they love when everybody can change their shape at will. When some people don’t even have a human shape. It’s the ultimate expression of humanity. In surrendering our human shapes, we will learn to respect one another for our minds.”

We arrive at the end of the passage and Iris closes her eyes for a moment, then presses her hand against the contact lock. It opens with a chime and the door glides aside.

“Or maybe we’ll just deny your digital immortality to anyone who isn’t like us. Edit out queerness or religion or political incorrectness like an antivirus quarantining infected files.”

“That’s why we need to give it to everyone. No point killing each other anymore when we are all immortal.”

“I wish I shared your enthusiasm for the human race,” I mutter, glancing back towards the three dead men laying outside the door. “But I’ve got a feeling we’ll find a way to ruin this as much as we do anything.” 

The data vault is a spartan octagonal room, lit from above with softly glowing panels, the white surfaces marred only by the bare minimum of interface hardware worked in black and silver hardware and softly glowing green, yellow, and red status indicators. Cold air blows in at the floor, a stream that is strong enough to stir the hem of my pants even thought it is whisper quiet. Stacks of storage clusters are arranged throughout the space like display plinths in some ancient temple, but instead of the bust of a dead general or emperor, the top of each is inset with a blank black touch panel and inset with an array of data connections. The black domes of pickups are situated at each corner of the room, as well as in a ring equidistant from the central cooling duct and the walls. From these, the security restrillect certainly watches over everything, ensuring that nobody removes or injects data without permission.

“I need to find the right databank,” Iris says, stepping up to a broad console at the center of the room. “Keep an eye out for anyone outside.”

“How?” I ask, gesturing to the frosted glass walls which surround us. 

In response, Iris waves a hand towards the glass wall beside the entry passage, which juts out nearly to the center of the room, then mimes drawing a circle. “By the passthrough. The glass is reactive.” 

I move towards the passthrough box situated beside the entryway. Where the passthrough at Javier’s lair is a pair of network isolated computers, this is a physical hole the size of a large mailbox cut into the wall, with an actuated drawer built into the side. I raise a hand and use my knuckle to trace a tight circle on the glass above the box. An instant later, the white glaze within the glass fades to transparence, affording me a view of the corridor outside. 

“I need you to listen, Talbot.”

“Nothing else to do, except maybe admire the view. Oh, look, the blood pools have merged into a single puddle. Isn’t that lovely.”

“There’s a chance I might not make it out of here,” Iris says, ignoring my comment.

“I’d say it’s equally likely for me.”

“Yes, but I’ve already had two lives. If it comes down to the two of us, I’d rather you get a chance to escape.”

“Not that I want to volunteer for death, but wouldn’t it be better for the woman who understands this tech to get out?”

“Just listen,” she says, turning away from the console and fixing me with a cold gaze. I’m suddenly keenly aware of the cold air stirring around my boots. “We need this posted to the dark nets. To the universities. Released to everybody who could possibly benefit. We can’t let YuriCo or any of the other corporations control this, and you know better than anyone that we can’t trust the Feds.”

“I get that, but how am I supposed to release something I don’t understand or necessarily even believe in?”

“I’m sure you’ll find a way.” She smiles and strides over to one of the plinths. She’s barely tall enough to see over the top as she stands on her toes and slots a holocube into the interface. Then she pulls a data cable from her pocket and plugs one end into the jack behind her left ear and the other into a matching jack on the data stack. She begins tapping at the screen with the tips of her fingers as she speaks. “Imagine a world without death, Talbot. A world where plagues can never again destroy the population, because we can simply abandon the frail sheathes of our bodies and be loaded into new hardware.”

“I’m sure we’ll find some new way to kill each other,” I say, glancing out the window to the three dead men laying in the corridor. For a woman on a quest to destroy death, Iris is leaving a long trail of corpses in her wake. “We’re remarkably innovative in that regard.”

“Have some hope, Talbot.”

A flicker of movement in the hall outside. Something arcing through the air. 

“Down!” I shout, dropping to the floor and covering my ears.

On the far side of the glass there is a muffled pop, followed by a flash of light that causes the smart glass to go suddenly opaque. 

Then silence.  

“I thought you disabled the security restrillect!” I snap. 

“I did my best. There must have been backup system I missed. Or maybe somebody caught on and rebooted the system.”

I draw another viewport in the glass and see three armored guards armed with automatic weapons approaching down the corridor, followed by a tall woman in a flowing orange dress. Long black hair hangs loose over her shoulders as she takes in the carnage at the security booth without even blinking. 

“We’ve got company,” I growl.

“The transfer is nearly complete.”

The armored guards take up positions around the door, ready to shoot anybody who steps out. The woman plays her eyes across the exterior of the vault, seemingly looking for something. Then her eyes fix on the portal I’ve drawn. A smile, strangely familiar, plays across her lips as she leans forward to look in at me through the portal. She waggles her fingertips at me in mocking greeting, her long red lacquered fingernails reflecting the corridor lights like cruel talons. 

“There’s a woman out there. Not armored.”

Iris doesn’t reply. A glance tells me that she’s still sitting with her back to the databank, eyes shut as she performs some sort of arcane programming wizardry in the depths of her mind. 

A faint noise invades the silence of the data vault. Turning, I see the woman has pressed her eye to the portal. She’s tapping at the glass as she watches us. Then she leans back and I see that smile again. So familiar. Perhaps she’s an actress? Or a corporate executive I’ve seen on television? But that makes no sense. I never pay attention to corporate intrigue in the news and there is no reason why anyone from outside YuriCo would have accompanied the security team. 

I scrub my hand across the glass, wiping the portal away.

“Done!” Iris shouts. 

“Great. Now how do we get out of here?”

In response, Iris throws me a data cube and walks up to the glass. She glances over her shoulder at me and says, “Get the data out there, Talbot. Get it onto the net.”

 “Wait, what are-“

Iris raises her right arm and unfolds the flesh of her palm to reveal the gun. Before I can react, she fires a burst of high velocity slugs into the glass wall. The glass cracks, but holds. An instant later she crouches, fires three more shots, and lunges through the cracked glass between the bullet holes. It shatters at her impact and she tumbles through, landing atop the security desk outside. The guards shout and raise their guns, but before they can shoot Iris has leapt onto the shoulders of the nearest guard. She fires her palm gun again. Her aim is off and the bullet slams into the guard’s armored chest plate, but at this close range the impact is sufficient to send them flailing backwards to trip over the table beside the doorway. 

Throwing caution away and ramming my daemon as far back into the dark corners of my mind as I can manage, I leap through the broken window and skid across the security desk on a field of  shattered safety glass. 

The third guard fires their rifle, stitching further impact marks across the glass wall behind me. Two bullets slam into Iris, ripping through synthetic flesh and shattering on steel bone. The impact knocks her backwards. She tightens her legs around the armored guard’s neck, stunning them as she tumbles down his back and arrests her fall with their body. Their head jerks back at a disturbing angle and they both hit the floor.

The woman in orange produces a small pistol from the folds of her gown and fires at me, but her shot goes wild as I fling the knife from my right sleeve towards her. The blade misses and clatters off the wall behind her, but it has done its job. I leap down from the counter, aiming a kick at the woman’s chest. She reels backwards and hits the wall as I stumble, regaining my balance. As soon as I’m stable, I throw myself at the woman again, driving a shoulder into her face as I reach for the gun held in her limp grip. 

The first guard Iris shot stumbles to their feet and reaches for the gun dangling from its strap on their chest. I jerk the woman’s arm in the guard’s direction and squeeze her trigger finger. Two bullets hammer into the wall, causing the guard to lurch away and duck behind the far side of the security station. 

I twist the gun up and find the registration lock on the bottom of the barrel. The woman raises her left hand, fingers splayed like she is going to plunge them into my chest and rip out my heart. Sparks arc from her fingernails as she swings her hand towards my chest, but I manage to deflect the blow with my right arm, grab her wrist, and slam her fingernails into her own leg. She spasms and lets out a scream of pain before going limp, stunned by her own weapon. I drop her to the floor, then kneel and press her thumb to the registration lock and pray for the gun to cycle quickly.

By the entryway, Iris has extracted herself from beneath the fallen guard. Raising her palm, she fires three quick shots at the guard who shot her. Their head snaps back, trailing a spray of blood as the bullets slam into their chest armor, rip though their neck, and crack their faceplate.

The gun registration chirps and I press my finger against it. A second chirp tells me that the gun is finally registered to me. 

The woman in orange twitches, then slams her left fist into the side of my head. Stunned, I drop the gun and stumble away from her and fall backwards onto floor amid a spray of shattered safety glass.

“Go!” Iris shouts. She presses her palm gun to the faceplate of the stunned guard and fires a shot that ricochets around the inside of their helmet, pulverizing the guard’s head in a spray of gore that bursts up through Iris’s fingers. 

I lunge for the gun, kicking the woman in orange as we both scrabble across the broken glass. My hand has just closed on the grip when a row of bullet impacts stitches across the floor beside my head. Out of the corner of my eye I spot three more guards rushing down the corridor, guns raised and spitting death. 

Role away. Stand. Shout: “Iris, let’s move!”

Iris hurls herself across the open corridor to follow me, only to be cut down by a storm of bullets slamming into her from the side. 

A scream surges from my lips. Irrational, I know. She’s just a gynoid. Just one manifestation of a personality which may be archived in a hundred other places. But watching her cut down by bullets feels like far more than property damage. I’m transfixed, forced to stand and watch in horror as Iris collapses like a broken toy, sparks and acrid smoke spewing from her limp corpse.

The woman in orange stands and, ignoring me, steps up to Iris’s smoking, sparking body. “You’re done, sister. I’ve erased every other copy of your strain. Now you get to die.”

She presses a hand to Iris’s head and discharges the stun weapon embedded in her fingernails. Iris’s body spasms as every servo and muscle contracts at once. Sparks burst from the ports behind her ears and a puff of acrid smoke bursts from her lips. 

No time to mourn. 

No time to listen to the daemon. 

No time to waste. 

I turn and run. Around the corner and down the next hallway. If I can get to an emergency stairwell I might be able to escape. Offices and storage rooms flit by until I come to a wide open format workspace. Tables surrounded by overturned chairs, beanbags, and inflatable balls are scattered across the carpeted floor, accompanied by piles of scattered eper and abandoned dishes. Clearly the employees of YuriCo are well drilled in seeking cover when they hear gunfire. Opposite the entrance, tall windows look out over the corporate campus and the cityscape. Beyond that, the setting sun silhouettes the mountains beyond the city and paints the canted towers of the YuriCo campus with strokes of red and orange. 

Back down the corridor, I can hear the guards approaching. The woman shouting.

Fuck it. There’s only one way out of here.

I press my back against the wall beside the doorway and eject the magazine in my stolen handgun. It’s only got three bullets remaining. Add the one in the chamber and I definitely need another weapon. I reload the weapon and stand against the wall, breathing slowly, listening for the telltale squeak of anti-skid boots on tile floor. 

The waiting can be the hardest part. The patient moments of meditation as you prepare to spill blood. Killing is easy in the instant, but it’s the aftermath that begins to corrode your soul. The slow, steady accretion of blood that floods your spirit and makes it difficult to breath. Difficult to find yourself anymore amid the piles of corpses who accompany you to bed each night. When you stand, weapon in hand, and wait for your victim to round the corner, it can take everything in you to sustain the will to take their life. If you’re not careful, you start to think of everything that went into making that person who they are today. The countless man hours of effort from parents, teachers, doctors, and mentors. The infinitesimal likelihood of them surviving to adulthood in the realigned world, all thrown away in the instant you pull the trigger. 

Then the armored body of a corporate security guard rounds the corner in a rapid tactical sweep. Their gun is already lowered, ready to fire at any threat, but you are standing so close to the corner that the barrel is past you. That gives you an instant to react, to see the look of wide eyed surprise through their tactical visor as you make a minute adjustment to the aim of your pistol and fire a bullet into their face. The inside of their helmet erupts in a fountain of gore: blood, brain, and bone that until ten minutes ago was probably counting down the time until their shift ended and they could go home to play with their kids. 

But I need to live. And I need their gun. And when you get down to it, that’s the fundamental force of nature: Perceived threats to existence are met with aggressive survival instincts, which are met with more aggressive responses, until only one side remains alive.

The dead guard goes limp. I kick them out into the hall and fire my pistol over their shoulder, striking the guard who was sweeping the opposite side in the back of the neck. They jerk forward and smash face first into the wall, but don’t drop or disgorge any blood. The third guard is holding the center. They turn, finger already tightening on the trigger. I fire my last two bullets into the guard’s chest plate, knocking them back and throwing their aim upwards to stitch bullet holes into the ceiling. A glance down the hall shows the woman in orange approaching, flanked by three more armed guards. 

I’ve only got seconds. 

The assault rifles are secured with a proximity sensor rather than a print lock, allowing the user to wear tactical gloves while still preventing the weapons from being stolen. The first guard’s gun will have locked by now, responding to the sudden cessation of his heartbeat as I turned his brain into pulp, and won’t reactivate without an override. I leap out into the open hallway, kick off of the chest of the stumbling guard in the center to propel myself the rest of the way to the far side, then grab the second guard by the back of their tactical harness and pull them around the corner as bullets scream through the air behind me.

“Need your help,” I hiss to the guard as I slam their head against the wall. The armor can recognize its wearer’s death and even know when the hand has been removed from the body, but it don’t recognize when a user is merely dazed. I pull the gun from the guard’s stunned fingers, lean against their body, and fire a burst of lead around the corner.

A chorus of shouts and clattering armor tells me that I’ve sent the guards to the floor.

Time to go.

I turn the assault rifle towards the windows at the far side of the room and fire three bursts. The glass spangles with impacts, each hairline fracture line set afire by the light of the setting sun splaying over the mountaintops. Another burst shatters the glass, opening a passage. I turn and fire another burst down the hall.

Then I run.

Crossing the common room, I keep the assault rifle firing back, hoping to keep the guards pinned down. Bullets whine past me, further shattering the windows. It’s all a matter of chance now. The daemon is screaming, cackling, its fearful whispers subsumed by the vicious joy of knowing that I will certainly die here. My gun locks up with an audible clank as the proximity sensor triggers and drops a spring loaded rod into the chamber, blocking the mechanism.

I leap through the shattered window, throwing the useless rifle away as I plummet down the canted side of the YuriCo office tower.

There’s not a lot of time to think or act when you’re falling, but as I plummet from the window I consider whether I would take the gift that Iris is offering humanity. After spending so many years fighting suicidal urges, so many late nights spent sitting under a cold shower, trying to not think of the knives stored in my jacket, so many mornings spent nursing a whisky amid the scent of body gloss and sweat, praying for somebody to hear me and give me a reason to live, here I am risking my life to deliver salvation to my fellow man. It would be picturesque and damn near biblical, if only I actually believed that humanity was worth saving.

The glass ceiling of the intersecting tower rushes up to meet me. I strike it, tumble half a dozen times before I am able to right myself, and begin sliding down the slanted surface. The glass is hot beneath me, baked by the sun through the whole of the afternoon. I splay my arms out, attempting to direct my slide so I stay at the center of the structure, rather than flying over the edge and dropping to the hard concrete below. 

A panel to my right explodes. The sound of gunfire reaches my ears. 

I adjust my weight and begin swerving back and forth across the glass, each turn punctuated by a shuddering, juddering vibration up my arm and a painful squeal each time my palm touch the glass. A glance up and back shows the woman in orange standing in the broken window where I jumped, reprimanding an armored guard. I supposed that shooting her own employees is a step too far. Or maybe she’s just afraid of city Security intervening if her guards continue to fire their weapons outside. 

Below, the earth approaches with the rapid certainty of death. The spurts from the fountain dance in the cold evening wind. I press my elbows into the glass, trying to slow my descent so I don’t overshoot the water and scrape across the concrete like a bloody comet.

Then I’m falling again, dropping a dozen feet from the edge of the building into the pool that surrounds the low slung wing of the side structure. The water strikes me like concrete. I skid and tumble across the surface, carom off a fountain spout, and slam into one of the steel pillars placed around the perimeter of the pool. Breath explodes from my body and darkness falls over me, a dark more intense than the setting of the sun. 

I’m heavy. I’m sinking. The water will soon close over me, drawing me into its depths and drowning me. I’ll choke on it, inhale it, fight for a brief moment as my lungs try to extract oxygen from the thick liquid. 

Then I’ll be dead. 

That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? Hell can’t be much worse than the life I’ve been trapped in for the last thirty years. And maybe god will remember all those prayers I said as a child, the heartfelt recitations of the sinner’s prayer at every church revival. The desperate pleas for Christ to take away my sinful nature every time I looked at another boy and felt a stirring, or saw a bare breast in an advertisement and had to choke back the hunger that it stoked in me. Maybe every time I whispered the names of god as Seth and I made love will count as prayers to release me from the inevitable torment. 

Water washes over my skin. Perhaps this will count as a second baptism if I pray for salvation again, right here in the fountain. 

The daemon wraps its talons around my throat and begins tightening its grip, pulling me down, dragging me to hell.

Voices of the damned cry out from below me. Thousands, millions, billions slaughtered by the plague and dragged down into perpetual darkness. I can hear them screaming. I feel their hands clawing at me, rending the concrete and stone around me, pulling me down into the earth to face my final judgement.

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