A croc exhaled at a nearby table, streaming a rainbow mist worthy of a Lucky Charms cereal box. A feathered woman sat next to me, close enough to scrape my face with her bloodied pinions. Skins glitched, the name over her left breast on her jumpsuit read Loralei, but the glitch ended and she was covered in feathers once more. The scenery seeped through Loralei’s dark eyes, eyes that were far wider than those of the rabble with their glazed-over stares, sucking in D-grade hookah smoke from frayed hoses like cords wrapped around the impassive crowd, tightening them to an addiction through the illusion of freedom. Loralei took it in, the whole grid, the pixelated faces of all the girls and goons packed into the cafeteria, but after a decade it was second nature to me. Low place like home, but hey, you take what they give ya.
Loralei rubbed a leg against mine, raised her face to meet my frostburn eyes with sorrow or longing or some other crap, same look that got me into this mess.
“I don’t offer protection,” I spouted.
“You’re Mark, right? Mark Land?”
“I heard otherwise.”
“About my name? No, that’s it,” I replied.
“I’m talking about protection. I asked around. I was told you’re the man to talk to.”
“Was, Loralei. Was.” For emphasis, I got up and found another seat a few tables away. I could feel her glare stab me in the back.
As I sucked on the hookah’s mouth tip, a calico named Cathy stuck her face inches from mine, shotgunned the smoke down my lungs by making a vacuum seal with her lips.
“If you got no love for the new ghost, Mark, you must have some for me?”
Before I could respond, a hand came down on my forearm. “Land, got a proposition for you.” The man had a square, general’s jaw, blue hair in a dread fade; eyes like flickering ad icons; no nametag anywhere on his powder blue suit. He smiled at my confusion. “Name’s Septimus Dread. I’m here because you’re here.”
I waited for more, played with the hose of the hookah.
“Actually, I’m here because you don’t want to be here,” he added.
I couldn’t tamp down a sardonic curl of the lip; still didn’t offer a word to Septimus.
“I’ve got power in here, Mr. Land.” Septimus Dread closed his eyes, put his hands together meditatively in an anjali mudra pose. His avatar vibrated and then birthed a clone of itself in a shimmering array of lights, but the fireworks soon fizzled out and it was back to business, the two versions of himself finishing one another’s thoughts. “You’ve been in here long enough. We know that. You certainly know that. Shit of it is, nobody really gives a fuck about you anymore. Follow?”
I sucked in hookah smoke, nodded slightly.
“So, I pulled some strings. Giving you a chance to, eh, redeem yourself. Get outta here for good if you do well. May even get your body back, which would be fine by me; tired of staring at your ugly frozen mug outside my office.”
“Sadly, our country has a lot of foreign investors. And they’ve invested heavily. Plenty of parts that you can’t even legally enter anymore, like most of North Dakota and all of New Mexico.”
“Jesus, man, who do you think you’re talking to? I live in this shithole of a country. Just tell me what you want me to do.”
“Right, gettin’ there. So, the Russians, they bought up this land here.” One of the Septimuses folded out a map of the U.S. and made a circle around Kentucky with his index finger. “Old bunker under Fort Knox, ‘50s era. Was abandoned until the last couple years. Now the place is crawling with activity. Could be a test site. Hell, it could be a pleasure dome made of ice. We don’t know precisely! But we do know they’ve got something down there that we don’t want them to have.”
“And what’s that, Kubla?”
“A cybernetic codex—top-notch military hardware—engineered by the Department of Defense. We send you in, you do the reconnaissance, grab the codex, and we’ll evac you by airlift.”
“Yeah, it’s a failsafe for consciousness upload. DARPA didn’t mass produce the damn things, so they’re fairly hard to come by, but we got word they locked one up in a safe. Got the code to it too.”
I waited a couple ticks. “You gonna tell me the code?”
“We already changed it. Made it something you’ll be able to figure out.”
“If you can change the code, why not just go get the damn codex yourself?”
“And leave you outta the fun? Come on, Land. We want to see you in action.”
A croc led Loralei out of the cafeteria, an armored fist gripping her delicate arm. She cast a resigned look my way. I looked back at Septimus; we were all being masticated in the jaws of something.
“What’s it gonna be, Land?”
Cathy shimmied up next to me, ran a furry hand across the nape of my neck and bent down to lick, then whisper in my ear. “How ‘bout you request a partner?”
“First, Cathy goes—or nobody goes.” I sucked on the mouth tip, did my best not to cough on the acidic taste. Maybe it was the smoke, but Septimus appeared to scramble into bits for a couple frames before coming back into focus.
“Sure, Land. Take your girl along. She’s fun to watch, anyway. Anything else?”
Cathy purred and ran a finger along my collar bone.
“Little problem to square,” I said. “The servers limit our range to the cell area, cafe, and outer grounds. We gotta have enough freedom to get to this bunker, even if I do agree.”
“Ahh, aren’t the new prisons great? No need for guards, healthcare, food, just rip a criminal’s mind out, freeze the body, and upload it to a virtual prison where the program’s parameters keep it in place.” Septimus grinned. “What if I told you I know a way out, a way to get you into that bunker through a maze that I feel only a man up to your standards could navigate. Now you want your body back and outta this place or what?”
No guards but I felt I was being watched by millions. “There’s always a catch with you people.” Yet Cathy’s pouting insistence made more impact than the enticement of my freedom, and in the end I said, “Tell me about this maze.”
Cathy’s cell was across the hall from my own. She wasn’t mewing tonight like usual; she was pacing back and forth in her cell, light on her paws. A couple hours after lights out, the doors to our cells slid open. Cathy leapt out, landed on all fours in the middle of the hall, and cast me a sly grin. Her tail swished side to side as she found the trail.
I didn’t have her senses, but would have had to be senseless to miss it. A trail of bright purple pulsing arrows pointed down the hall. We followed. Doors dripping with long strings of binary numbers opened for us as we tramped along, taking us down M. C. Escher inspired spiral staircases I’d never seen, hallways I didn’t know about. The arrows ended in a cul-de-sac at a massive steel wall.
“Funny game,” said Cathy. “You’ve got a look on your face like you don’t have a sexy little kitten walking underfoot.”
Cathy pushed herself against my back, purred long and hard. This was real freedom, the warmth of her skin; my path was irrelevant. But I had traded my path in life for pleasure before and look where it got me. I couldn’t allow any distractions, not this time.
The dark hall convulsed like a giant throat. I didn’t so much as move through it as sputter through its palpitations. Cathy moved freely beside me, her fur brushing my legs, but I was stiff as a walking gravestone, sinking further underground with every step. The hallway branched off in 8, then 16, then 64 permutations. Some corridors went up, some down, some spun in a vortex overhead. With something approaching regularity, the floor breathed, separating from itself and diffusing into a sea of undifferentiated nothingness before returning to a discernible froth that formed the path once more.
We followed the shifting corridors for hours, or maybe minutes, our logic betraying us as the dimensions of time and space aberrated until we gave up on logic altogether. I collapsed on the floor. Cathy folded into my lap, licked the side of my face.
“See any arrows?” I asked.
“Why? Haven’t done us no good this far. We can’t think our way through this one; we have to follow our noses.”
“That’s absurd, like accessing some instinctive awareness on an animal level? That’s the kind of lame answer someone like you layered in virtual furs would come up with. I’ve spent ten years in this hellhole trying to suppress those primal urges.”
“Hey, who do you think you’re with? I’ll lead a bit. You’ll see.”
“Sure, why not?”
Cathy pounced and trotted along. I had to jog to keep up with her. She stopped at a fissure in the wall, sensed a weakness, pried it open with her claws. A vortex emerged and we jumped through the miasma of data that blew by with gale force winds, churning our reality.
In minutes we were outside the prison, standing on a rocky outcropping above a black, placid sea. The pulsing neon outline of the prison spread out below contrasted against the valley’s shadows. I followed her downhill to a glowing computer console set into a tall rock. I aligned my hand with the neon green outline on the screen, DigitAll’s corporate logo. The screen resolved itself into a flotilla of icons: a submarine, biplane, bullet train, hoverboard, helicopter, stealth bomber, and a naked body.
Cathy bounded over and pushed me out of the way, selected the body icon. So much for traveling by stealth bomber.
A message appeared on the screen: Select Destination.
“See if it can do Fort Knox Bunker.”
Cathy typed and an ASCII image of a bunker appeared on the screen.
“They’ve got an icon for it?”
Cathy shrugged and pressed her finger gently on the Bunker icon. A green light on an optoelectronic device pulsated, emitting a light matrix over our heads. She reached and grabbed the threads of that matrix and wove them into her visage until she faded out. I copied the hand motions and joined her, the landscape blurring then vanishing with a zipping noise.
In seconds, a new landscape faded in along with real bodies, our bodies. My hands had weight to them. The air had temperature again. My body, rather than merely male in form, was male in response to Cathy’s rubbing and purring. Her soft fur concealed the trace of my hand for a moment before my focus returned.
The bunker door was adamantium, thick looking. I gave it a kick with a steel-toed boot. A deep bass warble resonated in response. “DigitAll could have reconstructed us on the inside of the impregnable bunker here. Would have been nice. It’s like they’re trying to make it harder,” I remarked.
After the steel stopped resonating, Cathy’s ears pricked up. She pointed at the sky. “Drones!”
There they were, two of them, out on the horizon like twin suns.
“Can’t tell if they’re military,” I said, zooming my eyes to check for logos. Couldn’t be sure, but I thought I saw DigitAll’s open hand, fingers splayed.
“They’re loaded down with something, either a camera or a long barreled gun, but. . .ohhh!”
I grabbed a polished rock off the ground, held it up to reflect the full moon’s light onto the first drone’s sensor, flickering it in binary code to disrupt its flight pattern as it knocked into the other one, buying us some time. The massive bunker door parted with a metallic groan.
Cathy sidestepped inside and I followed, swinging around to stand against the wall. It was dark, but no darker than it was outside. I could see enough to tell that the bunker was carved into the earth, steel reinforcing each natural wall. Straight ahead, a long ramp sloped downward. Far down the ramp I made out the forms of two guards lit up with LEDs on their armor and rifles.
“Probably mercenaries,” said Cathy. “Never been through basic, never did time. Easy pickings.”
“What are you? Green Beret?”
“Cats got claws, hon.” Cathy held out her fisted hands and her claws retracted, sounding like knives slid across a whetstone.
One of the guards stopped, fiddled with a panel, and the hard glare of poor lighting bathed the area, each shadow sharply defined as if cut out of reality, a negative space on which our survival depended.
A long pipe stretched down the wide hall over the guards’ heads. Cathy did a vertical right up to it, keeping low and scurrying along the curved metal, eyes glowing, scanning the patrol. What was my role then? I rubbed my fingers across the wall’s polished stone beneath an amber light dangling from a sawed-off light post. The guards rounded the corner, raised their heads, revealing narrow eyes, skinny eyebrows, pointy chins. They nodded to one another to scope out the end of the hall where I stood, back against the wall. I could leave, leave Cathy to face them alone, back out and fight off the drones outside. But the guards spotted my hands playing shadows on the stone. It became clear what my role was—a distraction.
Cathy followed the pipe behind them and landed without a sound, creeping up on the back of their necks with a cold stare like death itself. Claws pierced body armor, hearts, and then body armor again. The claws retracted with a snap and the guards’ muscles contracted, bodies falling to a heap on the floor.
“Jesus! That was— ”
A drone swooped through the bunker’s gaping door. It hovered, no weapons visible, but enough surveillance and communications gear to broadcast a TV show.
“Looks like a serious mic there.”
Cathy looked at the drone, bracing for a cauterizing laser strike. “At least we’ll sound good to whoever’s listening.”
“Hey, drone, do you at least have a quiet mode?”
The drone responded almost immediately with a change in sound. While still hovering, the rotors went silent.
We headed down the ramp, drone in tow, and made our way to an elevator shaft; rode the lift down, way down. The lift doors opened to an expanse with straight, sheer walls. Space-age lighting hung from the ceilings over a hundred feet above. Steel handrails snaked along the cathedral-like space, leading to glassed-off offices full of computer terminals and screens the length of tractor trailers, but no one in sight.
We walked the length of the massive room and took a corner. Two more guards, suits covered in LEDs and all, sat at a table, a nearly empty bottle of vodka between them. One spotted us, called out, “Boris, Svetlana?”
“Oh shit,” I said and jumped around the corner. Metal sliced the air, a body thudded to the ground, the report of a rifle sounded. I peered back around the corner.
Cathy stood over the drunk and now dead guards. The drone floated nearby, getting a close-up of Cathy’s bloody claws. “We’ve only got a few minutes before they respawn from the datadumps,” she said.
I sat at one of the computer desks, checked over both shoulders for guards, and slugged a finger of the hard drink. The burn reinforced my mortality. I logged in, ran a few self-referential commands, infinite loops that would overwhelm the bunker’s bandwidth, slow the guards down.
“Where the hell do we look for the codex?”
As if in answer, the drone floated down a hall, camera still glued to us.
I got up, put the bottle down. “Might as well follow, right?”
Cathy looked at me, puzzled.
“It belongs to DigitAll. Same company that handles respawns.” I patted my chest. “Gave us these earlier tonight.”
“Okay, fine, but you could at least pretend to try’n offer me some protection.” She walked past me, gave my thigh a stroke with her tail.
The drone led us down a warren of corridors and then there it was, the safe that held the codex, propped upon an amphitheater-sized stage all by itself. Layers of clear firewalls blocked any access, the scene blurry behind them. It was all new, but I felt I had been here before.
From a shadowed cleft in the rock wall, another distinctively Russian-looking guard emerged, leveled a rifle at us. I grabbed onto the drone as it was backing away from the guard and turned it over. A slug hit the drone’s metal casing, didn’t penetrate. I ran across the room using the drone as a shield and slammed it into the guard, crushing his solar plexus as shots flared off the drone’s chassis. He went down and the drone took off. I tore the rifle from the shocked guard’s hands and emptied a couple of rounds into him, the shots reverberating off the compacted stone walls.
“Mmm, now I feel taken care of.” Cathy winked at me as she drug the guard’s body to use his retinal scan for the outer panel. She shoved his face against the occipital scanner, the eye unblinking, the personal world inside it now unseen. The safe’s electronic keypad could now be accessed. This was the safe that held both a weapon and my freedom if I could keep my end of the deal.
The font spacing on the screen suggested room for four numbers. “Did Septimus mention a code?”
“He said I would know it when I needed it.”
“What is it that imprisons you?” she asked, “that keeps you from your freedom? Tell me.”
“Not much to tell. I was imprisoned in ‘49, ten years ago. A fight broke out over a woman after she zeroed out my accounts, left me with nothing. One year later, Punish.com ripped my mind from my body, transferred me to cyber, and here we are, November fucking tenth—emancipation day. What’s this got to do with anything?”
Cathy wrapped herself around me, snaked her tail up my shirt. “Try it.”
“The numbers you’re spewing. 10-0-1-11-10.”
“You kidding? Why would Dread have changed the code to reflect my crappy life? Shit doesn’t dynamically react to my every thought, watch my every move.”
“Just try it,” she whispered.
I punched it in to prove her wrong, the numbers lagging before they appeared on the screen. I hit enter. Nothing happened. Then I recalled the bandwidth load I had placed and the resulting slowdown and waited a moment until the screen bloomed verdant neon light. Latches unleashed and the heavy door slid open inch by inch, revealing a generic looking compact disc. I entered the vault, toyed with the disc, its rainbow rays concealing data I could only imagine. Would it be used to protect the nation, or would some ruthless nationalist guiltless of his country’s blood use it to create the next World War? I didn’t give a damn, only wanted my life back. I pocketed the next global catastrophe and went to exit the vault when its walls retreated around me, sinking into pockets in the floor, walls, and ceiling.
Septimus Dread, looking TV ready with his blue hair and his powder blue suit, walked across a stage to the applause of a live audience.
“What a moment! Here they are! You’ve watched them escape Punish.com’s prison of the mind. You’ve seen them rebirthed into new bodies! You’ve witnessed them handle crack mercenaries without breaking a sweat! Mark, Cathy, how do you feel?”
Several drones whirred around us.
“The fuck is this?” I asked.
Cathy gasped at the crowd’s faces, their hands waving posters of retractable claws and big cardboard pictures of our disembodied heads.
“Well, it doesn’t really matter how you feel,” Septimus turned to the crowd, “does it?”
The crowd applauded.
Septimus smiled and made a showman’s gesture. “You know what to do! Pull up the electronic device under your seat and place your votes. Do we remove their memories and put them back in Punish.com’s one-of-a-kind prison system to run a new simulation, or do we let them go this time?”
As the members of the TV audience did as they were told, a screen flashed the result in real-time, splitting votes between two categories: punish, freedom.
The screen showed a dead tie. 100 to 100.
Septimus Dread turned, looked into the camera. “Now it’s your turn to vote! What will you choose?”