Here the water doesn’t come down as rain – it comes down in sheets. It pours through the slits in the firmament of Suburbia and falls in a shimmering curtain. Umbrella’s won’t protect you, raincoats won’t help in the slightest. If you walk through one of these glistening shrouds you’ll get soaked to the skin. It’s like walking through a cathedral of glass, plummeting from the sky. It’s a massive abstract; scattered, cubist patterns like a watery Mondrian – all angles and squares lit up by the street lights into a synaesthesic display of colour and sound. The constant flow damps down all noise with its broken-TV hiss creating gaps of water, light, sound that are cut off from each other, divided up and sliced piece by piece such that one ‘box’ can be another world compared to its neighbour.
Here the right light shines off the falling water and creates a miniature ‘hell’ where the Scorn Street Devils command their little ‘fort’ made from stolen skips and boxes. Music pulses and booms, shaking the liquid walls in a sympathetic vibration. The first sign of a Shiver and they vanish through the scarlet curtains and disappear from sight.
There speckled UV light, beaded by water droplets, shines on sickly, yellow potted-plants, limp flowers and greying moss, tended by an old man who hides in this corner, out of sight and mind, coughing up his last lung from the damp but bringing a little life to this little patch of rust and concrete.
Bloodshot eyes open to a blank room that smells like dentistry and antiseptic. Confused and blurred vision flickers left and right, head unable to turn, seeing no doors, no way in or out, no light fittings, no fixtures, just a direction-less glow of light that banishes all shadows.
Why can’t you move? You don’t know why. Is this a dream? You’re inclined to think so until the man in the surgeon’s outfit and featureless blue mask seems to appear out of nowhere, coalescing almost, out of the light next to you.
“Ah, you’re awake. No, don’t try to talk, you won’t be able to unless I let you.”
A light shines into those bleary eyes a moment and that stretched, featureless face is even closer.
“My name is Doctor Klüt. I work for Blue Scream. No, you’ve never heard of us. No, you won’t remember this. I’m going to be ah… interrogating you…” The blue skin stretches in a different way, in something that might be a smile.
“Yes, interrogating you. To ensure that your loyalty is without question, or at least significant question, to ensure that you won’t reveal anything too easily to our enemies and to be sure that you aren’t compromised.”
That ghostly, hidden smile again and then, again as though out of nowhere the Doctor’s hand is replaced with razors and needles.
“This is going to hurt, but you won’t remember and Life After Death has been extended to you free of charge for the duration of this ah… interview. Shall we begin?”
The Prop is looking over with barely concealed contempt. A squatting, armoured presence in the corner of the dingy, unlicensed bar. A hulking mass of dense, dirty armour, flakes of paint peeling away layer by layer showing years and years of paintjobs. Behind thick, quartz panes his gaze is staring, unwavering. Is it contempt or hatred? Jealousy or insecurity? Does he wish he was one of us or just that we weren’t here at all?
Last season’s clothing, last year’s gun, last decade’s armour. Pitted and scarred whatever that suit once was, it’s vanished beneath a half-dozen modifications and repairs. He’s built for practicality, not for style. There’s a brutalist aesthetic to everything about him, all square edges and totalitarian chic. He’d never make the evening news but down here that doesn’t matter so much as reputation.
He grunts and slides his visor up, a face as pitted, scarred, old and ugly as the armour that covered it. He sips at some god awful soft company brew, made in the lower levels from macerated and fermented Fruity-Chews, just the colour makes you nauseous. The barstool creaks and bends slightly as he shifts his panzer-bulk. He’s sensible enough not to start anything, but he knows he could cause you trouble and expense and he’s not willing to lose face here in front of his clients, in his patch, trusting to the idea that you’re not here for him.
Another sip of that sickly brew and he closes that armoured faceplate again, fastening the bolts, loosening his holster – just to be ready – heavy glove laid by that big, old-fashioned gun.
I’m not going to tell you to go to school. You don’t need qualifications to sit in front of the TV and eat ready meals.
I’m not going to tell you to stay out of the gangs, fuck knows if you want to live past twenty you’ve got to hook up with someone.
I’m not going to sell you some bullshit about joining SLA and hitting the big time, if you had prospects you’d already have been picked out from a crèche.
I’m not going to say you should keep off the drugs, fucking things might be all that keeps you from killing yourself down here, might even keep you out of trouble. Better to be indoors tripping your tits off that outdoors cutting someone’s tits off.
I’ll give you a break this once. Put the jelly beans back on the counter and set down that CAF piece of shit and me and my partner here won’t break every bone in your body in alphabetical order and feed you to the carrien.
My advice? Go home. Sit your arse down in front of Captain Contract and think how fucking lucky you are that I hate paperwork.
Back from The White:
She blinked as her eyes swam back into focus, dancing lights, motes and colours like a bad Alice flashback, greens and purples and reds as the light faded away and was replaced by darkness. Above her the vaulted ceiling of the cathedral slowly gathered enough effort to regain its edges. Black-green, shining and chitinous, oily, the Dark Lament cathedral resembled nothing less than ten-thousand priapic beetles locked in orgiastic embrace.
Faint light filtered through the web-window of stained resin and she lifted her hand into it, fascinated for a moment by the dancing mote of dust caught in a beam of muted light that she never would have seen before. Her hand came back to wipe the tears from her eyes.
Her blackened claw came away bloody.
She could hear a half-hundred hearts, not beating. She could smell four-dozen emotions, a patchwork of tension, fighting for dominance in the vaulted space. She could feel every rib and spar of the rib-and-knuckle carapace beneath her body, every slight gush of air was like a hundred cigarettes stubbed out upon her raw and bloodied flesh.
It made her thighs tense, it made her wet.
She could taste the copper tang of blood in her mouth, teeth like razors cutting her tongue but something else, something fatty, sweet.
She forced herself to sit up and pay attention, to think, to concentrate. She felt, rather than saw, the others around her. The world receded like a dream, it didn’t seem genuine compared to how she felt. Compared to the others around her. They were somehow more real, more firm, fixed points in space and time pulsing with the power of The White, the same power that flowed through her.
A shadow loomed as she staggered to her feet like a newborn foal and from a hundred mouths it spoke a singular chorus of welcome.
“ONEone. OFof. USus.”
Her head threw back in an ecstatic scream of exultation and her wings spread behind her in a great black arch.
She was home.
Death of a Deathsuit:
Asta slammed up against the concrete panting hard, his heart was pounding in his throat and his mouth was dry, concrete dust stuck to the blood that was dripping from his Deathsuit turning him into a grey ghost. The suit massaged him, held him, cooed soothing emotions, trying to keep him on an even, sensible keel, but it was a losing battle.
The roar of the Thresher cannon wasn’t a sound, it was more raw, physical, like being clubbed in the ears with a baton, even with deathsuit blunting the worst of it. Chunks of concrete the size of Asta’s head were being blown out of his cover, piece by piece and the air was filled with clouds of dust. His deathsuit wrinkled and puckered as the depleted uranium in the air settled on its surface, making it blister and sizzle.
There was no time, no chance but one chance. Asta gritted his teeth and leapt, plunging through the smoke, running as fast as he could over red hot shard of broken armour, rubble and the slippery remains of what were once people.
The suit hadn’t seen him, too much dust in the air. He grasped his flintlock as tight as he could and edged quietly around another pillar as the cannon’s roar punched him in the head again. He had the drop on the fucker. That great armoured back to him, shell casings piling on the ground beside it like drifting snow. He levelled the flintlock and concentrated, his suit drawing the glyphs in the air before his perception, the two of them as one, formulating and channelling the ebb, storing the power until…
Heat and cold struck the suit as one and it burst asunder like an egg in a microwave, ceramic and metal flying in all directions, exposing a yolk of wiring and amniotic oil.
But there wasn’t anyone inside it.
There was a double bark of a heavy pistol and time slowed down. Asta span, desperately, trying to throw himself to one side but there was no escaping it. The Thresher pilot, clad only in his interface suit, had fled the armour and set a trap and it had worked.
He was aware of the bullets, twin black-holes in the ebb, laced with DPU, streaking towards him and he braced himself for pain. He’d seen Deathsuits flee their owners, move out of the way of such bullets and he didn’t expect…
His suit moved in that fraction of a second, not fleeing but gathering itself at the point of impact, stripping itself from the rest of him to absorb that blow.
A double hammer, but he didn’t feel the impact. He only heard the scream as the bullets smashed into the suit and bored deep, fragmenting, burning, burrowing, corrupting. The suit howled on a frequency that only he could feel and that he could not endure. It sloughed from his flesh like burned skin, bubbling and ulcerated, smoking and evaporating as he tried to hold it in his hands and it dissolved away.
He was left, naked, crying, helpless, cutting himself on the rubble, clawing at the dirt, the ichorous remnants of the dead suit under his fingernails, smearing what was left it it against his bare chest as tears coursed down from his burnt-black eyes.
He didn’t hear the crunch of the Thresher pilot stepping closer. He couldn’t sense or feel anything but a profound sense of loss, as though he himself had died, as though part of his mind had decayed, as though he had gone mad, was not himself any longer, was lessened, diminished, unloved, never to be understood again. He’d lost his lover, his child, his parent, his confidante, his world.
He didn’t even feel the barrel of the pistol smack against the back of his skull. He just choked out “Ayee’shala” the name of the suit, nameless until now, known only when it was gone.
And then they were together again.
Keen’s Last Stand:
“I fucking hate Conflict Worlds.” I said to nobody in particular, hunkered down in what was left of the bunker. I didn’t have anyone else to say it to because they were all spread around the area doing a passable impression of a strawberry smoothie.
I’d been shot in the tit, and it fucking hurt. There was a gaping hole in my breastplate which, honestly, at this point should just have been called a ‘plate’. I was out of just about everything right about now, ammunition, hope, armour, medical kits and even drugs.
A Frother without drugs. That was a bad joke right? I mean… our blood courses with the fucking stuff. We were born high and we die high. Isn’t that the motto? I’m old school, highland clan, and I’m not going to die curled up in a bunker, sober like some sanctimonious straight-edge cockbag. If I’m going out I’m going out high as a fucking kite and spitting in the face of my enemies.
What did I have left?
A quick inventory of the smoking crater that used to be a bunker turned up this short list.
1.A bunch of dead friends.
2.A power claymore.
5.One bent cigarette.
6.A double dose of Alice, my recreational drug of choice and fuck-all use in a ruck.
I sighed deeply and tapped my mic.
“Control, this is Operative Keen. I’ve found the renegade Genocide Suits. Any chance of claiming the completion fee now and putting it into my LAD account?”
The cunts put me on hold. I was buggered if I was going to go out to tinkling muzak so I tore my helmet off and gulped back the Alice, letting it take me away on a warm wave of strange as I dragged my claymore up and scaled the crater wall to face the bastards.
The custard smelt of elderberries and coughed butterflies in my marzipan as I danced to the tune of distant drums.
“It isn’t so bad.” Said the elephant in the kilt as the hornets nested in my hair and whispered that they wanted to nest in my television.
He was not wrong. Not wrong at all.
There’s a sort of background hum to any home, whether you live in downtown, uptown or anywhere in between. Power lines, devices, appliances, heating pipes, water pumps. You get used to it after a while and you no longer notice it but you do notice it when it’s gone. That sudden silence can wake you up more surely than any alarm clock and that’s what happened to me the other night.
I woke up with a start and it was pitch, fucking, black. For a moment I thought I’d gone blind. Sure, it gets dark in downtown, but not that dark. Everyone has to see. There’s always a standby LED or the sodium glare of the streetlights, the flash of passing traffic. This time, nothing. I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face.
I tried to swing out of bed to find a torch or something but… well, you won’t believe me, but the floor wasn’t there any more. My foot found nothing but empty air and I had to scramble not to fall off the bed. I was terrified. I almost shat myself. Was it a nightmare? It didn’t feel like it.
You’d think the amount of time you spend in bed you’d know your way around it, where the pillows were, how the sheets or the blanket are folded over, how big it is, but you really don’t know at all. I was fumbling around like a newborn, clinging to the bed for dear life when I felt someone else there with me.
I didn’t feel them exactly, not to start with, but I was aware of another presence, another weight, pressing down on the bed, shifting when I shifted, breathing when I breathed. I reached out again and a hand touched mine, our fingers interlaced but it was cold where I was warm.
I spoke to it, I said ‘Hello’ and… it said ‘Goodbye’ in this mocking, sarcastic tone… but it was my own voice. I reached out with my other hand and… it touched me… intimately. I’m not making this up… it.. it… felt like my own hand, it moved like my own hand and… Loa save me… I…
It stole it. It stole ME. It took me away but I can still feel it… they’re doing things to it. To me. They’re taking ME and putting me inside things. Making things. Bad things. What woman is going to want me now? How am I supposed to take a piss? When are you going to let me out of here? You can SEE I’m not lying… do you want to see? LOOK!
“David. I’m afraid we’ve decided to let you go.” I said, straightening my tie as the limo slunk through the streets like a panther, spiralling down and down, sheets of water rising like wings from every wheel.
He didn’t answer me, it’s hard to say much of anything with a plastic bag over your head. Hard to do much but try to breathe through that tiny gap where it’s attached to your neck. It was pretty funny really, high-flying Dave, red faced and panting, bug-eyed, hair all wet with sweat and fear. He did love his hair… must have spent half his income on implants and dye jobs, styling and product. Fat lot of good it does you with a bag over your head and your wrists and ankles bound together.
“We feel that the station needs some new blood calling the shots, new programming, take things to new extremes to keep the audience interested and happy. We feel that your way of doing things isn’t conducive to this agenda and… what with you trying to sleep with all the talent and giving them diseases, it’s probably about time you retired.”
He wasn’t paying attention so I kicked him, once, hard, in the chest, scuffing my New Parisian loafers. It was worth it.
“Are you paying attention David? You’ve blocked all of us younger executives from rising in the ranks for far too long because you’ve been afraid of us. You were right to be afraid of us as it turned out, but only because you’re such a cock-blocker.”
I kicked him again, I’d wanted to do that for a long time.
“I took my performance evaluation at head office last week and you know what they said? No, because you never read a fucking thing that I send you do you? That’s why none of my ideas or those of the other guys ever get implemented. Right? Well David, they said I was ‘failing to show initiative’ and ‘lacked that killer instinct’ that’s needed in marketing. Do you agree David?”
I gave him my smile, the one I give to my secretary, but he was still too busy trying to breathe. Shame, I’d had this little speech worked out for a while.
“The big credits are at your level and above so, you see, you’re in my way, you’re in our way and as I said. It’s time for you to retire.”
I took the stapler out of my pocket. He noticed that at least.
“Here’s your retirement package David old son.” I grinned as I began to staple 20 uni notes to his chest, piercing him over and over, ka-thunk, ka-thunk with the staple gun until his expensive Orientan silk was stained with blood and a month’s salary was coating his chest like the feathered breast of some exotic bird.
The limo came to a halt and I opened the door. I could already hear the hooting calls of the Parasites, sensing prey, coming out of their hovels and their gang-hideouts, hoping to gut a corporate or steal a hubcap. I dragged Dave by the hair, out of the limo and threw him to the ground.
“Enjoy your retirement old man.” I snorted.
The gold watch hit him in his wheezing, clouded face when I threw it.
“I’d piss on you, but then they might mistake you for one of their own.” I gave him my middle finger and clambered back into the limo.
“Home James and don’t spare the horses.”
Intestines steamed like fat sausages on a griddle as the cold rain hit them in big, spattering drops like marbles, diluting the blood, shit and bile into a bilious cocktail. It washed into the gutters, clogging them with severed fingers and offal that floated like macabre little boats of organ meat, bobbing merrily in the sanguine rivulet. A jumble sale of limbs, bone and muscle was tangled in a disorganised heap in the street, stray dogs already fighting over the ‘bargains’ amongst the dross.
“So…” Said Jartan, flicking blood and viscera from his blade. “What the hell kind of sword is that anyway?” He’d never seen its like, half again as long as a power claymore, double-bladed and apparently with no connection between the haft and the blades themselves. It looked… wrong.
T’nk looked down at him disapprovingly, shaking out her fleshy dreadlocks and showing her sharp teeth in a display of dominance. “A trophy, taken from a worthy foe on a faraway world. I call it the M’nth K’Knn, ‘Far Soul’ in Killan.”
Jartan looked down at his own sword, feeling a little inadequate somehow, even though he’d done his own fair share of the killing. “A trophy? So it’s not SLA technology then? I’m surprised they let you keep it.”
T’nk grunted again, nudging half a body into the gutter with the toe of her boot. “The killing is done, why do you want to talk?”
Jartan tried to look nonchalant as the rain beat a boss-nova rhythm against his helmet. “Just making conversation… new to the team, you know. It’s not every day you get caught in a DarkNight ambush with your squad leader.”
T’nk rolled her eyes, perhaps if the humans lacked vowels they wouldn’t be so keen on filling the air with mindless chatter either. “The dual I fought was caught on camera. The blade is associated with my brand and is the mark of a defeated enemy. So… my sponsors insisted and Head Office acceded. To them it means money, to me, honour. Since you ask… what of your blade, it looks non-standard to me.”
“This?” Jartan raised his own sword once more and tried to make it sound as good as possible. “This is a custom Dynamic Precision Blades vibrosabre from Mother’s Milk Studio. Offworld ceramic, custom inlay, shock battery, twice the vibe of your standard model with a sword-breaker back edge and a lifetime guarantee on the cutting edge. Cost me a pretty penny and seems to have paid off.” He tried a smile on her and began to pick his way across the strewn body parts, almost slipping on the fleshy slurry that the rain was only beginning to clean away.
“Nice.” T’nk offered, which was as close as she ever seemed to get to a positive word. “Though small.”
They sheathed their blades and stepped out from between the buildings, the water came down harder and washed them clean.
“Should we…” Jartan hooked his thumb back towards the alley and the tangle of growling dogs.
“Leave it for the Shivers.” She said and started down the street. “It’s what they’re for.”