Ghosts In The Machine
rating: +49+x

The sky above the port was the color of- well, he didn't really know what. Some antiquated shade of grey, maybe.

He turns away from the seafront. He hates New Portland. He'd been assigned to the Site here after Hi-Tokyo, working security for a containment floor. Since then, he'd hated it. Something about the inexorable neon glow lining every single street, every thoroughfare, even the shithole alleys; he can't remember the last time he had seen a truly dark spot in two years.

He pushes his way through the crowds on West Desai, packed with prosthetic limbs, cybernetic implants, and meshed skinguards. He lets the throng carry him down to Majis, marking the unofficial border of Little Hy-Brasil. His contact is a Fae, and carries the hereditary paranoia of her species. Probably not unwarranted, he thinks, fingering the pointed iron baton in his jacket pocket.

He forces himself out of the river of people. Most of them are headed downtown, to the Complex — word on the street is that Anderson is teasing something big. He doesn't care; Anderson's marketing scheme was like clockwork. Anything truly valuable to him, they'll have under lock and key. He makes his way through the tight labyrinth of storefronts and tenements that make up the Fae enclave.

His abilities are a boon here; normal humans would have a difficult time just getting in, much less getting where they want to go. The Fae are a famously insular people, doubly so after that thing down in Hy-Brasil. The refugee flow would have staggered people if they cared.

He deftly cuts a corner and turns an alley, an isometric map of the area shining in his vis. A few more minutes of navigation, then he stops. This is the place. An awkward, stilted looking building, it fits right in with the neighbors. The Fae have learned to construct buildings here without using the toxic stainless steel, but not particularly well. He hops up the concrete steps and knocks on the wooden(?) door.

"Finally. Hurry up, get in."

He finds a strong hand - talon - on the chest of his black tacsuit, pulling him in and shutting the door behind him, followed by the rattling of half a dozen locks and deadbolts.

"Sure you don't have enough security?"

"I'm sorry, do you want to tangle with the Droppers?"

He ignores her, surveying the apartment in the low crimson glow. All the lights are red or fitted with red shades - even the two meager windows are papered over with red plasticks. He knows there's some reason for it, but can't quite remember; probably some esoteric fairy hoodoo about neon being the gas of the fairy devil. He had never bothered to learn much about their culture, even in life. Simply not his area of expertise or interest. Way he saw it, the only thing anyone needs to know about a fairy is their weaknesses.

He pulls this particular one's weakness out of his pocket. A solid chunk of Spiegeleisen, an alloy used way back when steel was forged instead of fabricated. A little iron and a lot of manganese, both highly oxidized. Iron may be poison to faeries, but heroin is poisonous to humans. Treat both just right, and you'll get the sweetest high of your life.

A pair of glittering eagle eyes looks at the hunk, then at him.

"That'll do?"

"Very nicely."

He slides the misshapen rock across the table to her. She snatches it up in a clawlike grip. A bit breaks off. She sniffs it and sticks her tongue out.

"You can get high after you tell me what you know."

"Spoilsport."

She drops the brick, pulling a small finger-drive from her pocket.

"They've moved the Machine to Lab 34E, upper part of the main Complex building. Security around the lab shouldn't be a challenge. But my sources tell me that they've ramped up work on it, making it more reliable. Normally I'd guess they're going for a holiday unveiling, but this doesn't seem like the sort of tech you buy for your kid on Christm-"

"Wait, wait… it's done? It works?"

"That's what they're telling me. 'Preliminary experimentation has yielded promising results, far exceeding expectations.' They all talk like they're at ICSUT."

"Shit… okay, did your guy say anything about a transfer date? Or the Foundation?"

"He did mention a date of sale. It's in a week, on Friday."

"You've gotta be fucking kidding me."

"Hey, don't shoot the messen- wait. He did mention something about the Foundation, actually. Hold on."

Her eye glitters. A light projection materializes on the tabletop, casting a hologram in soft blue tones. The bust of a man in spectacles, speaking.

"The DeVry core we're developing is based on principles initially developed by the Foundation, though they just ended up using them for AIC cores. We're innovating with them, makin-"

The hologram is cut short by a shower of glass.

The window shatters inward, disintegrating the red plastick behind it. Yellow smoglight from outside pours in, fracturing the atmosphere of perfect red in the dingy apartment.

The table holding the Spiegeleisen is suddenly decorated with a splatter of reddish-green blood as the Fae's feathery head smashes to the wall. He drops to the ground, awkwardly scuttling across the floor to behind an overturned table, out of the window's arc of fire. He pulls his handgun from an inside pocket, checking the ancient magazine. Mostly full. Good, he could put up a fight.

Then the Fae's head explodes.

Everything in a 6 foot radius is drenched in the same disgusting blood. He grimaces. Explosive-delay rounds.

He may be fucked.

A creaking. Someone's coming in through the window. He flips, facing into the kitchen where he was chatting just a minute ago, the table serving as makeshift cover. He aims at the jagged edges of glass bordering the windowsill.

A hand reaches up and grips the edge, crunching the glass under it. No, not a hand- a prosthetic, plated with white armor.

He blanches.

Another hand reaches up, holding something. Something small, metallic, shaped like a soda can.

The word "Flashbang!" crosses his mind before everything seems to explode.

Through the ringing and blinding light, he stands up, aiming his gun wildly. His implants rapidly compensate for his vision, but not fast enough. He staggers blindly forward, raving.

"Leave me the FUCK alone, you bastard!"

If there's a response, he can't hear it over the ringing.

His hip bumps into the wooden table, just as his vision begins to return. Something knocks the pistol out of his hand.

The attacker is standing no more than 5 feet away, leveling some bastard crossbreed of a sniper rifle and an elephant gun at him. Even the overpowered prosthetic arms tremble with the weight of the absurd weapon. Dressed in solid white tacarmor, his face is obscured by an opaque visor. His voice comes out with an electric twang.

"Hello, old friend."

"Look, I don't know who you are, but-"

"Maybe you don't, but whatever's inside you does. Isn't that right, Nobody?"

"Listen to me! Anderson and the Foundation have something, okay? A machine. The Name Machine."

"What does this have to do with me?"

"You're just like me, aren't you?"

Silence.

"No name. No identity. I'm willing to bet whatever's inside me - Nobody - had something to do with that."

The barrel drops slightly.

"The Machine — it fabricates identities. Don't you see? It's a way out!"

A tense moment passes. Then the finger on the trigger tightens.

"You'll say anything to save your neck, you lying cunt. Turn aroun-"

His instructions are interrupted by a rock.

The Spiegeleisen flies from Nobody's finger, across the gap separating the pair, then smashes into the visor, shattering the glass and knocking the Man in the White Suit to the floor. The gun slips from his mechanical grip. The formerly-colorless helmet is sprayed with red. Blood on snow.

"FUCKING TWAT!"

Nobody stands for a split second. Then he grabs his gun and puts four shots into the Man's body armor.

"I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU!"

He turns and runs, kicking open the door. He books it down the street, his vis giving him the fastest route out of this maze of shacks and poverty. He counts his blessings that there are no children playing as he races through the mud-and-concrete patchwork. Four more turns… three… two-

The wind is knocked out of him as he lands flat on his ass. The Man in the White Suit lands a boot, now more brown than white, straight onto Nobody's throat, pressing his weight down. Nobody grabs the leg, but gravity isn't on his side - he struggles to fight, to breathe, to think…

Somehow, in his writhing, the baton slips out of his jacket. He grabs it like a drowning man, unable to see, and impales it straight into the gap between the white armor plates.

A guttural scream echoes out through the alley as the Man slams to the ground, clutching at his speared calf. Nobody scrambles to his feet, slipping in the dirt wetted by blood.

"YOU'RE ALREADY DEAD, COCKSUCKER!"

Nobody turns and runs, racing through the final few alleys, exiting into a burst of fresh air. Back on West Desai, with the crushing omnipresence of the crowd…

He looks back, once. No sign of the Man.


"Corner of Bowe and Fifth, thanks."

He slides into the ratty seat of the hovercab, shutting the door behind him. The cabbie nods and accelerates, melting into the crush of rush hour traffic. He looks in the rearview mirror at the man in the black tacsuit and leather jacket. He has a cigarette out, spinning it between his fingers, like he's unsure of what to do. The cabbie picks up his Zippo.

"Hey buddy. Need a light?"

Nobody smiles.


In the alley, the Man in the White Suit drags himself to his feet with an electronic groan. Limping to a wall, the rifle becomes a makeshift walking stick as he slowly trudges out of the alley. It's started to rain. His head is filled with thoughts, but one echoes louder than the rest:

"What the hell is the Name Machine?"


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