Episode IV: The Soul Inside the Machine
The door winced behind Keyinde, cringing as it shut. Night again. Keyinde smiled to the night, closed his eyes, and saw the real sky, beyond the screens, in his mind’s eye. Smoke curled upwards, the embers on the cig a careful orange in the silent black of New Munich.
Cyrus’ flower bloomed over the railing, over the balcony; the one he’d never shown. Tapping his own pocket, Keyinde blew out molten wisps. He looked down, caught his hand retiring into that pocket, then laughed. Out appeared a grey square, vacuum-wrapped square, with neon pink and green lightning details: like an old condom wrapper.
He retired to the railing and knelt on a bench at its edge, glimpsing the belly of The Line. He thrust his arm over the rail, moonlight winking on the head slip emerging from its packet.
He turned the head slip—storing a safe—in his hands. On the back was a sticky-note, as small as his thumb. A tear rolled down his cheek, under his chin, down, dripping onto his singed, slightly-bloodied jumper. There was one word, in a careless hand. “Mischief.” With a winky-face.
Keyinde smiled. Shuddered.
—Mischief, Ibeji ot mine. ‘To stop’ dose words dey no reach us—
He kissed the head slip, squeezed it in a fist, clenching tightly. Then he sighed.
—Bring Mischief o, Better Ọṣun. For me—
A hiss sounded from behind, the door cringing open. Keyinde shoved Mischief away, His hand prickled, hairs standing on end along both arm and neck. Eyes wide, he glanced to the figure seeping from behind the door, black with eyes of white … with a glass of water in its hand.
—Fancy drinking yet?—
Keyinde exhaled, colour returning to his face, the hand at his chest slumping back to the rail. He turned from Cyrus, towards to the night.
—You wanna talk, man?—
Keyinde placed a hand to his pocket, where Mischief laid, and shook his head. Cyrus cocked his head to one side, twisted, so the Leech took over more of his face. A metal skull, his cheek bone protruding above pipes and cables. Keyinde could only guess at how he ate. But the Leech clinked, very slowly, a disc around the blue socket revolving, then twisting back again. They stood a while in silence. Cyrus sat on the bench, too.
—Make am your friend well? Anselm?—
—This isn’t about Anselm. You are …
Cyrus cleared his throat, smiling, but his eye wide, glazed over. Keyinde couldn’t see the Leech.
—I’m supposed to tell you not to walk yet—
Keyinde frowned, not breaking from the night. Cyrus laughed.
—You could say that—
The pair both laughed. Keyinde sipped his drink.
—Make you well-well now? So dat you dey show me flower?—
—We’re gonna move on, tomorrow or so. Anselm’s ghost contact wants to check my vitals, then work out how many days I’ve got left. Then, Anselm has a friend who’s got the perfect machine, a metal monster he forged for a client a couple months back, who’s offered their cube, and the one directly above. But Keyinde. We … together, we’re nearly … —
— … dey for de end of De Line? Na only funny wid your language, Mumu. No sense wid mine—
Only Keyinde laughed. Cyrus frowned, mockingly. Keyinde gazed back. Then they both smiled.
—I … My Ibeji … er … ‘twin’—
Keyinde cleared his throat.
—Before-before, I get one better brother. Im name na … na no matter—
Keyinde cringed, looking back at the sky. Breathing deeply into the smokes of the cig. He tapped a finger against Mischief. Cyrus glanced at the pocket. Glanced away. Touched a hand, his false hand, to Keyinde’s shoulder.
—Just now, you fit here watin I sey past de wall?—
—I’ve been meaning to test the limits of the Leech, soon. Something or ‘other might come useful … No. You told me that Taiwo used to say, “You dey chew dem niccos e don do o.” I guessed—
—You take remember dat?—
—I’ve got … I’ve still got a contract to fulfil—
The pair sat in silence, on the plastic bench against the rail, half-asleep. Anselm hollered from behind the door, a chaotic muffle. Bleeps from the doorpad, and it winced aside. Cyrus glanced up. Keyinde was still beside him, quiet, basking in the heater. Cyrus had shimmied a little further away, mopping his forehead. Anselm clapped his hands.
—Bedtime, boyz. Time to zleep … Aw, look at zhe pair of you! Zhat cig better be vorth zhe fine—
The doctor knocked early. Cyrus beamed by the doorway but drooped at seeing the man. A scrawny little man, the doctor didn’t exude any sort of authority—four feet at best, three and a half to a tape measure. His step ladder climbed the chair’s arm rest: on the other arm were the three ring-like depressions marked the chair, small screw holes filled with filler—it still stank. But only on one side, like De Machine, and Cyrus’ machine before.
—What am I looking at, Doc? You’ve got tests for me or something?—
Doc harumphed, blowing out his moustache.
Keyinde squatted beside the false hearth, tea in hand. To his left, Anselm lounged, his eyes unblinking at Doc. A bead of sweat rolled along his temple.
—You are not who I vas expecting—
Doc glanced at Anselm, grunted, then looked back to Cyrus, and his DIY toolkit, like the kind you in cupboard installation stores—a delicate display of tools for cybernetic surgery. Doc stopped, looked at Cyrus, spoke, then looked away.
—Zhat is it? Scheiße. I feel like I am repeating myself zhese last pair of days—
Doc hmmed, a drill now whirring away against the faraday thumb: Cyrus’ right. Keyinde’s eyes roved the room, each marked with dark rings, rheum from his sleep, and heavy eyelids. Some neuro-viral paste dripped into Cyrus’ metal synapses, the blocking agent splattering in his wrist into its port.
He didn’t notice when his thumb hit the floor. Keyinde gasped and Anselm went pale. Cyrus shouted out, jerking from the chair, remaining with the leather straps nailed into the seat.
Doc slapped his face, Leech-side. He sneered, jumping to the floor and hefting the thumb.
—But … That’s my … Okay, so … so, Doc. How long? How long have I got, Doc?—
The doctor gazed at the thumb, like a great metal fruit in his hands, almost the length of his forearm. Tinkering at the edge panels with a screw driver, he huffed. He put the thumb down, purchased from his stash a pair of tongs, then hefted the thumb up again, further than arm’s reach.
Then he threw a scrap nail, bent in its middle. He pointed the fake thumb, whilst Cyrus gazed at the doctor, so far below. Keyinde stared at his four-fingered hand, his face still pale. Anselm watched Cyrus’ eyes—Cyrus refused to meet his gaze but felt that German glare against his face’s organic side, nonetheless.
At the nail, the thumb snapped backward, back to where the wrist should be, and a micro-saw leapt outward, slicing the screw in half. Doc nodded, then looked to Cyrus.
—Nifty. (Turning from the thumb to Cyrus’ face) Leech—
Cyrus shrank into his chair, turning his head, hiding the Leech, the blue/red pulse of the false eye pressing against the chair’s back. Keyinde looked at the thumb, mute, jaw: static. Anselm sat forward (his arse perched on the chair’s back, his legs where one should sit), his fingers steepled under his chin.
—Doc, do you not zhink zhis is enough? Cyrus is all worn out, he didn’t zleep too vell … —
Doc glanced over to Anselm, an eyebrow raised, lowering, then turned to Cyrus. Cyrus’ breathing grew shallow, rapid, in, out, in. The organic left hand twitched, sweaty. His four-fingered right hand twitched, small cables and pipes hanging limp from a stump, marked by rings of burns and scars, like the inside of a tree. It trembled as though the rest of the thumb was still there.
—Look, Doc, I just … O, I feel nauseous … Doc I want my vitals checked … —
Doc tapped his screwdriver-drill to his own cheek, drawing a circle around his eye.
—Ethané sent you, huh—
Doc nodded. Resolution overcame Cyrus. He looked at his hand, a dull ache manifesting in his stomach. He felt The Rip rising in his mind. Not yet.
—Do your worst, Doc—
Anselm gasped now sitting back again, his hands clamped onto his knees. Keyinde picked up the thumb, aiming it towards the hearth, making shooting noises and laughing, but the glaze of unshed tears welled in his wide, sightless eyes. Then he prodded with the thumb’s insides, the metal guts.
—Where dey com Edané take dese cyber-techs, Cyrus? Na … complex—
—Not your business. Nosy bugger—
Cyrus snapped back, refusing to make eye contact. Keyinde fell backward onto his hands, from sitting cross-legged.
—Oi, oi. Vhat’s all zhe mouth for, Cyrus?—
Cyrus’ head snapped to Anselm, his Leech groaning, his eye a blistering red. Then he looked back to Doc.
—Keyinde, I’m … Dammit, Doc, do your worst but make it quick—
Doc smiled. Anselm leant over to Keyinde, whispering.
—I cannot ztand him like zhis. I am sticking around, because he will not die on my watch. Keyinde, vatch over him for me. I need meds—
The Leech whirred, un-amplifying the volume again from across the room.
Cyrus blinked, drowsy, some head slip anaesthetic in his hands.
>>> ENGAGE <Vision_De-Blur>
—But Doc … —
Cyrus gulped, touching a hand to his chest, swallowing hard. His breaths quickened. The Leech whirred, a higher pitch than Cyrus had heard before.
>>> DISENGAGE <Vision_De-Blur>
>>> ENGAGE <Thermoregulatory_Troubleshooting>
His breaths jerked back to normal, his diaphragm at a gentle rhythm.
Keyinde laid asleep on the hearth.
Doc still stood on his stepladder, arms towards Cyrus. In his hand was a head slip.
—No thanks, Doc—
The grey square—undetailed—was sealed all over.
—Your safe you requested—
Cyrus’ false eye flared red. Doc hopped down a step, grabbing the top for support.
>>> ENGAGE <Coolant>
Then Doc nodded, skipping off his stool, tapping the doorpad, and swiftly disappearing.
—Seven days. That’s all? But I feel … fine—
>>> PRINT (7 DAYS LEFT)
Early morning, birds chirped, an electric screech announcing the 6:40 A.M glitch. He moaned, tossing in the seat, an ache flaring in his neck.
Cyrus was violently shaken. He was vomited awake, his eye blazing fiery red. It clinked zooming onto the subject, altering the focal distance.
>>> ZOOM; 10x >>> ENGAGE <Vision_De-Blur>
His faraday thumb pointed to the looming shadow, the micro-saw ready. His organic hand was claw-like, bent, ready to throttle, garotte, any Emeralds.
—Oi, Genoss. Cyrus. Everyone knows the six-forty glitch. Wach auf. Das riesigste Arschloch des lands!—
Cyrus grunted, falling back asleep.
—Wake up wake up wake up wake up wake up—
>>> DISENGAGE <Audio>
His false eye was always open: Keyinde mouthed at Cyrus.
—You better no make your ear e don do. I swear, you dey have big nerve. Free me, watin I do sey? You no do watin Anselm tell am. You no do watin Denzo tell am. You no do … watin I tell am—
Cyrus swallowed, shifting.
>>> ENGAGE <Audio>
—Gods no go shame me, but I suppose more Earl Grey dey do me good—
Keyinde trampled away. Then he returned, pointing at Cyrus with a brittle, fleshy finger.
—We dey comot in twenty—
The skip swayed, jolting. Always jolting. Fine. In this age, during the eighth global extinction, to whoever it was counting, and skips still jolted when they got too hot. Cyrus woke to an Arabic welcome into Salman’s Seat, the five kilometres dedicated to the king. The Emeralds here stood taller than the others.
Anselm glimpsed Cyrus: he sniffed, looking away. Anselm was to his right. No. Another blonde mop. Anselm again? No. His Leech worked, scanning the vitals. The chromosomes indicated … Denzo. Anselm’s son.
>>> RUN (ID background check request)
> Firewall leap
> Terminal located, Iowa, Council Bluffs, NEOM inc.
> /ID check
> Address, Name, Height, Age, Growth Percentile, Dietary Habits,
> Last recorded surveillance footage: 08:19 pm
—It’s 08:19 now?—
Cyrus whispered, shifting, from his sleep position. Denzo munched on something, Vitabang no doubt. A news tablet sprouted from a projector at his wrist.
> PRINT (08:19:76302)
—Someone’s working overtime—
Cyrus remembered—hazily—his growing nausea from the skip jolting, The Rip threatening to burst from his face.
His Leech whirred. Cyrus sat upright. To his left, Anselm grunted again, shimmying from Cyrus.
—What’s your problem?—
Denzo, to the right, his squeaking voice marking the late stages puberty. Pockmarks were pronounced across his skin; nineteen in a month. He looked to Cyrus’ legs. The stranger at his feet leant over him, shadowing over Cyrus like a terminal tower, lightly whimpering as they hung from a pair of yellow hand grips, white knuckled and sweaty.
Cyrus shrugged his shoulders, settling upright, keeping his legs out.
—How far to … where we’re going?—
—As far as ve need to. Your revenge zeems to know no valls—
>>> PRINT (6 DAYS LEFT)
Something about arriving late, and checking into some snazzy hotel, and maybe being blunt to the servicemen. No, the Emeralds. Too right. The nausea was building.
A few feet away, now, there was a man talking, his speech slurred. A blonde mop: Denzo. Keyinde was there, too, over a headset, Anselm was beside him, still to his left, parasitic, and another man on his right. Another man. Why so many men?
The cube was fairly generic, lived-in, generic in décor, in furniture, the aesthetic of the Line in the 2040s bleeding into the paintings, wampums, wallpapers. A shimmer from the spotlights had a bizarre effect on the wall, like a mirage. A coffee pot brewed to one side. The room was well polished.
The other man pointed to Cyrus.
Sound caught up to him, flooding His Leech, the swarm of light glaring. He stepped backward. Denzo, Anselm, this other man, they also stop gesticulating, talking; all started gawking at Cyrus.
—I … I need a … a minute—
Cyrus thrust his hands in his pockets, making for the door.
—No, Cotch. Yah got’s park those lovelies down here, double-fast. Like yar friendy say-say, ‘Or I’ll go land you slap.’ I got’s the likings for yar friendy, this ‘Keyinde’—
—What kind of accent is that?—
—Nosy parker hasn’t spun his head straight. Don’t speak Lina?—
The boy guffawed.
—Y’know , Cotch: ‘T-H-E L-I-N-E’—
The boy carefully enunciated each phoneme.
Anslem prodded Cyrus. His frown was deep, the sober dread in his frown.
—Have you not listened? Lucki vas born in Zhe Line. He zpeaks Zhe Line. He breathes Zhe Line … He is Zhe Line—
Anselm turned from Cyrus to ‘Lucki,’ sniffing, frowning.
—Lord Lucki, can you ztart over. My friendy’s head-rats’re coked out—
—Sure, Cotch. And keep up the ‘Lord Lucki.’ Us young’uns has way more patience than yahz—
Lord Lucki glared at Cyrus, his cantankerous air falling to the floor. A solid weariness and wrinkled distaste smudged across his upturned lip, his sneer. Cyrus returned the look, his eye beating, furnace. Lord Lucki laughed. Cyrus held his stomach, an ache festering in his gorge.
—Lina sure keeps a place for yah, Cotch. English? Imma call you ‘Crikey.’ Na, better. ‘Crick’—
Cyrus rolled his eyes.
—Now, Crick, I repeats meself. Park your lovelies (Lord Lucki pointed to his arse) on my Stool. A Stool? Lordy-lord, Crick. Sit. On. This. Here. Chair—
A giggle resounded over the headset. Anselm grunted, murmuring (he started, “Vhy do I,” before Anselm caught Cyrus’ ear plate whisking, honing), then gripping Cyrus by the shoulders. Anselm walked him to the ‘Stool,’ throwing him into the seat.
Denzo—with a clang—emerged from behind the Stool (hardly a stool—there was more chair to it than both De Machine and Anselm’s armchair), and Keyinde tutted, another voice in the background. Enhancing, Cyrus caught more Lina-talk.
—This here’s my Stool. Used to be what’s you says is a ‘throne,’ for kings and all this. This Stool has these ring-a-lings on both sides, note—
Cyrus looked to his right hand, encased in five metal rings, each with cords leading to a vambrace and glove, sensory stimulators running across its entire surface.
—This room here’s my stage. A big show, all this. Big wonder, all for many eyes. Look there, looky-look, all there, and there, and there—
The boy bounced around the room, his dirty, mousy hair scraggly and waving as he sprang, pointing to the cube’s corners, to the walls, to the ceiling. The walls all shimmered again, simultaneously. Cyrus blinked. Static again.
—Boy, I’ve got questions =—
—Lina has a place for sure. What’s cooking, Crick?—
Cyrus fiddled with the straps, removing his legs, his arms. Anselm muttered, no words in particular, then waved a hand and swatted Cyrus’ forehead, a light ringing with the metal beneath the skin graft.
—How are we going to trap … Cardinal … when it takes half an hour to get into the ‘Stool?’ He’s not coming willingly—
—And, I assume you’ve got a safe to stick him into. Is Keyinde … —
—Yar friendy’s upstairs, the safe-master’s ready for when we gets the head slip, with a gunman by his side. Some doctor gave you one? (Cyrus gasped). But your friendy! Wow. A true lock-picker to-be—
—Why else do they call them safes? They’s got’s other doors than just these chairs that yahz oldies fed head slips through—
—You can get into a safe without a head slip?—
—Sure, Crick. Yah say it, Keyinde!—
A voice grated in his ear. Cyrus decreased the volume, to a whisper.
—Hmph, fine. “We’ll show am. But it’s not just gon’ tickle. You sure dis what you wan, man?”—
Lord Lucki nodded to Denzo, who flicked a series of switched under the Stool, pushed a button in a rhythm like morse, and fluorescents flickered on, inside the quaint, open-plan, fairly generic cube’s interior. Cyrus groaned, gazing at his hand. Spotting Cyrus’ glance at his hand, Anselm fled to his side, pressing the back of his hand to his forehead, plugging a cable into one of his ports and reading off Cyrus’ temperature.
—Wait, so anyone can now just get into … You got any drugs for headaches and stomach pains?—
The boy whisked away, hollering as he fled out of the cube. Sun pierced the black cube, exposing the flecks and motes of swirling dust. Like a warehouse, with mega pipes and the like winding from the chair into the walls, and the Stool, the ceiling, into great generators and a vast array of screens. The cube was huge, eating the cube above. Keyinde was up on a mezzanine balcony, inside the two-storey cube, waving!
—Maybe some for hallucinations, too?—
—Simulacrum technology, Cyrus. Like making a safe, but in zhe real world, with projectors and other zhings—
His Leech swirled, the metal plates shaking, rattling, his vent heaving breaths like a newly-unblocked chimney. His vents hissed, his eye beaming like a red torch, a circle of colour illuminating onto the roof, far above.
Cyrus whispered, with his volume down.
—Stop it. Turn it off. Decrease! Please. I’m not crazy. I don’t want revenge. I … changed my mind. Screw the contract. There is no Ca … —
None heard. Anselm prodded his face, but already the jaws of nonspace, of dream, overtook his vision, his mind. Cyrus fell forwards.
>>> SENSORY-COGNISCANT REMOVAL: <Memory_Burn> (previous 15 seconds of footage)
Keyinde’s voice. He was up above, waving? Cyrus threw himself forwards.
Cyrus’ cube stank of nonspace. As if blurriness was a smell.
His rent was overdue, so the window gaped: barred open, a crooked iron crowbar buckling under the years, staring wide-eyed down the six floors to pedestrian level. Little spot of rust dotted its metal skin. Every detail of his cube, so well captured in the safe. The high-res textures, the hyper-real, super-collective polygons forming intricate shapes, minute dents in the crowbar, small kinks in the work top where he’d caught his watch. Even the rent bills slip beside the beer on the worktop. Beer. That’s what a business needed before a client meeting, alcoholic or not.
He walked over to the pint, brimming, golden, stealing a long draught. Inside the safe, yet it tasted so real.
Keyinde voice rang through his cube, mixed into the blurry man’s. Lord Lucki’s, with his blonde mop. Something about a high-tech illusion, a safe in the real world. Was that his cube at all? Not a safe, and not in real life, but something else. A dreamed-of place? An even more real life?
Cyrus turned, watching the false breakfast swirl in the careful daylight, within the safe. Lockpickers could get into your safe. Maybe someone brought careful animations with them, to adjust the safe to total perfection. The kitchen island topped in drab marble shimmered atop its white wooden pedestal, with three bar stools around.
In his pocket was a head slip, beside the perfect sei flower, the one he’d nurtured since he was ripped back in Maoriland, on his way back up The Line from Second Samoa. A perfect replica of The Line, like the model Ethané had kept behind. His perfect replica. Then it fell as ash from his hand, through the floor … gone.
On the island sprouted a bouquet of seis, in viridescent green-yellows, and one in the middle, its stem splitting in two, both flower heads cut off. The glass vase was dazzling in the low light.
Footsteps approached, out in the aether of nonspace. Cyrus blinked.
Lockpickers. Or maybe they were real, and Cyrus wasn’t. He only expected one client. One woman, with a gun and a single bullet for him.
The door burst from its slide. Lime bullet cartridges quaked on the ground, rolling, sizzling, hot. A bullet whistled. Whinged. Another bullet, scratching the worktop. The crowbar fell from the window.
>>> ENGAGE <Translator>
—On the ground—
—How did you get into my safe? My client singular isn’t due for another ten—
—Watin wid you dey happen?—
Keyinde raged, his head shaking, his Emerald uniform barely keeping in his convulsing form.
The gunshot whistling resounded: real. The window crashed, shut, then the vase shattered, water tumbling out. Glitching. Fluxing. Was it a bad animation, or was that how Cyrus remembered The Rip? Maybe he never was in a safe at all, and forgot to plug in the ‘My Cube’ head slip?
—I never bought water physics for my safes! And I’ve not jacked out yet!—
—On the ground—
The men said ‘on the ground’ but hauled him from the ground into a Stool. His Stool, with rings-a-lings spiralling up both arms.
One man knelt behind the chair, with a blonde mop, and a funny European accent. Another held Cyrus down, clamping his wrists. Another stood behind, laughing, poking his sei. The orange one. The perfect one. His pockets were empty. It crumbled with a light prod, the petals flittering through the floor.
Cyrus shouted, muted. His vent was plugged, sealed, His Leech threshing with teeth and claws and spikes and horns and fangs, growing a forked tailed and a point tongue, insidious, jet-black legs stomping around, red heat blazing from Cyrus’ head like a sun inside his skull, the skin grafts on his face melting into a puddle on the floor. Tears evaporated from his eyes. No. His face was being burnt, the overdrive of the Stool.
Then one Emerald croaked into his ear, as if through a headset, with a guttural, hoarse accent:
—You’ve committed a c-c-c-cardinal sin. Embrace death—
The invisible man with the horrible voice, Cardinal, with a bloated face and twisted nose, with blackened eyes and a blackened smile …
Cyrus was vomited forwards, pulling, ripping, one side of his face watching the Emeralds trash his cube, inside the safe, the other side watching Emeralds trash his cube, outside the safe. His skull disconnected into two, still in the seat, and not. Through a wall of nettles and nonspace, motes of binary and data points glowing, down, down through metal rings, very cold, down, down, into …
… the burning of real life, on a slab in Skull Country, at the start of The Line, a corpse in a wall of beer.
Weeping, Cyrus blinked awake.
—I. Must. Fulfil. That. Contract. Even if it kills Denzo, the master engineer, even if it kills Anselm, the ultimate head slip and hardware techy, even if it kills Lord Lucki and his goons, the hackers and software whizzes. Even if it kills Keyinde, the cold akara man with cruel teeth, a crooked jaw, and the head slip expert—
The steaming coffee pot morphed into a computer terminal, then back into coffee. Claw marks in the Stool’s arm rests. Chair guts spilled outwards, oozing white feathers and nail-blood. There was a clean saw-cut in the right armrest.
—Cyrus, im dey here! Im know where na! Comot for dere—
Keyinde, the demon in his ear.
—Cardinal! De same squad ot Emeralds, all four ot dem. Dey know wey you na—
Cyrus thought, brushing his chin. But they weren’t at Second Samoa yet. The sit of the first Rip.
—Or, maybe, they’re gonna finish the job they botched in Nigeria Quarter—
—You no mean dat—
—I bloody well do. They kill you, and I get time to escape my cube. I pray they’ll be swift—
He muted the headset input. Keyinde shouted. Distant. Everyone else was gone.