Episode V: Red Eye
>>> PRINT (5 DAYS LEFT)
—Stop it. Turn it off. Decrease! Please. I’m sorry. I’m not crazy. I don’t want revenge against safe death. I’m sorry. I … changed my mind. Screw the contract. It was a set up. I’m not crazy. I’m so sorry. There is no … —
Then blistering light heaved through the doorway into Lord Lucki’s lair. There, framed in that white rectangle, between the furnace anger of Cyrus’ Leech and the last tears from his real eye, was an Emerald silhouette. Keyinde shouted somewhere above; Cyrus sensed the Germans around the Stool and glimpsed a dead Lord Lucki outside, behind the silhouette. Upstairs exploded.
The sound settled, and something happened to the Germans. Then Cyrus said something, probably about escape, and Keyinde might have said something back. Everyone else disappeared.
—I have a contract to fulfil—
>>> PRINT (5 DAYS LEFT)
Cyrus breathed the seething smoke, then sat up from the Stool with a flood of calm precision.
The little doctor fell into the morgue, trembling. Ethané stood above her model of The Line, fingering a part of the coastline that connected The Line to the Red Sea—resin in an azure blue, the drowned LEDs pulsing a soft, bluish glow around the room.
The little doctor stumbled for the corpse-holes, then threw open a tray lined with cold beers. Ethané laughed as he took great swigs, the foam splashing against his moustache. He burped, then spoke:
—He wouldn’t take it—
—No, I guess he didn’t. I suppose he told you to burn it—
The little doctor nodded.
—Some tools never fix themselves. I’m leaving, doctor—
The little doctor harumphed, looking from the open tray of half-drank beers to Ethané, then back to the cemetery of alcohol.
—My gun won’t sell for much when it’s used. Nevermind. Somethings are worth more than just one bullet—
—You’re crazy, too—
The little doctor hissed, slamming the drink back into the tray, the glass rattling and ringing, the bottles all clanging against one another.
—Crazy? I’m not heading to the end of The Line with a gun, one bullet, and the last expert in safe death that exists. The very last one—
The little doctor gasped, then set his jaw, making for the door again.
—Yeah, he’s crazy. O, has he shown you his flower?—
The little doctor shook his head.
Denzo yanked against the cables at the back of the Stool, each lead with thirty cables inside, all coughing their yellow acid over Denzo’s hand. Still, he yanked, despite the Stool’s back melting over the leads. His hair flopped in front of his eyes, and half his energy was spent blowing the blonde away.
The cybernetic body flapped in the Stool, pa clamping its flailing arms and legs down. Its metal arm shook inside its vambrace, electric sparks wincing and jolting from underneath its skin—sinkholes of flesh exposed blistering red and orange pipes, cables, and red hairs: 3D-printed capillaries and nerve endings. Denzo huffed again, mopping his forehead.
The door winced aside, and a computer-generated voice chimed outward.
—Someone has entered the premises. Someone has entered the premises—
Denzo grabbed the leads by the throat, and shouted to Lucki in the doorway:
—Give uz a hand. Zhis body vill explode vhilst zhese cables are ztill in … —
Denzo looked through the open door, both hands tight around one half-unjacked lead. The Emeralds looked back, mouths agape.
The Spine was cramped, centipede crawlers clacking along the roads, blurring, the sheer amount of movement intoxicating in comparison to the idle ribs of cube towers that reached upward in the pedestrian level. Illuminated signs blinded Ethané through the windows of the scuttle-bug cabin, with great phrases like ‘STAY IN YOUR LANE’ in bubblegum-pop pink, and ‘LEAVING THE NEW WORLD REPUBLIC OF THE SAHEL,’ shining in an acid-fluorescent green. Ethané lounged backward, trying to picture what Cyrus had looked like when she’d found him, post-rip, with all his cybernetics. A body, on the verge of death, with a metal Leech on his face.
Keyinde’s message still glowed from the panel built into the chair in front of Ethané. Send back ‘Another Line’ head slip, Cyrus is gone, Cardinal is here.
—My money … —
The doctor perked up now, talking.
— … is on that Cyrus fellow going mad before he kills the last expert in safe death. I think he will forget the role he plays, and won’t lure Keyinde to Second Samoa at all—
—Don’t fret, little doctor. I built Cyrus’ mainframe. There’s no capacity for madness—
The little doctor raised an eyebrow. Ethané tapped her nose.
The mezzanine stood so high from the Lucki’s Stool. Cyrus’ body wrangled with the straps, his eye a more intense red with every passing minute, his head shaking, spittle flying from his vent.
—Ethané is receive you’s message, Cotch—
Keyinde looked from Lucki’s goon to over the rail, at Cyrus’ flailing body. Keyinde cringed.
Cyrus had spoken to him softly over the comms before he started writhing. Something like an apology. Then, being so high over Cyrus, Keyinde thought back to the productions his family held in Nigeria Quarter. How, when Ọṣun was just big enough to reach the rungs, Keyinde and her had squatted over the platforms, above the stage, and watched all the productions that were put on: best seats in the cube. So high, and Cyrus looked so small. But that was not the man who had offered Keyinde a drink when “Mischief” was all he could summon the strength to say.
Keyinde’s left ear drum exploded under a sudden shockwave, and he was blown from his chair, to the right.
A body fell on top of him—Lucki’s goon. Ringing overtook his left ear. He pushed against the limp mass, hauling with all he could. Vague shouts blended with the ringing. Ọya was there, her face appearing above the goon’s body, peering with unblinking, white eyes, streaked with tears. And a hideous machine, a gun, was clocked at Keyinde’s head—an Emerald face behind.
The door fell back from where it had lodged itself, depressed into the concrete wall, down onto the Emerald silhouette. The Emerald spun, making to shoot the door away, but hitting his fellow instead. Both died in silence. Keyinde thought to himself:
—Cyrus dey be still in de safe!—
Blinking, Keyinde pushed through the bodies, wiggling, rolling to the rail, to where the mezzanine ended. The rail itself was blown off and part of an I-beam was exposed. To his left, Keyinde clawed for the headset’s microphone. On the floor, pressed down by the hands of heat, Keyinde felt himself shout, his throat sore with the heat.
—Cyrus, im dey here! Im know where na! Comot—
Below, smoke rose. Among the mist an electric screech roared, a cybernetic roar. A black silhouette moved in the mist, standing bolt upright, looking away from Lord Lucki’s wrecked Stool, its red beam completely still. A crumpled body laid at the figure’s feet. An Emerald lurched forward in Lucki’s Stool.
Keyinde waved a warning to anyone who saw. His jaw ached, so clenched his teeth rather than shouted. The figure in the mist snapped their gaze to Keyinde, their red beam piercing the room. Something small fell onto Keyinde’s head.
Cyrus’ body kept flapping, worming itself out of the restraints, its vent hissing, a wave of heat blasting from that crater, his eye disgorging all the previous blue for crimson. Anselm stepped backward, making for the doors, to cooldown.
—Come back to uz, Cyrus. Ve need you. Lord Lucki is here vith zhe meds—
On the other side of the Stool, Denzo stood, sweat dripping across his face. Footsteps approached, outside in the belly of The Line. Anselm blinked.
Figures flooded the lower cube with ant-like haste. Great clangs and a small explosion resounded from upstairs, one of Lord Lucki’s goons and Keyinde both screaming out. Both doors blasted inward, and light blistered Anselm’s skin. A fire erupted from a busted computer driver beside the Stool.
Anselm still restrained Cyrus: he knew that trample of boots too well. Cyrus’ eye grew very wide, grotesquely so. Anselm looked away.
With each step his head pounded: the headaches, the throbbing of his temples … he sensed his diaphragm leap, his breaths grow shallow. The heat rose, and Anselm heard a piston-like motion. Once, twice. Mincing, A third time. Quiet.
Denzo shouted again, and another piston-like sound resounded. Quiet, again.
Blocking the door was a steel I beam, fallen from the mezzanine. The holo-simulacra projectors displayed a sideways coffee pot, still brewing, its insides sloshing, then switched off entirely.
Anselm glanced back, for Denzo, but froze. The Emeralds were festooned across the floor, their green coats all stained with red blood, their black hats burning, their faces forming puddles. Denzo was lost to the smoke. Anselm shouted out.
A figure in the mist stretched upward, bending upward from the Stool.
Then, a second shadow, in the Stool, shouted out, their arms flying forwards. Their head met the floor, with two thuds. Then … quiet, beside the siren scream of someone upstairs. The head of the body in the Stool was split in two. Like Cyrus’.
—Cyrus? Ich mag dies nicht—
The shadow looming over the Stool turned, clockwise, their face’s right side watching Anselm, curious; an infernal thing followed. Left side. The laser look bore through the smoke. Its silhouette faced Anselm. It twitched, once. Anselm dropped, his gorge tightening with the smoke.
—It iz Anselm!—
A calm voice, human, like Cyrus’ from before …
The smoke twisted aside. An Emerald body slouched forward in the Stool, its skull sliced in two. Anselm spluttered, crumpling into himself, foetal-like, his hands on his head.
—She won’t be expecting this. Best I leave quickly. It is nothing personal—
A blasting noise resounded, slowly dying, then erupting once more. Then silence.
Denzo’s back was pressed against the far wall, his stomach, bruised, his ribs crunching, his breaths whistling. He blinked one eye open—his other was misted by red, the muscles on his face’s left side were melted.
By the Stool, a figure stood upright, another figure limp over their shoulder. Cyrus. Its red beam pierced the new smog. It threw the Emerald into the Stool, deftly zipping the vambraces and head adjustments of Herr Lucki’s throne. In moments, the figure was fastened in. Moments. Cyrus slipped behind the throne, simply plucking out the leads and pressing their ports. Denzo’s hands throbbed.
The figure in the Stool moaned, filling the silence. Then, it placed a hand to the figure’s head, stroking their scalp, kissing their forehead. Gently, it guided their head backward. As the smoke dispersed, Denzo spotted green in the Stool. Cardinal.
It stood upward, watching down, the red beam trained on the Emerald.
Then, the body jerked forward, its head splitting down the centre. An electric roar, like the riff from a showy electric-guitarist, resounded. Whether it was from the Stool, or it, Denzo didn’t know. A bead of blood rolled over his eye.
>>> PRINT (3 DAYS LEFT)
The scuttle-bug cabin cars could have been faster. In Cyrus’ ear, a voice resounded.
—Welcome to The Pacific Confederation. You are now entering Aotearoa—
> PRINT (07:59:62348 am)
Cyrus felt the seis in his pockets, the perfect and the shattered. The gun lounged in his arse pocket.
Reclining in the blue ambience around him, Cyrus plugged in a head slip for the rest of the journey. Something touched his throat, the corners of his eyes, but his Leech dealt with the cilia in his oesophagus, disabled his tear duct ports. He peeled away a tab, with the word ‘Mischief’ on its front. Inside, Cyrus glimpsed a world outside of The Line.
A siren began again, upstairs, from the computers Keyinde was supposed to use, to orchestrate a rip. For a Cardinal.
—Did Cyrus go and rip zhat Cardinal on hiz own? He can do all zhat multi-tasking, vithout a computer?—
Denzo summoned a pathetic grunt from his throat, catching a blurry, shadowy, spider-like creature on the roof of the cube: Denzo thought it pulled Keyinde from the wreckage, out into The Line on the upper floor. But in the light, it resembled a human. Only in the rubble and the darkness was that eye so red.
Ethané surveyed the room, swatting the low-lying smoke. The little doctor stood outside. His hands trembled around a bucket.
Inside, was a swamp of burnt flesh, all tinged in the reek of death. The mire of bodies squelched under Ethané’s shoes. One Emerald slumped in an almighty chair, its head in two. The body was still attached to the chair, its arms hanging from the cables of the chair. Ethané sneered, her breaths light. She made a cross over her body.
—God must have blinked for this to occur—
She looked from the Emerald to the body at the chair’s foot. In a puddle of blood, acid, and other such gore, a blonde man laid. On the right side, his body was burnt. Turning him over, Ethané found a hole, through the chest of the man. A shallow streak worked up from that tunnel, destroying only the surface layers of skin, and not the organs. Then, like the two dots of a colon, another hole drilled itself through the man’s skull, on the left side.
—You told me he wouldn’t go mad. Couldn’t!—
The little doctor appeared at her side, looking upwards at the wreck of the mezzanine. Ethané’s eyes were streaked with tears, her chin wobbled; she bit her tongue.
—This isn’t madness yet—
Denzo blinked. Awake, again. Death was indecisive that day.
The smoke cleared. A woman and Doc, from before, stumbled into the madness. Burning flesh, rubber, and ash filled Denzo’s nose. The woman bent over, turning a body over by Herr Lucki’s Stool. Doc looked away. The woman picked the body up. A malformed, half-melted, twisted ghost looked from her shoulder, straight at Denzo. Only the hair bore any resemblance now to pa.
—Zo long az you vere alive … —
Denzo thought to himself.
— … zhen Cyrus vould have remained … sane—
>>> PRINT (1 DAY LEFT)
Keyinde would catch up. Cyrus found his trail of blood down in The Spine leading to an ID master, under the sign ‘SECOND SAMOA: VACATION PURCHASES.’ He knelt, touching the ground of Second Samoa, rising with the warm stain on blood on his false, metal fingers, feeling the concrete under his false, metal feet, the swishing cloak around his false metal body, the wind of scuttle-bugs racing past. Between The Spine and the pedestrian levels, the quiet was oppressive. The blood on his false hand dripped back to the floor. A dull ache rose in Cyrus’ chest.
In his head, his Leech found its voice:
—We find no sand. That is insufficient—
>>> PRINT (0 DAYS LEFT)
Cyrus stood in the pedestrian level, the next day, among throngs of people. At the other end of this final kilometre shone a brilliant sun, its light rippling across the ocean’s surface. The hubbub of Samoan was great, music blaring out from all the cube levels.
Cyrus clasped his cloak closer, tighter, his metal body shivering in the true sunlight.
—Finally. This is … reality—
His hands trembled. Somewhere at the end of The Line, where the cube-tower ribs gave way to Nature’s pelvis, Cyrus shivered again. He didn’t cry—his Leech disabled his tear ducts.
But Cyrus’ breathing was ragged, hoarse, shallow, his lungs were squeezed. Cyrus blinked at the salt on the wind; he could see the concrete skeleton’s edge. One foot forwards, one foot forwards. Cross the last kilometre. But his legs shook, his knees shook. Cyrus’ toes cramped, jumping over and under one another. Like a baby, he stumbled forwards. Cyrus’ sight was blurred. Two red lights beat against the nearest people in the thronging crowds, though none blinked an eye at Cyrus as he shoved indiscriminately.
>>> PRINT (You_have_reached_the_end_of_The_Line)
Walking to the end of The Line, overlooking the Red Sea, with his swinging arms at his sides, hidden in the folds of his cloak, Cyrus felt tired. Confused. The salt was on his skin—his surface level of nerves, but was metal, not flesh. His eyes winked in the glaring sunlight. The wind tousled his cloak. His gaze trained itself on the horizon. Then Cyrus looked down at his hands, catching miserable, lonely tears, despite his tear duct ports being deactivated.
The sensations were all identical to in ‘Another Line.’ Identical to the safe in every aspect, just like all those thousands of times he replayed ‘Another Line’ during the delirium of drunkenness. All those times he turned over the head slip ‘Another Line,’ jacked into his chair, and fought against an exponentially forceful crowd, just to stand where he stood now.
It wasn’t any easier. He learnt the names of some of the Non-Player Characters around The Line, and they tried to hold him back. Lucki. Anselm. Denzo. Ethané. Keyinde.
Cyrus looked down at his hands again, each with a sei flower. The perfectly kept organic sei flower, the crumpled plastic sei in his left. An ache flew up his throat.
—They are … are they … the flowers … are they not what I thought?—
>>> RUN (The Rip [head slip duplication removal] / [accessing CCTVI footage])
Cyrus’ cube stank of nonspace. As if blurriness was a smell.
His rent was overdue. The window was barred open by a crowbar. The Red Sea was visible outside—a premium cube, with a screen to simulate being at the end of The Line. A beer sat on the kitchen’s island, and a Second Samoa NEOM postcard.
Cyrus drank the beer.
He turned, the breakfast swirling in the daylight. The kitchen island, topped in marble, shimmered on its white-painted wooden pedestal, with three bar stools around it. There was a pile of ash on the floor. On the kitchen’s island was an empty vase.
Footsteps approached outside. Cyrus blinked.
The door burst from its slide. The Emeralds pointed guns to the chair at the cube’s centre, beside the island in the kitchen. The crowbar fell from the window.
—On the ground—
—How did you get into my safe? My client singular isn’t due for another ten—
Cyrus rushed toward his chair, around his island / worktop.
The men moved throughout the cube, each speaking in turn.
One knocked the vase as he turned, the shards of glass splashing across the floor.
—I never bought water physics for my safes! And I’ve not jacked out yet!—
—On the ground—
Cyrus threw himself towards his chair.
—He is drunk. Restrain him—
The Emeralds clamped down his wrists, his legs, while he was in the chair. His voice sung out. Behind the chair, where the Emeralds couldn’t see, the leads sizzled where they hadn’t been properly plugged in.
—Intel’s on the line, boys. Wrong cube. Upstairs from this one. It is cardinal we make the arrest. Leave him—
Cyrus repeated the word, hissing in his chair.
As the Emeralds let go, Cyrus fell forwards. Then the chair exploded as Cyrus fell from its rings, one whole side of his body, and some, disintegrating in the blast.
Two more similar chair-explosion incidents were reported that month. One involving a woman in Skull Country, and another a few weeks before in New Munich. Chairs were quite prone to overheating after extensive use.
>>> PRINT (-1 DAYS LEFT)
After a day of unbroken walking, Cyrus was at the very end of The Line, with less than a foot of concrete between him and endless ocean. He stopped. He reached a hand forward and touched the screen. The ocean didn’t seem quite so endless anymore. Just like the invisible barriers coded into the safe in Another Line. Cyrus rested his head against the screen, blinking, his vital systems completely calm. Briefly, a blue light flashed from his eyes, before resolving to red.
—There is no Cardinal? He was false too? Just another Emerald?—
The smell of burnt akara rose through his nose.
Setting his jaw, Cyrus kept still, his arms hanging, numb, each carefully enfolding the seis. Keyinde sat beside him, his back slumping against the screen. Cyrus didn’t look. Keyinde touched a hand to Cyrus’ leg but felt a metal skeleton with artificial muscles. False tendons, false capillaries, false fibres. Anger was in his voice.
—Give am back my head slip o—
Cyrus ejected Mischief from his right ear—false, like the other one.
—Now I dey go way—
—Keyinde … I need your help—
Keyinde swivelled his head, looking up at Cyrus, despite the cloak covering his whole body. The light shook in his eyes. Cyrus turned his way. Keyinde gasped at the two red eyes, then gasped again at the sight of the two seis, cocking his head and his eyes widening.
—So na still a small bit ot Cyrus in dere—
Cyrus shuddered. The Leech screamed inside his skull to murder the man, remove all safe death from The Line, and retire to their cube at the top level of Second Samoa, so close now, and live out their last hours. But he shuddered.
—T-take them. … No, die, I’ll kill you, you are … P-please just t-take them for m-me … You lose! … I-I-I am b-broke — b-broken—
Keyinde took them, looking Cyrus in the eyes. His false eyes, both, making Keyinde’s face pulse a horrid crimson. Cyrus’ voice glitched.
—This one is is plastic. And th-this … I’m sorry … I think it-t is plastic too. But it was real, to m- me — to C-Cyrus. A long time ago. And not s-so long ago—
Keyinde looked at the flowers pressed into his hands. Then he looked to Cyrus himself, and put his hand to the cold metal scalp of a false head. The Leech purred.
—You tear race, take leave all your clothes, fit leave your soul away. You no wear clothes! You be mad, Cyrus—
—Gg-goodbye, Ke Keyin Keyinde. Av-avoid Ethané, she she will arrive s-soon. She and she and the d-doctor are g-g-g- … I’m s-so sorry … going to kill you. She’s already k-killed me—all the s-s-soul that was here is is is is now g-gone (Cyrus pointed to his chest / then to his head). But I find the business we have conducted together … satisfactory—
—Where you fit dey go, oyinbo?—
—Usss machines, we we we think a-alike. D-d-drawn to to one another another. Like electric gh- gh- ghou- (Cyrus sighed). Electric g-ghouls—
—Gods no go shame us: you be some mean machine to lookon o. I dey go visit Ọṣun. Goodbye—
Cyrus nodded, his neck clunking, the nod itself jagged in its motion. Keyinde turned, stepping from Cyrus, holding out the sei flowers like a limp body.
>>> DISENGAGE <Audio>
Keyinde retreated, hobbling, a hand clutched to his side, another on a crutch Cyrus hadn’t heard. Likewise, he didn’t hear the gunshot that took him out. Only the direction his body fell in, and where the sei flowers landed.
Up on the balcony, Cyrus spotted Ethané.
>>> ZOOM; 10x
The woman mouthed:
—Your contract is fulfilled, Cyrus—
Cyrus took Ethané’s one-bullet gun, removing his last possession to the floor, then muttered to himself.
—The Machine’s con-con-contract iss ful-fulfilled—
>>> DISENGAGE <Mainframe_Firewall>
—Cyrus still wants to see the sea—
Cyrus melted a hole in the screen with his eye, then piston-pushed it aside, and stepped beyond The Line. Ethané shot at him, catching the back of Cyrus’ head. The bullet glanced off, ricocheting to the ground. Cyrus pulled off his cloak, where it had gathered so much sand already from the wind. The real wind. Or maybe another cube inside a false environment. His whole metal skeleton glinted in the false light from beyond The Line, from his knee pads to his artificial organs.
—You consider yourself one of the Transhumanistæ? Then you really are capable of madness! Come on little doctor, we’ve eliminated all risks of safe death now—
—N-n-n-n-no, I I I do not-t-t con-con I do not do not consider myself a a a a Tra- Transhuman- Transhumanis- Transhumanista—
>>> DISENGAGE <Speech>
Cyrus magnified his eyes’ beams, a deep scarlet, and aimed at Ethané. She fell backwards, blinded by the blistering light. Cyrus smiled, blinding Ethané at the foot of that colossal, concrete corpse.
Then, he regarded the door.