3865 words (15 minute read)

I - Fixing Alyx

Harriet stared at the empty husk of Alyx’s body. Multiple IV lines and feeding tubes were hooked up to it, the whole corpse suspended in a viscous orange goo. Her bright red hair puffed about her head like a mushroom, accentuated by those vibrant green eyes.

She looked so much like her mother, Rain, it hurt.

Harriet glanced towards one of the adjacent glass wombs, this one holding the lifeless form of her deceased lover. Rain was an admittedly terrible journalist, but had been Harriet’s rock, back when the two were together. Now she was held in that same orange goo as their daughter, waiting for them to claw her back from the depths of Sheol.

Not daughter, Harriet reminded herself. At least, not yet.

The all too familiar feeling of longing hit Harriet in the gut. The surgeon glanced from Rain to Alyx; mother to daughter. She’d promised to keep Alyx safe. Hell, she’d promised to keep Rain safe. She still hadn’t forgiven Adrian for letting Rain’s Soul slip through their fingers. He’d been seconds too late, and lost it to Charon. Now she was rotting in Sheol. And if they weren’t quick enough, so too would Alyx.

Harriet flicked a switch upon the panel beside Alyx’s lifeless shell.

Time to deliver Alyx. Again.

There was a hissing sound at first, followed by the glugging of pipes draining. This was accompanied by a particularly vile smell that Harriet could only relate to recycled sweat and excrement. The tank drained in a matter of minutes. Once it had done so, she flicked another switch, this one ejecting the tray on which the body lay. The shell remained still for a while as the various monitors around beeped and sprung into life.

Blood pressure 90/60. Heart rate normal. Breathing okay. Harriet pricked the left big toe of the shell with the tip of her pen. The leg jerked. Reactions normal.

And last, but not least, Harriet sighed...

Brain activity: minimal.

The shell’s mouth gaped like a fish, making vacant sucking noises. It was futile to try to comfort it, Harriet knew this. But that didn’t stop her from trying, talking to it and stroking its hair.

She hated this. Shells without Souls. Sure, they were alive. But they weren’t... alive. To think that that pale simulacrum of Rain had been denied personhood, and yet was just as alive as any other animal, was terrifying. The Rain she knew was so full of life; her daughter much the same. They both had that excitable, high-pitched voice and an insatiable curiosity. These shells, on the other hand, didn’t even talk.

And to think, she’d been in a vat like that before. Twice. Once out of necessity, and once out of stupidity. And that latter time was seriously starting to bite her in the ass.

Harriet took a towel and lay it over Alyx’s body. If it reacted, she didn’t notice.

Now she just needed Adrian.

And, speak of the devil, a loud creak from the storm cellar’s doors signified his arrival. His trainers came into view first, which were a rare sight nowadays. As were his trademark tracksuit bottoms, sleek, grey and black striped, and burgundy school leavers hoodie - year of 2016. The Inner City man’s attempts to blend into life in the shelters were clunky at best, but at least he was smart enough to know not to wear his suits out here. That was just asking for a stabbing.

"Harriet," Adrian said sternly, immediately sitting between the fresh shell of Alyx and an empty gurney. He pulled out his laptop and fired it up. "We’ve got five minutes to prep for Alyx, she’s just passed Serpent’s Rig."

“Good to see you too, Adrian.”

He shrugged and connected his computer to the many ports in the wall and table, firing up the needed programs and fine tuning his seat. He flexed, then took a pill from a baggy in his pocket and knocked it down his throat.

Harriet wasn’t a fan of his Expy habit, but it was practically a job requirement for him. Hooking Souls before the SoulNet got to them required superhuman reflexes, and complete concentration. Otherwise they’d be lost forever - sucked from the corpse and into one of the many Cherri Towers dotted around the landscape. Tall, concrete, and built like a lighthouse; these towers were magnets for Souls. Literally.

It was fine if you had ‘Afterlife Insurance’ of course. Although if you were smart and could afford it, you’d want the many add-ons as well. Public Soul sorting took forever, and without priority boarding you’d be stuck in Purgatory for years - if not longer. Insurance meant you got a nice choice as to whether you moved on to Heaven or got shoved back in a new shell.

Unless you were a criminal. Then it was Hell or Sheol. The latter was the fate of every Invictus member.

Harriet picked up a scalpel, wiping it with antiseptic. It wasn’t exactly sterile, but it was the best they could do given the circumstances. She missed the rigidity and cool toys of her old clinic, but it was far more exciting out here. Tending to gunshot wounds and blown off limbs was significantly more rewarding than treating Suits with tickly coughs.

"You seen Silver?" Harriet asked. "They should be here for this."

"On their way. They should be intercepting her nearby."

There was a few minutes of silence as Adrian got himself into the zone, and Harriet did a quick inventory check. She would save the body if she could - they weren’t exactly cheap, and took ages to grow - but the Soul took priority. Always.

A slam from up top followed by irregular, shuffling footsteps marked the arrival of Alyx.

Silver came with her, propping the Runner up on their shoulders and carrying her down the stairs. This was a bit of a struggle for Silver, who was easily a foot shorter than Alyx, and significantly leaner. Most striking about them was their hair - a grey pixie cut, which they insisted was appropriately silver, adorned with hefty steel hair grips. A camera hung perpetually around their neck; an assortment of lenses, filters and microphones in a sack abound their waist.

Both camera and pixie cut, as well as white linen shirt, were matted with Alyx’s blood at present.

The Runner herself looked in bad shape, a fair bit worse than she’d been letting on. She was pale, chalk white and sweating furiously. Her crimson hair was patchy, as if falling out in clumps. By the time she was halfway down the stairs she lost consciousness, slipping from Silver’s grasp and taking a nosedive down the remaining steps.

"Oh dear," Adrian muttered, chewing absentmindedly on his hoodie’s drawstring.

Harriet and Silver lifted the unmoving form of Alyx onto the empty gurney. With practiced precision, Harriet sliced her way through the Runner’s jacket with a scalpel, then through her vest with a pair of scissors. The tattered remnants fell to the concrete floor, and were kicked under the table.

The surgeon grimaced. There were bruises everywhere. Bright red and deep purple splotches coated her body. There were no signs of actual breakages of the skin beyond the initial puncture site, which was already necrotic; grey and peeling away. She still had a pulse, at least. Rapid and irregular, but it was there.

"Holy shit."

Silver’s outburst mimicked the feeling of the others in the room, who were just about keeping a professional face.

No room for errors, Harriet reminded herself. Quite frankly she was amazed Alyx had managed the journey through the shelters by herself. Those new implants did a good job of keeping her on her toes.

"This is going to be tough," Adrian declared. "Vibro. Looks like new tech, probably Alice’s own. I’ve heard mention of a new brand in production. Pathos is going bananas over it, and I can see why. It’s incredible."

Harriet hated that smirk on his face. Sometimes she forgot he was a bastard Goldstein progeny. "Save the science wank for later maybe, yeah?" she said, threading a catheter through the current Alyx’s radial artery. "We’re nearly good to go."

"Ever seen a cobra on Expy?" Adrian asked. "Her Soul’s all over the place; I’ve never seen anything like it."

"So you’ve said. Now shut up and do your job," Harriet snapped. She finished threading the catheter, and checked all of the equipment was plugged in okay. Once she was content, she rammed a long, thick electrode into the left of the Runner’s sternum.

Capacitors discharged. Alyx’s body arched violently, contracted, then lay still. She flat-lined.

"Okay go!" Harriet yelled.

Adrian needed no further incentive. He enjoyed this part.

The race was on.

Charon weren’t going to take any more of his friends.

#

Alyx slowly awoke to the sounds of Adrian whooping and cheering, his thick Cockney accent unmistakable. The first thing she noted were the IVs in her arm, then that horribly dysphoric sensation of something being wrong with your own skin. A sort of uncertainty that’s hard to pin down, but sorts itself out after a while. She didn’t know anything else quite like it.

That feeling could only mean one thing: a new shell. She looked to her right and saw her previous vessel—black and blue and lifeless, covered in bruises and swollen joints. She was a blank slate now. No scars or bone fractures. No piercings, implants or tattoos. She even had her appendix back.

"Told you we got this under control," Adrian said smugly, cracking his knuckles.

"Nice one Goldy," Harriet mumbled. She gave a cup of water to the renewed Alyx, who took it with trembling hands and forced the warm liquid down her throat.

"Easy there Alyx," Harriet said, resting a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Do you know my name?"

"Doctor Harriet Anti. Also known as ‘mum’,’H’ and ‘doc’,” Alyx said, sighing. "It’s February fourteenth, this is Invictus, the root of eighty-one is nine, and blue and yellow make green. That good?"

Adrian smirked from behind her, closing the lid on his laptop. He took out a pocket knife, engraved with his initials, and scratched a mark on the wall next to where the word ’Alyx’ was written. The tally now read five.

"Good," Harriet said. "Everything seems fine. I’m just going to remove your catheters now, okay?"

Alyx hated this part. She winced as she felt a sharp, tugging pain in her urethra, and then her wrist. She was given some cotton to keep pressure on the hole in her artery, lest she bleed all over the place like last time. She had often said that the worst thing about dying was waking up and having to take out some catheters. She was yet to change her mind.

"What happened?" Adrian asked loudly, leaning closer. "That was some wicked Vibro."

"Give her some rest Goldy," came a croak from the back of the room. "Until someone puts a bullet in you for once, you treat those who have died with some damn sympathy."

Adrian rolled his eyes, shooting a dirty look to the woman at the back.

She was an older lady, evident from the wrinkles about her eyes and the tint of jaundice in her skin. She wore a floral dress—the colours of which had long since faded—and a simple wedding band.

Her name was Ruth, self-declared den mother to Invictus and proud owner of the orphanage and school that was a front to their little rebellion. Nowhere else in shelters really took in orphans. It was hard enough looking after yourself and your own, let alone somebody else’s child.

"I’m good," Alyx mumbled, sitting up, maintaining the pressure on her wrist. "Can I get some clothes please?"

Ruth approached the slab with a white vest, underwear and 3/4-length khaki shorts, nearly identical to the set that lay in tatters on the floor.

Alyx thanked her, then tore off the electrodes stuck to her chest and told the others to look away. She changed quickly, then hopped up off the table. Her vision went blurry for a moment, and she nearly lost her balance, but she righted herself. It always took a while to get used to a new shell; even if it was a genetic identical.

"Your intel was shit Adrian," Alyx stated. "You can look now by the way."

The others turned to face her. Harriet took the opportunity to crush Alyx in a massive hug, thankful she was still with them.

Adrian perked up, an offended look on his face. His eyes were notably bloodshot, his hands shaky and clammy. "Why’s that?" he asked.

"’cos the bitch canceled on her conference two days ago. She’d stayed home for some stupid reason," Alyx growled, swigging back the rest of the water. "Which means I got to have a lovely chat with her about our little organization rather than rooting through her computer. Don’t worry," she added. "I didn’t tell her anything. Probably why she stabbed me to be honest."

"How did you get out?" Ruth asked.

"Lamped her!" Alyx beamed.

"Nice one," Silver whispered, putting an arm around Alyx and pulling her close. "Take it she’s still alive and kicking though?"

"Sadly yes," Alyx continued. "Szevens came in before I could finish the job. Besides, that Vibro acts fast."

"And you still got away?" Ruth asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Well they don’t call her ’Runner’ for nothing," Silver noted.

Alyx ruffled Silver’s hair, messing up their pixie cut.

"So the operation was a bust, then?" Adrian sighed.

Alyx raised a finger, then moved to the pile of shredded clothes on the floor. She pulled a USB stick out of the pocket of her shorts. "Not a complete bust," she said, handing it to Adrian.

"What is it?" Adrian asked, sticking it straight into his laptop. After a quick virus scan he opened it up, peering inside.

"No clue," Alyx answered. "I saw it stuck in a tower unit on the way in and grabbed it. Their security is actually pretty shit once you get past the first floor. Loads of checkpoints and Szevens at the entrance, but once you’re in the lift. Boom. Infiltration complete."

"Shit," muttered Adrian. "Encrypted, naturally."

"Think you can crack it?"

"Piece of piss, just gimme n hours,” Adrian grinned, hammering on the keys with drug-fueled gusto.

Harriet and Alyx sighed. ’n hours’. That meant anywhere fifteen minutes to a week, and that was of non-stop work. Adrian often forgot to eat when working on a new project, and washing was out of the question. He’d remember to drink at least, usually when he knocked back his next dose of Expy, and use the toilet—for which everyone else was particularly grateful.

He had been found collapsed on the floor a few times, exhausted beyond repair and in dire need of feeding. If anything could be said for him, it was that he was dedicated and efficient; perhaps a little too much so.

"Did you get anything else on Pathos whilst you were there?" Silver asked. "Like an antidote, or a map to Sheol, or Vibro information?"

Alyx shook her head. "No, sorry."

"Working here guys," Adrian muttered, making shooing motions with his one hand before continuing to type furiously.

The others sighed, figuring it best to leave him to it, and headed for the exit.

"Dinner’s at six," Ruth said, patting him on the shoulder. "Don’t make us come drag you."

Adrian only grunted in acknowledgment.


They knew they’d be hauling him up on his ass soon enough.

#

Ruth sat on a chair outside the farmstead, absent-mindedly knitting a pair of dark green gloves. She watched as her two children, Meredith and Salome, uprooted various vegetables for tonights dinner, both competing for the most misshapen carrot. They were joined by a number of other children from the orphanage, Meredith giving instructions to them as she tried to keep them in check. They were noisy and slightly clueless, but they were getting the job done.

Like most independent farms they specialized in a mixture of vegetables and animals, housing primarily cattle and chickens. The advance of Hydroponics had meant huge amounts of vegetation could be grown indoors, in re-purposed apartment complexes or barns. Meat itself was something of a luxury to Outer City folk, and almost nonexistent to the Inner City where it was now a taboo.

To Ruth’s right, standing and watching the children, was her husband Hernando. Six foot two, well-tanned, muscular and medically trained, he was quite the catch. Age hadn’t seemed to wear him down as much, although he had spouted something starting to resemble a straggly handlebar mustache (which Ruth promised one day to shave off in his sleep). He sported numerous tattoos—mostly commemorating the births of his two children, wedding day, and home town of Athens; one of many cities which had now fallen to the Penitents.

Sitting to the left of Ruth was Mae, one of her long-time friends and joint founder of Invictus. She sat sharpening one of her machetes, humming a jaunty tune to herself as she did so. She was often called stupid for sticking to knives as a weapon of choice rather than guns, but when anyone saw her in action they often retracted those comments.

Mae was Ruth’s age; the two had been high school friends back before the world went to shit. She was very much plain-looking, but like Hernando she was fit, sporty and muscular.

The farmstead was the new home of the three adults, among many others. Like most refugees in the Outer City, they had built their house with their own two hands using materials scavenged from the remains nearby. They’d found the gates of Vancouver to be closed when they’d fled to what had been Canada nearly two decades ago.

They hadn’t expected to find checkpoints on every bridge along the Fraser river, nor to be denied entrance to the city proper.

Charon had made a number of improvements to the city in the name of ’epidemic and humanitarian defenses’ when they took over. A move people now realized was just them preparing their subsequent bioweapon attack. It terrified Ruth just how well planned-out their rise to dominance had been. The ’Say NO’ campaigners had been right when England had held their Afterlife referendum. The whole Invictus team had known the world was going to shit when over half of it voted yes. They hadn’t realized just how bad it would become.

Hernando kissed Ruth on the cheek before standing up and walking over to the kids. He corralled the children back into the wooden lodge, gathering up the collected vegetables in a woven basket, and headed to the kitchen to prepare the food.

Ruth and Mae sat in silence for some time, the only sound being the clacking of knitting needles and the singing of a whetstone. Alyx emerged from the house after a while, perching on the edge of the bench and lighting up a cigarette. She leaned back, spreading herself wide and stretching. Ruth tutted in disapproval.

"Where’s Duncan?" Alyx asked, turning her head to exhale away from the others. "Been meaning to talk to him."

"Supply issues?" Mae said, running her finger along her machete’s edge.

"Mmm," Alyx nodded.

"He’s at a trade meeting," Mae answered her. "With Harper in the Inner City."

"Hopefully coming back with some decent fruit for once," Ruth added.

“Fruit, drugs and guns. Now that’s what I call party supplies,” Mae remarked.

Alyx remained perched on the edge of the bench, occasionally exhaling, taking in the scenery. The lights of Braid were visible in the distance; a teeming metropolis that had once been Vancouver. It was largely the same, only under new management, and encircled by a towering concrete wall, topped with barbed wire. The Outer City was visible in the foreground; a salvaged collection of settlements full of refugees from elsewhere and those kicked out of the Inner City.

"Oh," Alyx said, stubbing out the cigarette on the side of the bench. "Whilst I remember; what’s with all the Szevens out and about?"

"Comic Con," Mae said with her usual deadpan.

Ruth sighed. "The Penitents are making their move, trying to bring down one of the Towers."

"Morons," Alyx shook her head. Having scouted out a number of Cherri Towers, she knew just how hard such a task would be. Each had a sizable force of Szeven Immortals defending it, plus drones, turrets and other contingency measures. They were frequently the targets of attack; Charon had learned that the hard way.

"Yeah," Ruth said. "Doesn’t stop them trying though. They’re getting really rather excited about this whole Awakening thing."

"Oh," Alyx sighed. "They actually believe that?"

"I take it you don’t?" Ruth tutted.

"It’s sci-fi," Alyx said, rubbing the bruises on her arm. New implants were itchy as hell. "You know, like something out of those mangas Adrian keeps showing me."

"Comics, Alyx," Ruth corrected her. "The manga Adrian has is... not something you want to be reading. Certainly not on a full stomach."

"Either way," Alyx said, raising an eyebrow. "It’s silly."

"Humanity built its own Afterlife and enveloped the world in giant magnets that constantly tug on our Souls," Mae replied, slashing the air with her machete. "I’d be more surprised if it didn’t mess up our children. A few superpowers are hardly out of the question."

"I don’t know about ’superpowers’," Alyx told Mae. "Mutations maybe? Evolutions?"

"Right, I’m going to go help the husband sort dinner," Ruth said, finding an excuse to leave. "Try not to murder her, Mae."

Mae grinned, running her whetstone along the blade.

"No promises."

#

Goldyl0cks [15/02/2049 09:11] “alright. ive set up this schat for us to talk on the down low”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 09:16] “What Adrian means to say is that he’s set us all up with new SChat accounts and wired them through SoulNet proxies.”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 09:16] “So we can use SChat like normal people without all the risk of people listening in or finding us.”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 09:17] “Unless your username gives you away. But even then they won’t be able to *locate* you or eavesdrop.”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 09:17] “This is Silver by the way.”

Goldyl0cks [15/02/2049 09:11] “love the handle pun ag. but rly y u copycat me”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 09:17] “At least it’s not obvious. Also, would it kill you to use punctuation?”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 09:18] “It’s painful to read you.”

Goldyl0cks [15/02/2049 09:11] “habit soz”

Xx_uberrunner_xX [15/02/2049 09:22] “how is this any different to f2fchat?”

Goldyl0cks [15/02/2049 09:22] “charon cracked f2f”

Goldyl0cks [15/02/2049 09:22] “not secure now”

Xx_uberrunner_xX [15/02/2049 09:22] “i only just got used to it tho”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 09:23] “Oh ffs Alyx. You’re as bad as Adrian.”

Xx_uberrunner_xX [15/02/2049 09:23] “howd u no its me?”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 09:24] “… do you seriously need to ask?”

H_Anti [15/02/2049 11:07] “The doctor is in.”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 11:08] “Seriously Harriet? It’s meant to be *anonymous*.”

Mae_stabz_u [15/02/2049 11:11] “ohi there”

Agl0cks [15/02/2049 11:12] “I hate you guys.”



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Next Chapter: II - Hydroponic Antics