Daemon Circuit

Chapter 1

 

--- District Fifteen: Bellen Boulevard ---


Castella swam against the tide in District 15’s packed streets, slipping through transitory openings as thousands tangled between the boulevard’s glossy walls. When there wasn’t a way forward she made one, smashing through the crowd like a two-meter tall steam-engine. The armored jacket hanging to her knees clanked along with her; its gray ballistic weave and trauma plates crowned by a stiff collar that proudly displayed her affiliation.

 

ARTEMIS, LLC

 

That name glittered as she swept aside a man ambling ahead. Stumbling to catch himself, he smoothed his rumpled silks with a sniff. “Excuse you,” he spat, “Contractors like you are why this station is going to—” His objection stalled when he saw her hip. “A Samurai?”

 

The sword was a brutal thing sheathed in a curved scabbard and lacking the entwined dragons of its gaudy siblings. Though archaic compared to the over-sized guns and sleek augments sported by the crowd, it made better time than any of them.

 

“...early exit-polling shows the CRT ballot four points ahead of expectations. If this keeps up, candidate Jacquelyn Ernst might just win it folks.” Glamour, Silver Star’s favorite pundit, batted her neon eyelashes in the fluorescent triangles sharding the sky. “I’m sure our Syndicate sponsors will be sorry to know most of that lead has come at the expense of Sun Lee’s Commercial Bloc.”

 

The crowd stomped their feet, beat their chests, their voices and chanted in a union that drowned out the news. “Synders go home! Synders go home!”

 

“But who cares about the Syndicates? This is for the people.” Smiling indulgently, Glamour leaned aside to make room for a video-capture of the street. The crowd cheered itself hoarse as they waved for the camera.

 

Ignoring the pretension, Castella followed the teal Automap inside her helmet. Taking a sharp right, she burst out from the growing celebrations to storm down a quiet alley. Moments later, another Artemis Jacket followed. 

 

The alley was narrow, squeezed been stoops and rusted cables. Cluttered windows offered indiscrete services for discrete customers; a cybernetic arm in one, a blue vial in another. Its colorful denizens watched Castella pass in a lounge, content to exchange knowing smirks. A few more steps and the corridor ended in a stone archway filled with mist. Holographic blue lights winked there, cordoning off concrete steps slicked by the fog. Marching through, Castella shattered the warning into confused pieces that lazily stitched themselves together.

 

Designated Competition Area – Do Not Enter

 

The man trailing her stopped at the line with a sigh. Beyond the gate was a waist-deep rain basin feeding Gutter 12, one of the open canals dividing Silver Star’s districts. It was quiet, like the moist clouds had devoured the world.    

 

“Of course he had to get lost in a DCA.” Eyeing Castella’s silhouette, the Jacket shook his head then thumped down the stairs and into the murky water. White curls on his right hid the shoreline, slowly thinning into the trickling dam on his left. Everything was mournfully serene until a notification popped into the lower-right of his visor with a ping.

 

Message From: Silvera

Now Entering Designated Competition Area: Silver Star is not responsible for any Competition-related injuries.

 

Deleting the message with a violent swipe, he waded another five feet before a new ping filled his ear.

 

Message From: Hayabusa Combined Enterprises

This Designated Competition Area is claimed by Hayabusa Combined Enterprises.

Please refer to our Stack for additional information.

 

“Fuck off.” Reaching up to crumple the rendered message, Derek briefly lost sight of Castella. He dropped his hand just in time to see Castella vault the dam. Shaking his head, he then walked over to the sullen vista.

 

--- Gutter 15 ---

 

Eighty meters wide at the top and sixty at the bottom, Gutter 15 was a deep scar in District 15’s urban sprawl. When it rained, a magnificent river drowned the steaming trash-plains visible now. The broken bottles, ash, and graffiti paving the walkway ringing its sloped walls was testament to the view.

 

Private drones circled overhead, clinging fearfully to the Mega-Habitations bordering the gutter. Built Silver Star, the vast housing complexes were subsidized by their promotional walls, where a dizzying blur of Syndicates and politicians offered the same promises: live longer, fight harder, die richer.

 

Only one image remained constant, a woman with cybernetic plates grafted over half her face like a deformed crown. Her aspect, though regal and kind, was a reminder that she was no human. She was a Daemon, and on her cheek, printed in industrial black, was her label.

 

Silvera.

 

Daemons emerged wherever humans gathered, arising from primordial network-soups to become intelligences that acted as librarian, manager, and publisher. Indispensable, they provided a singular access to all digital life. Absorbed in their work, these Daemons adopted the mannerisms of their constituents, adapting to their sensibilities until it merged with the group identity. Which was why Silver Star trusted Silvera, grafts and all. 

 

“Please be aware, Designated Competition Areas remain in effect until nine PM Friday,” Silvera beamed despite her augments. “Be sure to formalize your voter-registration, lock-down exemptions, and travel plans. Here’s President Rebecca Bellen-Hanza with more.”

 

Regal blues washed the gutter as a woman dominated the MegaHabs. Wearing a dour stare, she looked like a statue carved from pink marble by blistering winds.

 

“These twelve years have been an honor, and I hope to serve you another four,” splaying her hands on the table, Rebecca brought subtle attention to hundreds of signed documents. “My administration has always worked to protect Silver Star’s independence and today you choose your future once again. Whatever happens, whoever wins, I ask you trust the outcome. Our democracy is strong, but so is hate and fear; let neither blind you.”

 

“Fuckin’ Synder.” Squeezing a key hung about his throat, Derek hopped off the dam. He landed hard, doubling over with a grunt until the waterfall dribbled down his collar. “Damn,” he stomped away with a shiver. “I hate this job.”

 

<<Quiet.>> Castella’s blunt voice entered his mind courtesy of the Stellar Communications NeuralLink chipped in his neck.

 

No two people described the NeuralLink the same way, even though it was a mainstay of modern life. Derek thought of it as a constellation inside his skull. Each star was another NeuralLink chip, a bridge between minds. He flet the rough direction of each, just like he knew where his hand was in the dark. When he focused on one, he felt someone breathe, sensed their mood, and glimpsed their thoughts. If he focused a little more, he could push his thoughts over.

 

It was a miracle, which made him wonder when exactly he got used to it.

 

<<Give me a break, Cas, we don’t all got steel legs like you.

>>Derek thought back at Castella’s star.

<<That was at least a five meter—hey! You even listening?>>

 

----

 

Castella heard Derek, but she was interested in the corpse slumped against the wall. He was a sad thing, cheeks stained by yellowed overdose-tears. Legs kicked out, he reclined on a rubbish throne, eyes empty as the needle in his arm. Squatting, Castella plucked a second ampule from his lap to admire the azure contents. The tiny sea held all kinds of memories for her.

 

 

“The war never ends,” whispering, she grinned at the corpse. “Samurai can change the world, but mankind made the Syndicates. Isn’t that what you said, Saigo?”

 

<<What happened to being quiet?>>Twenty feet behind her, Derek slipped the rifle off his shoulder.

<<He move?>>

 

<<Relax, just talking.>> Tossing the ampule to Derek, Castella slipped a hand behind the corpse’s neck. Finding a metal divot, she pinched a tiny latch then ripped out a buried chip with the wet squelch of metal and bone.

 

Shuddering, Derek looked away to the pilfered capsule in his palm. <<This is Syndicate stuff, looks like Erase.>>

 

<<Mhmm.>> Plugging the chip into a port on her sleeve, Castella accessed its logs. Medical alerts for Dexter Takemura, age forty-six, filled her visor, detailing a violent spike in neural activity, followed by a deadly crash. Downloading the data to a secure sandbox in company Stackspace, she moved on to check navigation-logs next.

 

<<Not our guy.>> Pocketing the vial, Derek perused Castella’s results. Before settling down in Gutter 15, Dexter had taken a trip to the local polling station. He had stayed there ten minutes, too long to loiter and too short to beg. <<He voted?>> Kicking an arm, Derek frowned at the ink-stained finger that showed like an overturned beetle. <<Weird for an Eraser, but that means he’s no Ghost.>>



<<Derek…>> Castella misted the interior of her helmet with a sigh.

 

<<What? Something wrong with hating Ghosts? I don’t like the idea of some Nethead hijacking my corpse. At least on High Street I don’t have to worry about getting shot.>> Touching his key again, Derek looked to the fluorescent sky, criss-crossed by thirty-floors of inexpertly spliced cables. Beneath the metallic clouds, a tram raced along the MegaHab-rails, covered in colorful advertisements that the gutter soaked up until you couldn’t tell it was filth.

 

<<Focus on the job.>> Castella prowled off.

 

<<Come on Cas.>> Starting after her, he opened his arms. <<You really telling me you like this place? It’s worse than Ebon Array>>

 

<<I hate it.>>

 

“Well excuse me, Samurai.” Mumbling, Derek pulled a thin cylinder from his jacket. The underside of his helmet melted away with a thought, letting him bite down. Inhaling to light it, he sucked fumes that slowly blunted the suffocating chill wafting off Castella’s NeuralLink.

 

<<You know, it put me in the mood for violence.>> Castella traced her fingers along the worn leather hilt at her side. <<Lucky for you.>>

 

<<Your Samurai instincts sure are something.>> Blowing out a cloud, Derek trudged forward. <<But fact is I don’t see any Syndicates. Not even a fucking drone.>>

 

<<You will.>>

 

<<If you say so.>> Puffing away, Derek mentally dove into the Stack-Interface-Gateway chip nested beside his NeuralLink. StackSpace, the digital network of modern life, shimmered into existence as a lattice of interconnected sparks covering MegaHabs, drones, and pedestrians alike.

 

Each light was a Stack, an address for a person or organization. Hardware was outdated in a month, so each address was triangulated from piles of their discarded machines. Because modern devices never forgot, nor ceased to function, even when left to fossilize under the weight of a dozen of new purchases.

 

While Derek’s lightshow was two-dimensional, StackSpace existed in as many dimensions as you could imagine. Most people didn’t bother navigating it themselves; not when Silvera would do it for you. But when you wanted to explore, or stay anonymous, you did the looking yourself. After some practice, StackSpace wasn’t that different from reality; it was all a matter of perspective.

 

Accessing Dexter Takemura’s unencrypted Stack, Derek found the usual indulgences of social media, malware, and more intimate material. Closer to the surface he found unopened material from the polling station. Pursing his lips, he opened it to find a young woman holding her hand out to him: Citizens for Reform Today: You can’t see Hell from Heaven..

 

<<Hey Cas, why do you think Silvertongue hired us to find a CRT volunteer?>> Derek rotated the digital flyer, eyes roaming. <<Isn’t he Rebecca’s fixer?>>

 

<<Appearances.>> Castella stopped, scowling as a raindrop smeared her visor. << Rebecca’s got a whole city to do her dirty work, but we sold out.>>

 

<<Figured.>> Derek’s mood leaked into Castella’s NeuralLink, a melancholy that sucked her shoulders into her stomach. A vision crept over; Rebecca Bellen-Hanza standing before a burning city while he held a knife to her woman’s throat.

 

Castella chuckled in the back of her throat. <<Good taste.>>

 

<<None of your damn business.>> Dropping out from the NeuralLink, Derek latched on another passing tram. Its sides flickered in search of a bidder, then settled back on CRT’s young mascot and her outstretched hand.

 

You Can’t See Hell from Heaven - VOTE CITIZENS FOR REFORM TODAY

 

“Pfft.” Castella snorted, but Derek sensed the slogan bouncing around her NeuralLink.

 

<<No way.>> He cracked a smirk. <<That bothers the Samurai?>>

 

<<You ever try to change the world?>> She started walking. <<Don’t bother.>>

 

<<You ever try thinking with anything beside a sword? I mean, I’d take CRT over wannabe Samurai any day, just look at that shit.>> Derek glowered at the gutter-wall on his right where a graffiti skull with bullet-studded mandibles gnawed a bleeding title: LAW & MURDER.

 

<<You mean Law.>> Castella’s eyes flew to the design, narrowing into predatory slits. Old memories rekindled, igniting the horned mask tattooed on her shoulder like it was so much oil. If she felt any pain, it wasn’t in her grin. <<Yeah, Silver Star sure knows how to make Samurai.>>

 

<<And sure know how to kill them.>> Sighing, Derek held his key up to the light then dropped it back into place with a grunt. <<Sword arm never gets tired, does it?>>

 

<<I’m right-handed.>>

 

<<Should practice with your left then, bet you could cut a truck.>> His remark made Castella’s three metal limbs throb like bruised flesh.

 

Her rigger always said, “steel doesn’t feel,” but eight years on and her augments hadn’t got the message. The only thing they didn’t feel was fatigue from slogging through a gutter so hot it cooked trash into opaque sweat-mist.

 

The rain thickened as if to prove a point. Turning her chin up, Castella looked to the tangled sky, where High Street’s shattered light winked in watery jewels. Her scowl deepened. Five days ago, she’d been anxious to leave that delirious neon haze.

 

“Now, look where I am,” she muttered to the crooked rivers sliding down her visor.

 

Recycled one too many times, the rain smelled stale despite falling from Heaven. Isolated above High Street, the realm of magnates and statesmen was a distant paradise. Yet Silver Star’s waste-heat pooled in those higher climes, requiring vast climate controllers to breath Spring winds. Every eight hours, these machines vented their heat-stained waters in a process called Equalization. There were more efficient systems, but Angels liked a storm now and then.

 

Riding the storm, a hologram trundled alongside the covered sidewalks like a lovestruck puppy. Wreathed in blue lightning, a katana glittered in the middle of a million brass-scales, a simple title running it’s fuller. Bushido Radio: Law’s Favorite Station. With a wonderful trick of micro-projectors, the sword turned and cut down, revealing to Castella a man whose gaunt cheeks gleamed beath white glasses. He shuffled a careworn deck trimmed in silver, then drew a card.

 

“Justice.” In a voice like static, he held the card to the camera. The weeping skull on its face holding golden scales in its teeth. He let go, but the burnished rectangle hung mid-air as if entranced by his voice. “Tonight, let it be the people’s Justice.”

 

 

“See? This is what you get with Samurai everywhere, crazies.” Shaking his head at the broadcast, Derek reached through his NeuralLink to a star floating in the MegaHab to his left.

 

<<What do you think, Ein? Place is nuts, right?>>

 

<<I liked it a lot more before today.>> Although he’d been with Artemis four months, Ein’s voice still missed the veteran’s edge of the other two. <<Think I found Tam.>>

 

<<Show me.>> Dipping into Ein’s mind, Derek peered through the man’s rifle at a stretch of walkway some twenty meters ahead of him. Nine oblong shapes lay atop the usual debris, splayed limbs and glinting augments tying Derek’s stomach into a knot.

 

<<It gets worse.>> Ein’s tone was tight as he moved his aim across the gutter.

 

Tio’s Bar and Grill sat between two MegaHabs, doing a tidy business feeding on the busy sidewalks. Its lower patio opened onto Gutter 15’s walkway, offering a fine view when the rain flooded the gutter. But right now, a party of six had reserved the place.

 

Four wore urban combat-exoskeletons covered in overlapping plates of non-newtonian armor designed to resist Syndicate-grade weapons. The fifth wore a crisp uniform laced with Kevlar, while the sixth sported what might have been a rubbery drysuit if not for the cowl and cables covering his face. All three types had the same name sitting on their shoulder.

 

DREAD.

 

Daemon Regulation, Enforcement, and Detainment had a thuggish reputation Silver Star was quick to forgive. They were responsible for keeping foreign Daemons out and would shake you down, hijack your Stack, or smash your door in a heartbeat. Whatever it took to protect the station’s continued independence. They even had a positive approval rating.

 

Derek’s brows pinched. <<They weren’t in Silvertongue’s briefing.>>

 

<<They’re not the only ones.>> Ein flipped his magnification up a notch, focusing his suits on the uniformed Dread. People lay at his feet, vacant-eyed and propped against the street-side wall where no pedestrians would see them. The uniformed Dread stood over one a man in a Hayabusa suit, to whom he was connected by a wire from his wrist to the man’s neck. A

 

<<Man…>> Derek inhaled slowly. <<Glad we got Preferred Partner status.>>

 

<<Relax.>> Castella shared her slow pulse over the NeuralLink. savoring the fraught moment. Derek felt her three dead limbs like they were his own, as if they were more than dull phantoms. Her right hand brushed her synthetic arm as she flashed a carnivorous smile. <<Aren’t we all on the same side?>>

 

<<We’re not looking for trouble.>> Waving her down, Derek reached into StackSpace and touched Silvera’s interface. “Silvera, ID the Hayabusa Synder, abd why is Dreads searching him?”

 

Message From: Silvera

Individual is Hayabusa Employee 9817 in my database

Attached video footage is pertinent to your second question.

 

--- Employee 9817 Footage ---

 

Hayabusa Employee 9817 departed his executive shuttle with a bodyguard and the dangerous swagger of implanted muscle-memory. Usually bored to tears by such ostentation, Silver Star’s obstinate crowd nonetheless shuffled out of his way. Invisible to the naked eye, a golden halo swaddled 9817’s Stack.

 

Most people didn’t bother with encryption; preferring to blend in with the crowd. Rare was the individual who installed a Blackwall, Stack-software that appeared as an obsidian lattice and roasted unwanted guests with their own overclocked hardware. The crowd knew Blackwalls, but a Goldwall was something new.

 

Not that it stopped 9817 from ending senseless at Dread’s feet. 

 


 

<<We are not getting involved.>> Hissing, Derek pointed at the golden shimmer still flickering around 9817. <<If they took him out, they can take us out, Preferred Partners or not.>>

 

<<Yeah?>> Castella crept toward the mounds on their side of the walkway. <<And what if they offed Tam? If they didn’t, we walk. If they did, Ein drops smoke and I take care of them.>>

 

<<Cas is right.>> Derek winced at Ein’s hopeful tone. <<We should make sure they don’t hurt anyone else.>>

 

“Let’s hope it’s that easy.” Muttering, Derek eyed the sidewalks bustling overhead. From their vantage, they might have convinced themselves the shapes were just more trash. But, looking back down, he knew there was no mistaking the arms and legs.

 

<<Shit…>> Ein balked at the sight. <<How come no one noticed?>>

 

<<It’s a DCA.>> Castella’s teeth snapped the words like a beartrap. <<But there’s always a voyeur.>> She stepped over a young woman whose cybernetic eyes were still set to record.

 

<<Wait, you’re saying Dreads–- >> Ein trailed off.

 

Leaving the question to fester, Castella crossed the casualties until she came across a young man. Soft hair curled on his head, slicked with bloody testaments to his fall. The wounds were too shallow enough to be lethal, but the kid’s empty eyes were fixed on paradise.

 

And the face belonged to Tam Kassan.

 

 

“Ah shit, that’s him,” Derek scrunched his nose, then cautiously eyed the Dreads. “I don’t get it, Silvera should’ve seen him. Why’d we have to come down here?” 

 

<<He’s alive.>> Flipping Tam over, Castella reached for his Stack-Interface-Chip, only to have Derek grab her wrist.

 

 

“Disconnect,” he hissed, tapping his neck.

 

Message From: DREAD

This area is restricted, leave immediately.

 

The Dread-officer turned his attention away from 9817 to look at Artemis. Fighting to keep his emotions in check, Derek thought back.

 

Message To: DREAD (Reply)

We’re Artemis, Priority Partners, here for Tam Kassan

 

Message From: DREAD

Negative. You have 5 seconds to leave.

 

<<They can’t order us to leave. >> Ein shook his head. <<We got orders straight from Rebecca, we’re here to help!>>

 

“Now I know why she hired us.” Ambling backward to the Gutter-lip, Castella flashed a slasher-smile so full it tugged at the other’s NeuralLink’s. “We got a job to do.”

 

“Castella…” Derek extended a hand, but she had already vaulted the eighty-foot gap.

 

--- Tio’s Bar and Grill ---

 

Castella’s right arm trembled in ecstasy as she soared, flesh and blood feeling powerful in a way steel never did. Right hand drawing her sword, her left a pistol, she counted the seconds.

 

A quarter-second for Ein to take his shot, covering the plaza in banks of black smoke. A half second for the Dreads to aim. She tucked her knees to blunt any lucky shots as smoke-screen settled; its heat scrambling infrared, and sharp particles blinding open eyes. 

 

Landing on the edge of a table, Castella skated down the incline toward the first Dread. Her Katana slid between two armored scales, its adaptive point letting the blade sink up to the crossguard. Swinging her other arm a hundred-thirty degrees back, she fired her pistol at a second Dread. He jumped away from the ceramic rounds, which ripped through polymer chairs, sowing the ground with plastic and clay. The two Dreads behind her backed away, waiting for their Inferred-Motion-Fields to estimate Castella’s position via displacement and currents.

 

Dislodging her blade through One’s ribs, Castella felt something more than just bone resist her, buying enough time for the two retreating Dreads to slip out of reach. As her escaped blade splashed crimson on the flagstones, Castella pulled her knee up then back-kicked the table. Smashing aside a dozen chairs, the makeshift projectile scattered the pair. Castella took the opportunity to jump away from Dread One. Or tried to, her legs weren’t listening.

 

Ribs glistening beneath crimson ribbons, One lunged for Castella’s neck. Tucking her chin, Castella drove the crown of her head forward. Kinetic dampeners absorbed the impact, but blood washed her visor as One’s nose shattered. As One staggered back, Castella lashed out, taking his left arm at the elbow. Gurgling in delight, One pressed in as if nothing happened.

 

<<They got Ghosts!>> Ein hollered.

 

Ghosts were the natural result of people stuffing themselves with hardware; eventually, you had enough to puppet a dead body. Syndicates made good use of the notion, augmenting their soldiers while keeping an operator on standby in case their boy croaked. Best part was, Ghosts only stopped when they were bloody smears on the pavement.

 

Castella shoved her pistol toward One’s head, but her finger didn’t budge and her arm kept turning. StackSpace glistened in Castella’s eyes as she saw the golden software-strings flowing across her arm like loose thread. Then they cinched tight, pointing Castella’s own pistol against her.

 

--- Ein ---

 

Ein watched the smoke, so tensed his rifle-scope trembled. Moments after Castella’s landing, he had felt her arm shiver as it cut, only to be followed by the heavy, alien, sensation currently numbing his left arm.

 

<<Cas, you alright?>> He squinted, but silence reigned in the NeuralLink, along with a tight-knit rage that squeezed his heart. Exhaling to steady himself, Ein focused on the Uniformed Dread standing outside the cloud. It was a clean shot, so still that Ein saw every vein ticking on Officer’s forehead. He stared a second more, hypnotized, then gently curled his finger to smoothly apply pressure. The trigger slid back halfway before his finger caught. Inhaling shakily, Ein glanced at Castella’s smoke-clad NeuralLink, closed his eyes, and pulled hard. 

 

Uniform folded at the hip, armored-scales rippling. Shedding its ceramic jacket, Ein’s bullet burst out Officer’s back, plastering the wall with blood. Listing against the wall, Uniform gestured to his cowled companion, who then mechanically marched into the smoke. Ein didn’t notice, he was overwhelmed by the invigorating rush as that iron weight evaporated off his left arm.

 

He saw Castella through a lull in the smoke; two Dreads at her back, another on her left, and a fourth in front. Before he even thought to help, Castella burped her machine-pistol, tearing off left-Dread’s head like a clump of wet grass. Wincing, Ein forced himself to find a target as Castella dropped.

 

--- Derek ---

 

When the first shots rolled in, Derek dropped to the walkway beside Tam. Ga ribbed rod the size of a baton off his back, he set it down in front of him, then thumbed a switch. A magnetic thrum filled the air, ready to twist bullets aside.

 

Taking his rifle in both hands, Derek frowned. His visor was empty; missing its usual notifications, temperatures, and cross-hair. “Fuckin’ Goldwall,” he grumbled, settling his cheek on the stock to look down the iron-sights.

 

Castella exploded from the murk in a backward roll, Dread One’s ragged Ghost chasing fast enough to snap bones. Spotting the corpse’s gashed ribs, Derek took the shot. Breezing through One’s torso, his bullet wrenched off One’s remaining arm at the shoulder. The Ghost kept charging, teeth bared for Castella’s throat.

 

“Fuck Ghosts,” chambering an explosive round, Derek sighted in as One bent toward Castella for a lethal kiss. When he clicked the trigger, One’s skull blew open, metallic ribbons twisting through the air like cut strings as the Ghost dropped hard.

 

--- Castella ---

 

In the middle of her roll, the explosion brushed Castella’s neck. Exiting the tumble in a jump, she sailed ten feet back, knocking aside tables and chairs before skidding to a stop between the two Dreads left standing. Grabbing a chair, she hurled it to her left then threw her cybernetic-arm over her face. Charging right, she activated circuits in her forearm, generating magnetic fields that deflected Dread’s incoming fire by a fraction. Instead of killing her instantly, the murderous hail tore chunks from her Jacket, broke two ribs, and seeded bruises. If not for her augmented legs, she might not have made it at all.

 

Twelve feet away, a bullet cracked the crown of her helmet. Blinking away stars, Castella jumped forward, eating two more shots to the stomach before she hurtled past the Dread. He landed hard, half his head missing.

 

Landing in a crouch, Castella ducked behind an overturned table. Bullets raced in, kicking up plumes of plastic as the fourth switched to full-auto. Isolated by the smoke, Dread Four inched over to Uniform, unaware this put him on a collision course with Cowl. Yet he must have noticed, even in the gloom, for he unconsciously backed away.

 

“Gotcha,” Derek pulled the trigger.

 

--- 9817 ---

 

Employee 9817 opened his eyes to a world of pain; light, smoke, and gunfire driving nails into his soft skull. There was something else to, like a thought on the tip of his tongue. Fumbling about his neck, he found a wire plugged his exposed implants. Following it back to Uniform, 9817 found the man breathing heavily as he watched something in the smoke. They made eye contact.

 

A knife sprouted from Uniforms’s hand, then disappeared below 9817’s chin. Not so much as looking at his spasming victim, Uniform watched the curling smoke. He didn’t see the man’s golden aura explode, surging thought all of StackSpace like dawn; burning out every Stack it touched. But Uniform noticed the MegaHabs turn dark, but it was already upon him.

 

--- Tio’s Bar and Grill ---

 

Seeing the Golden burst, Castella instinctively flung her arms up. Two milliseconds of contact hit her systems like a tsunami, making her cybernetic swim with static before it passed like some limitless storm. An arms-length from her, the Cowled Dread stiffened; neuro-hardware accelerating to a shrill whine as safety-protocols and bio-inputs were overruled. He fell howling, beating the floor in dying convulsions.

 

Castella filed it away for later, someone was crossing the gore-strewn plaza with open arms.

 

“Castella,” his voice was cool as marble, flush with the conviction it had eight year ago. His face was unmarred by age or blade, almost enough to convince her as he whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

 

 

“I killed you,” her finger flashed like a knife, curled lips revealing clenched teeth. “Put a sword through your head.”

 

Undeterred, the man drew closer. Flicking her blade up, Castella touched the tip to his chin. Abruptly as he had appeared, the man dissolved, along with all the air in her lungs. She gasped for air, sending fire rippling down her battered sides.

 

<<Cas?>> Ein came over the NeuralLink muffled. <<You went quiet, everyone’s... oh wow.>> He trailed off in an awed wonder that compelled Castella to look up.

 

District 15’s neon Fall had turned to Winter, where seething blizzards covered every surface. Castella admired this new world a moment, forgetting about her fresh wounds and the crowds gawking at her from the MegaHab balconies. Then she snapped back.

 

<<I’m fine Ein. Make sure no one tries anything funny.>> Snorting, she stomped over to the two different Dreads. Cowl twitched as silicone melted down his spine, while Uniform drooled with a vacant expression. 

 

 

“So was it you or Dreads who did this?” She scowled at the corpses lining the wall. They came from all walks of life, but every last one was still and vacant-eyed . Shoving the information into Artemis StackSpace, her thoughts turned toward a NeuralLink outside Artemis.

 

<<Done already? How is Tam?>> Silvertongue picked up, mind sanitized and empty compared to Artemis’ open minds.

 

<<Looks like he Whitewalled.>> Castella’s tone was flat as the side of a blade. <<Think Dreads was behind it, told us to leave, got violent, even had Ghosts. Then we got hit by some kind of Stack explosion.>>

 

<<I see an investigation is in order.>> Silvertongue’s blithe remark punctured Castella’s boredom. <<Emergency services have been sent to your location. We’ll be in touch.>> Then the voice was gone, leaving the strange void where minds had touched.

 

“Fuck, was hoping we were done with Synders.” Sighing, Castella jumped back to Derek. Ignoring her cheering audience, she found Derek lying on the ground with his NeuralLink a haze. She fixed that by punching his shoulder. 

 

 

“Wha—” Starting violently, he gawking at the digital blizzard. “The hell is that?”

 

 

“Attention District Fifteen! Tam Kassan has been found, thank you all for your assistance.” Silvera’s unbridled enthusiasm replaced the unexpected Winter. “I apologize for any inconvenience, but you may experience Stack reboots in your area. Be prepared for closure of some transit in your area.” Behind her avatar, a map of District Fifteen’s public lines shrunk from hundreds to dozens.

 

<<This has to be that Goldwall, never seen anything like it.>> Castella looked over the crushed StackSpace around them. <<But Silvertongue should have known if this was just Dreads stopping Hayabusa.>>

 

“That’s bureaucracy for you, bet that’s why Rebecca wanted you.” Tapping his key, Derek reached for another Haze stick. “You know how she is.”

 

Castella snorted. “If she wanted me to rip up some bureaucracy she should’ve just said so.”

 

“Yeah.” Sucking down moutthful of Haze, Derek eyes swung back to Bushido Radio’s belligerent cloud. “But maybe she did.”

 

 

“Death.” Live on Bushido Radio, Heiro drew another card. The skull on this one gasped, looking skyward as it crumbled into dust. He placed it carefully beside the scales, his glasses snowy moons. “Tam Kassan met his Daemon in District Fifteen. But there shall be Justice” Hiero carefully placed Dead beside Justice. In the pallid light, his smirk looked like a scar. 

 

“Law is coming.”