Short Story: Bright Futures

Rain slicked roads shine from countless headlights of rush-hour victims, jam-packed in carpool vans. Faces of every age and origin stare in sordid envy; the auto-car lanes and their continuous stream of traffic. Never the same people, yet always the same car, and somehow always moving, passing. The spite in onlookers, palpable as their own lust for the speed they lack. The irony, not one of them having anywhere remotely important to go.

Certainly, not important enough to justify the strength of such emotions. Collectively however, Humanity had nowhere more important than where they were headed.

Jackstaff was the sort of city that made people believe in reincarnation and resurrections. It had lived and died, then lived again; all more than once. It was the American west-coat’s Phoenix, sinking into the decay of old age only to burn and be reborn newer, more beautiful than ever.

Its most recent rebirth, from a social standpoint, was still occurring. Arguments could be made the birth had passed and infancy had begun, but truly, the umbilical to the mother-event had yet to be cut. That metaphorically-great, burning bird, was the advent of a technology that had literally begun to revolutionize the world.

Like auto-cars, this tech everyone wanted, for one reason or another. And for one reason or another, few could afford access to it. At least, outside certain black markets still largely specializing in its prototypes.

The tech, known officially and “Integrated Optical and Aural Control Heads-up Displays,” was well-known in some circles (and fast becoming known in others) simply as HUDs. The first in a new generation of elective, assistive augmented implants, these “augs”were civilization’s first, true-to-life step toward post-humanism.

On smaller scales, that evolution had already been in human hands for centuries now. From Pasteur’s discovery of vaccines to Fleming’s creation of penicillin, to the gene therapies fighting or righting defects and deformities (however confined to the upper class). Until now however, nothing Humanity had done had quite crossed the boundaries, or blurred the lines of, what made one human.

Few knew this truth as well as Kayla Lexington.

At just over five-feet tall, Kayla was the perennial odd-child out. Since birth, Kayla had been too small, too smart, too mature, or too something to fit anywhere. In school she got by on a relatively dull and stable home-life, and eventually, recreational drug use.

She attended state college on scholarships and grants, too focused and overloaded with work to do much else. College ended and she found herself too inundated with job offers in various C-S positions to do anything but dive straight into work, responsibility, and adulthood.

That all changed at Arc Systems. Software Titan and recent partner to long-time Med-Tek demigod Cameron Mobility, hired Lexington in with a slew of others as part of Arc’s expansion into the same type of R&D that made Cameron a Trillion-dollar Mega-corp.

In effect, Arc needed programmers to help create, update, and secure the increasingly emergent field of bionic prosthesis. This new era of bionics, investors were assured, would revolutionize medical technology.

Kayla Lexington knew otherwise. She saw then, as others did later, that the field was uneven. Too closed and isolated between Cameron Mobility and its main competitor, Byrne Corp, the field could never thrive. Simply, the corps had rigged match after rigged match of an entire sport, andin a slow but certain destruction of the very game they relied upon to survive.

Conscious or not, it was done through various cost-cutting decisions, by myopic executives with hard-ons for money yet possessing no fiscal sense.

Fact was, no innovation had come from Med-Tek that wasn’t somehow connected to either company in over a century. Prosthesis R-and-D suffered as a result. The patients dreadfully so. The designers, engineers, coders, all of them were– had been— building off one another for generations.

Not an original idea had come about in more than twice Kayla’s life-time. For tech, that level of stagnation was as good as extinction. What it and everyone else involved, needed, was complete revitalization.

Lexington approached her superiors with a request; a small team of coders, designers, and engineers for less than a month, on a radical redesign of several well-established prosthetic models all-but-perfected, decades ago. Her aim was to show the proper talent in the right space, could do anything.

The request was granted on the grounds of her obvious intelligence, and the company’s possible gain, as well as the short time the diversion required. In short, because Kayla offered them the perfect cost/risk/time ratio.

With only a week of prep beforehand, she assembled her team and the various detail. She and her chosen few took to isolation, spending three uninterrupted weeks of meetings, brainstorming, and spit-balling in a mountain-ski resort.

The twenty-four year old woman without a place took to carving one out.

The days became invariably the same; rising for four-star resort-meals between bouts of meetings finely interspersed with Kayla’s rigid adherence to down-time. In most instances, hot tubs and heated pools amid frigid air; or snowboarding and skiing via the company’s blank-check; lounging and gaming, drinking or drugging in the meantime.

As much as she insisted on that down time, she too, insisted on the rigid adherence to work, meetings, designs, arguments. Even if unstructured, more open-air and brainstorming sessions, she ensured everyone knew their importance and attended. Given what she’d provided, the team obliged.

Even decades later, Kayla Lexington remembered the night it became clear. The night she knew that uneven field was the result of something deeper– the night she first dreamt the post-human dream.

Distant diamond-dust glittered with the first rays of moonlight beyond floor-to-ceiling windows and sliding doors, framing her temporary wooden balcony. Earthen warmth from wood set off the perpetual winter beyond, hiding even the faintest glow of the resort below. Kayla was nude.The cleaning girl she’d taken to likewise behind her, watching from the fur-lined bed.

Hardly her first or last experience with a woman, Kayla still found something summed up in her– what had caught her eye about her. What it was,really, couldn’t be explained until later.

Cara was pretty but rougher– the type whose potential partners often fled from intimidation before opening up. Kayla was certain she was younger than she’d said, even less experienced than could be mistaken for. Yet, she was an entirely devoted lover. Kayla guessed they could’ve shared a one-night stand and she’d have shown just as much selflessness.

Yet her world– its society– demanded everything about her not only should not exist, but could not exist. And still she did.

The mountaintops dissolved before Kayla as she brokered an image of not only her future, but that of Humanity’s:

Arc’s group had only a few days left. By then the company would sink or swim with Kayla’s budding-career. Unfortunately, nothing they had yet would prevent that. As a result, the pressure was mounting. Her own tension, peaking.

If her choice of partner had been any more or less innocuous, or Cara even a modicum different than she was, Kayla knew history would never have taken its course. Fortunately for the world, Cara was herself

She spoke three seemingly innocent words, “Aren’t you happy?”

Their tone said all; told of constant pain, emotional and otherwise; habitual disregard for I and the knowledge that one day it might very well be all she knew; yet it told how she’d grown to accept that, moved on. Most of all, it told of a lost, wandering creature whom sought only to leave their mark in even one moment of happiness– joy– even if she couldn’t have it herself.

Something deeper stirred in Kayla Lexington then, something that didn’t quite make sense. A flickering film-reel of Humanity joined it; its masses undulating through time through traffic jams, clogged sidewalks, workers in mechanical motions.

It continued on, spiraling backward through eras of history she wasn’t sure she knew. Images depicting society’s evolution, but in reverse. Onward, back through eras of steam-trains disgorging crowds, to village-squares of huts overrun by crowds and haggling and hawking wares.

On and on it went until, perched just below the starry sky that burned despite the vision; two hairy creatures joined at the groin for no purpose beyond sheer, animal compulsion. It was then that she knew; Humans had changed.

And Cara proved it.

The undulating masses were no longer the hunter-gatherers of their ancestry. They were masses of cells amid faceless organisms; corporations, companies, governments, families. They were beyond what Humans had once been. As with all organisms that wished to survive nature, they’d been forced to evolve or die. Not only as one, but as their collective; Humanity.

She could think of no better example than her employers and her retreat; its very purpose was to combat stagnation with the search for vigor, revitalization. She saw only one path forward– for Cameron, for Arc, for society– and it came with two, hyphenated words; post-human.

The rest is history. Kayla answered Cara eventually, and more satisfactorily than the girl might’ve intended. Then, when her rigid schedule demanded it, Kayla left Cara smoldering in her room until she could return and reignite her. That last few days of that retreat were passed with tireless work.

When Kayla finally returned, Cara at her hip, she gave the corps what they’d paid for and demanded a raise. Then, she took control of the new Bio-Augment division of Arc-Cameron.

And somehow, even though it had taken its first steps into its new future, Humanity as a general rule knew only the envy of traffic-jam auto-cars– Ironic given how much brighter each person’s future now was, and how utterly blind they were to the dullness left behind…

Short story: Christmas in the Sprawl

Kaylee Hamir was one of the first-gen mixed kids from the Great Wall flood. She knew all about that flood, but personally more than officially. Other than marking her conception and the start of her parent’s noncommittal, faux-intimacy, she’d grown up dealing with its effects. She lived in its world, breathed its air– even if she shouldn’t have. Because of everything else, she also occasionally dealt with its trash-heap refuse. Often by being confronted with it directly.

Her first night on the street after the war had taught her that. While the corps were busy pulling up their drawbridges Mom and Dad were scrambling with the masses.

Then, madness. Chaos. Far-off thunder. Sustained.

Dad got in. Mom didn’t. They’d never been together strictly speaking, but whatever had held them ’til then, ended then. Mom fled. Kaylee with her. They ended up under old infrastructure, more damp than wet, and stinking of human refuse and waste.

Kaylee learned the hard way what corporate love felt like; nothing. There was none. Love wasn’t cost-effective.

Though it felt longer to her young mind, Mom was hooking shortly afterward. Three years later, she was being thrown out for refusing to herself. In fairness, Madame Mimi had given her a choice. Kaylee’d chosen, but it still felt like a kiss-off. Since then, she’d been street-living in hovels, hideaways, crashing on the least forsaken couches of the countless, rundown apartments.
On the drier and warmer nights, she slept beneath stars and a mostly-shattered greenhouse. The stillness of the abandoned, thirty-story mini-tower whispered cold but not bitterness. She settled the old mattress in the driest corner of the day, then she looked up, out.

On clearer nights, she could even ignore humanity’s best attempts to batter its way in. Even if for only moments, it was something.

She’d gotten lucky tonight, lifted enough from the markets to form a proper meal; hunk of precooked ham, block of cheese, half-loaf of bread. She’d have to fight rats for scraps in the morning, but she’d even have enough for breakfast.

Meanwhile, she could eat, eyeing reality through electric-and-neon polluting the lower world.

Fact was, she didn’t need to live the way she did. She could’ve easily been one of Mimi’s girls like her mother. It just didn’t feel right. It wasn’t for her.

Part of the Madame’s goodbye seemed to take as insult that she hadn’t wanted to be a whore. She didn’t, nor did she think she needed to be, but it wasn’t meant as a slight.In the minds of Kaylee’s generation some people sold wares, others sold themselves. There was no judgment, just facts. Ones and zeroes.Her mother had been one of the prototypes of that mentality, that eventually gave it cause to form as it did.

The former trophy-wife of an Arab exec, Kaylee’s father chose lifestyle over family once forced to. Her mother then, rather than rebel against the decision, coped. It wasn’t that he’d always had to balance the two, he just did. When he couldn’t anymore, he didn’t. There was never uncertainty where his priorities lie. It was only Kaylee’s young mind, rich with naivete, that felt otherwise then.

Fact was, her parents hadn’t always felt their distance, but they could. Sometimes, they did. Eventually it became more trouble than it was worth. Way Kaylee saw it, that was change. Just a thing that happened, was happening, eternally.Accept it as inevitable.

Her generation’s collective grasp on that was a social defense mechanism against repeatingthe world’s dismal state. The war had done a lot to many. Most of all, it profoundly impacted the social psyche. Kaylee and her ways were part of that. She and all the others like her knew it. That truth was as much part of their own, individual legacies as of their collective one.

At its purest essence, that legacy said only, “accept change.

At its more complex layers, it told to accept the world not as one constant, but as subject to one constant. Change was eternal. Everything else was passing. Only context differed; from global landscape to personal routine. Change drove reality and everything apart of it.Change was the fourth dimension, that of duration. Flowing in only one direction.

The purity of the message itself contained a thesis on human-life.Why accept change? Because it is eternal, and you are not. Any thing subject to it is riding its own piece eternity, letting it constantly and rapidly change. But why? To what end?

The answer, ingrained in the universe down to the purpose of life itself, was refinement.

Refining oneself through existence among a system of constant change. Only then could each action to become an engine of change, refinement.

In the meantime, each iteration was one step closer to perfection– because of its nonexistence. It didn’t need to exist, because ultimately perfection wasn’t the point. It was the excuse, continued existence and refinement was the purpose.

Accepting the constant of change allowed one to continue discerning the variables of life’s equation. That was the whole point to the take-over, the war, its aftermath. A force– people, couldn’t be constrained. Shouldn’t be. Not just for their own benefit, but everyone’s.

Even the uneducateds like Kaylee knew that, because that was the point too; imprinting an ever-lasting record on both individual and collective human psyches.

Yet here she was. Alone and profoundly feeling it. Then again, she’d done it to herself. In that way, it was neither good nor bad. It just was.

Few cared about holidays. She couldn’t remember the last time anyone celebrated, let alone Christmas. Shameful memories of rabid consumerism still wounded the previous generations. While Kaylee’s was still too young, too scattered, to have yet formed any conceivable culture. It’d take longer than usual for them to get there, too.

Picking up the war’s pieces wouldn’t be easy, but they knew damned well not to rush it. If you rushed it, before long you ended up like all those corp-execs; bound to sacrificial altar of Human social-evolution. By that point, all you could do was hope to go gracefully. The idea was, never let it get that far.

She bit a hunk off her bread and chewed. She stared up, out, thinking.

Broken glass perfectly centered a line of stars through the missing hunk of window. She’d learned the hard way that it flooded the room anytime it rained. The first time she slept-in on a rainy day was also the day she learned to chuck the mattress just inside the roof-access too.

Change was a constant, after-all.

The best way to cope with change, Kaylee’s generation had learned, was through contingencies, redundancies, rigid logic-structures for support when needed. Ideas and systems engineered with switches, gates, walls and moats. All of them, too, built around digital principles dominated by duality. One and zero. On and off. In/out. The standby state was persistent, guaranteed, and because of that, moot.

Kaylee sighed. The weather was perfect. Cold, but neither bitter nor windy. Kaylee guessed this was what they’d meant by global warming. Too bad the planet was fucked now. They might help it recover in time, and she certainly saw no reason not to, but human focus had turned outward again. She felt it herself through the broken window.

A nearby scuff gave way to the roof-access door easing open. Kaylee froze. Part of her was ready for a fight from the desperate, post-war refuse. The rest of her was stunned; astonished anyone would bother to climb thirty floors for nothing. It took the girl in the doorway six, eternal seconds to find Kaylee in the darkness.

Kaylee sized her up, gauged her for threats. She was small, more than Kaylee. Long clothing hung off her enough to bulwark against the warmth, but not hinder her in fight or flight. Kaylee guessed she was armed, too, but unlikely to draw a weapon if it weren’t drawn already.

She was a streeter, and streeter’s lived by a certain style of thinking.

Months of street-living had thinned and leaned Kaylee considerably, but she didn’t have the same look or mentality as a streeter. This girl was street, through and through. Kaylee’d been plump in childhood from Madame Mimi’s good graces. It still showed in her lean-toned muscles, formed well despite recent scant nourishment.

Like most streeters, this girl had none of that. Daily fights for survival and sustenance had pulled any exposed skin taught. Her clothing was something between armor and all-weather gear. Each component cherry-picked as diamonds in the rough from the ruined chaos. The tatters said she’d fought every day of her life. And won. Likely, from an early age.

Yet her caution was almost apologetic, as if conveying she knew she was interrupting, but needed to anyway. Those extra seconds were enough for Kaylee. She took a chance.

“Occupied.” The girl homed on the sound. “Here.” Kaylee said to relax her.

The girl appraised the room’s remainder with a feral sweep. Viciousness pointed her features and firmed her spine. It flashed, relaxed back into human easiness.

“Got room?”

Kaylee almost said no. It was gut-reaction. The food weighed her hand, its purpose moreso.

“Just you, right?”

The girl half-nodded, knowing Kaylee saw it perfectly despite the darkness. She motioned her in and over, began tearing bread. The girl did another, feral sweep. She slid in and around the door, closed it as quickly and quietly as possible; an obvious manifestation of lethal paranoia.

Kaylee offered her a piece of bread and the Girl’s eyes lit up. She hesitated, “You’re not going to rape me, are you?”

The girl’s spine loosened with uncertainty, eyes on the food. “If you want.”

She shrugged, “Nah, not my type.” She offered the food, let her settle. “Kaylee, by the way.”

“Laura.”

She passed over the hunk of cheese, “Merry Christmas, Laura.”

She laughed harder this time.

Short Story: Break Out

Panther crouched at the edge of a rise overlooking a large military compound. The place was little more than a sea of tents and heavy vehicles with a lone modular building slapped together at its center. The tents encompassed it on all sides, as if some god-like shrine and they its prostrating disciples. It made her sick to look at; so many were force-fed corporate lies and thanked them for it.

Panther’s optical augments shifted the contrast of the images flowing through her eyes to highlight the compound’s details. Patrols of two trudged along the three, nearest perimeters that formed one half of an overall fence-line. Panther’s heads-up-display highlighted the patrolling guards in opaque red, analyzing each one with minute text-windows of everything from height and weight to their ever-changing trajectory.

Across the wet-gleam of the asphalt grounds, more patrols made perpendicular paths through the tents winding to form a shifting, full-coverage net across the compound. The HUD recorded the paths with faint, red lines overlaid on the terrain. Overhead, drones filled the gaps between patrols with optical sensors and a near-silent whir of electric props. Their dual 10mm cannons sat on standby, ready to spin up and litter soft targets with hell-fire.

The drones would be the easiest part. They were stupid, guided by subroutines and out of combat mode until operators or officers designated otherwise. People were more difficult. Apart from the patrols, Panther knew, a few hundred soldiers were hidden in the tents between her and the modular building. It didn’t change the fact that she had to make it to the building. Ion was waiting, probably under duress, and no doubt weak from torture. Getting out would be hardest, but if forced to stay, Ion would be dead before sun-up.

She and Nix had been caught in a fire-fight while trying to liberate some refugee supplies held hostage by the military. They wanted anyone not touting the corporate line turned in. For refugees coming from a corp war-zone, that was just about everyone; brothers, sisters, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. It wasn’t going to happen. The military knew that, decided to starve the refugees out. Panther and the others had more humane ideas, and sent Nix and Ion to retrieve the supplies while they created a distraction.

Needless to say, things didn’t go as planned– actually, they went completely fucking sideways. The end result was Nix dead and Ion in the hands of the military, receiving the same treatment refugee-dissenters would. Now Panther had no choice but to go in, get her sister, and hope they both got out alive. The alternative was certain torture and a public execution to make an example out of any “resistance.”

With all of the information gathered to her HUD, Panther slipped down the hill-side for the compound’s barriers. Invisible laser-fences had posts every twenty or so feet and were spaced evenly enough that getting to one would be easy. Panther reached one, pried open a few of the sensor-control panels, and began fiddling with the wires. Beside her, the invisible lasers were green on her HUD, crisscrossed and formed like chain-link, but unscalable without the right augs.

She didn’t have the augs required for jumping the fence– nor the more upscale ones that allowed one to walk-straight through without setting them off. She did have razor-sharp, carbon-fiber nails though, and an augged hand willing to use them to strip and splice wires. She shorted the connection on a power distributor, knowing no-one would notice the breach before she was long gone. The fence itself wouldn’t read the failed parts, and only a visual inspection with the right eyes or visor-settings would reveal the sabotage. She slipped past for the shadows of a tent’s rear-sheet. Sounds of a couple of soldiers fuck-grunting emitted from within.

“Great,” Panther thought. “More meat for the grinder– might as well fuck and get it over with now, take advantage of that corp health-plan before it’s gone.”

She followed inactive, red-lines on her HUD toward the front of the compound. Voices of laughter or low conversations marked the sides of each tent as she dodged and weaved to stay hidden. By the time she reached the last set of tents, her heart was racing. Neuro-transmitters were flooding her body with adrenaline, making it hard to think. A mental activation of endorphins and serotonin slowed her heart to a crawl, her mind and body now completely at-ease with the task at hand.

She glanced along the line of tents, then hurried for the door of the modular building. There’d no doubt be surveillance inside– security, drones, all manner of things to contend with. She was ready. It was now or never. Feline agility sped her body into the building. Micro-speakers implanted in her augged arm emitted inaudible, digital noise, jamming audio and visual equipment. Two guards were startled to their feet at her entrance.

A subsonic pistol in Panther’s left-hand dropped one. A razor-sharp sword in her right, cut the other guard’s throat. Her body followed through. Alarms began to scream. Guards poured in from various corridors. The click of the subsonic pistol accented metallic slicing as she moved like a ballerina, painting abstracts of blood and brain matter across the room.

She pirouetted, grande jete, a bladed boot slicing flesh as her arm made plunging motions and the pistol kept time. She came to a stop at the far-side of the entryway, blade wet and pistol empty. Bodies fell this way and that, creating water-falls of blood through the grated floor.

She didn’t need to survey to carnage to know it was total. Her left hand worked to drop a mag, and slap in a new one. A moment later she speed-walked through a door, body stiff, determined. A few men and women turned, one-by-one. The click of the pistol laid each of them out.

The room was filled with invisible barrier-fences, like the perimeter’s, to contain the various prisoners. The room was empty, save a lone, huddled figure in a corner cell. The poor creature rocked back and forth on his haunches, completely unresponsive to Panther’s approach. She ignored it; Ion didn’t need to do anything more than continue breathing, she’d do the rest.

She punched her way into the barrier’s control panel, shredding faux-skin off her metallic hand, then gripped a handful of wire. Sparks rained from the panel with a whiff of smoke. Panther ignored it, hurried to lift her sister off the floor. Ion’s eyes were glazed over, her face bruised and bloody. She stared vacantly, too drugged and traumatized to comprehend the situation. She opened her mouth to speak, revealed a missing tooth and a few, chipped others.

“Don’t. I’m getting you out.”

She timed her exfil carefully; made it back out the building’s door before anyone knew what had happened inside. Her HUD warned of impending patrols, allowed her to duck back and narrowly avoid a pair of men crossing her path. Moments later, the two were at the downed fence-line. A pair of soldiers examined the pole there, evidently aware it’d been breached.

“Can you walk?” Panther whispered.

Ion gave a noncommittal shrug, found her feet. Two clicks splattered blood across helmet-visors and asphalt. The pair hurried through, Ion limp-sprinting on pure adrenaline. Neither of the sisters was sure how she made it up the hill. At its crest, she fell stumbled, fell, slid the rest of the way down.

A black van waited beside the hill’s terminus, its doors open on familiar faces that forced Ion to tear up. She fell into the arms of Nix’s brother, as Panther hopped in. The doors shut and the van’s electric engine gave a silent start, compelled it forward over the crunch of small twigs and gravel.

In the front seat, Panther’s ex-boyfriend and second in command, Delta, glanced over; “Everything alright?”

“Five-by-Five,” she said with a hint of scorn. “No-one’s going to take my sister from me.”

“Sibling love. Almost as powerful as sibling rivalry.” He glanced over again, “Just not as, you know, bloody.”

She thought of the bodies, “Depends on the siblings.”

Delta gave a laugh and drove on through the darkness.