flicker/mode: download 07 previous node
| what is this?
When I awoke, I was gone.
The feeling was one I couldn't identify. There were several I could; the absence of the comforting pull of the Steyr; the absolute blackness, the pain in indescribable places. All were ones identifiable. There was another, however, and it wasn't one I could remember ever feeling. It felt-odd, really; and not constant. Imagine the signals in your brain for light and smell and taste and touch all crossed, one step out of sync, the nerves playing musical chairs with your sensorium until the colors tingled the inside of your nose while smells lightly brushed across you.
That wasn't it. But it was close.
I tried, experimentally, to move; and move I did, stretching my limbs out in a tight shape of fear and exploration. My muscles moved in the right directions, but with a rippling sense of wrongness that I couldn't identify, although once I reached the limit of my motion, the pain lessened, somewhat.
The light was sudden, blinding, and uneven; one side of the chamber flickered slightly. The white and blue glare came from all directions at once, searing painfully across me, and I huddled into a crouch instinctively, to shield myself from the pain, and buried my head in my arms-
Which weren't there.
I screamed and fell backwards, waving my arms frantically; all that was visible was a slight distortion in the blinding light. My body, completely hidden, shuddered with the new sensations as the flickers of the light thrummed through me. My brain caught up, finally, realizing the answer the the question I'd wondered at before.
City didn't create chromen.
It modified them.
I tried to scream, but a new voice inside my head that I couldn't remember ever hearing laughed with a raspy sound and took control of my muscles, freezing them solid in invisible braces of steel, and the last flickering distortion that marked my body vanished as I became immobile.
The lights dimmed quickly. The door opened.
Without conscious volition, I dropped to the stranger's knees that were once mine and...didn't quite crawl, but made my way out the door, pulled along by the strange agenda in my mind. Some ten minutes of tunnels, portals and ladders later, I pushed at the bottom of the manhole and slithered up into the nighttime world of New York, and recognized the 57th street barrier, from the wrong side. Just as that registered, there was a shout and a chattering roar. I tried to shout, to scream, to freeze myself and wait for the clean end of the bullets, but instead my traitor sinews pulled me away from the barrier in uneven, random jerks of motion, and none of the projectiles connected.
You can't go home again, the voice tried to whisper but brought it across only in concepts, the words obscured behind the rasping ghoulish humor, and perversely, it let me cry as I huddled behind the wrecked Greyhound bus. It didn't help to watch the bright purple trails of tears run down my (chroman's) body and soak into the broken earth.
God, please, let me die.
The only sight I have seen for the past five days has been the colorless tiled wall
of the room in which I have been placed. Mode
is gone, and I cannot move the Shell; there is not enough of my own body left to provide for motion, and here I remain, abandoned. Flicker will not answer me, and Mode is gone. The white tiles are, I believe, the wall of what was once an emergency room in St. Vincent’s Hospital
. Now blands come and go bearing tools of pain and discovery
, and I cannot resist. I cannot die. One day, soon, they will know, and in their disgust and horror I will be destroyed, and all this will end.
In the time that remains to me I patiently wait and stare at the ceramic boundaries of my new smaller world. Once more, I try to move my arms, without the helping will of Mode.
My shell ignores me completely.
Strange and scattered thoughts, impulses, feelings; I cannot tell if in fact I am regretful that Mode has gone. The thought of death is a comforting lavender presence that waits for the blands to finish, so that it might have me.
The sudden appearance of a feathered eggshell creature named hope is enough to make my dry eyes ache for tears.
I was in motion, now, sliding over the concrete broken layer of the City
’s skin, heading south. I have just enough time and freedom left to marvel at the sight of places I haven’t seen in years despite their nearness- the New York Public Library
, the Met Life building
. The enormous landmarks are externally unchanged despite the tell-tale signs of slow erosion
. One might think that with tireless robot caretakers
that the old steps and lions and windows might be gleaming, shiny, unsullied; it looks like there aren’t enough around to care. Perhaps humans are still required after all, in order to make things look as they should.
That thought brings a sharp disciplinary pain into the center of my cortex, blinding me with brilliant colors and stabbing agony. When the light and flicker recedes, I find myself in the wrecked wasteland of Madison Square Park, the broken rubble of a fountain collecting birdshit despite the efforts of a few eager machines. I cannot even muster up the human revulsion to shudder as the new voice inside me drags my limp and flexing body up over the edge of the fountain’s bowl and lays me down inside, my face inches from the crusted excrement. Everything suddenly freezes, which is much more interesting; nothing moves save the small cleaning bots that whir along inches from my nose. I can see from my frozen position that the one nearest me has worn its cleaning bristles down to the nub; this explains the condition of the fountain.
Just as I am returning my limited attention to the situation, there is a whining noise from somewhere to the west. I recognize it after a moment; it’s a scopter, one of the few we – the humans – have left. Its tiny body agile and sharp-eyed, the heartbeat patter of its rotors reduces to the tinny drone that penetrates the wild grass, weeds and shrubs of the park. If I listen carefully, I can hear the slight change in tone and the faint whop noise as it banks. The noise fades, perhaps heading downtown; I can’t tell.
The voice lets me rise. I note as I do so that my body is now an ochre white and black smear, the birdshit staining me in photonic contamination- although none sticks, my Chroman’s body faithfully pulls its image into itself and proudly shines it back. Slowly, as I move from the fountain, the greens and browns and occasional concrete greys of the park trickle and run across my body.
I have direction. The urge is nameless but no less strong; I can feel it pulling me towards the East River. There is just enough volition left to wish hard for the Steyr’s comforting weight; if it cannot slay the demons amongst whom I live, at least it might erase my own consciousness with a quick and vicious caress. Then it’s too late to wish, because I’m in motion.
Night. One day. I suppose. The room is dark, the tiles reflecting only slight glimmers- from the streetlight outside the drawn blinds, from the small eyes of the LED
s on the various equipment. There is a perfectly horizontal slash of light coming under the door; I can feel it on my ankles as they crawl in reflex action and try to mimic something that they are no longer driven to copy. Mode is gone
, and flicker is not speaking. Either it has been driven, with Mode, into the aether
and electromagnetic dreamwinds
, or it is cowering deep inside unable to help. I call for it, somewhat wistfully; after so long, it’s difficult to feel the sharp contrasts of my Shell
delimiting my position in the room. I long for comforting greys and blues of nighttime flicker’s wash; but there is no flicker. There is no time, and there is no Mode. There is just Shell, standing there, with myself a trapped and grieving observer. I cannot die
. I cannot wash. I cannot heal
I turn myself off, as off as I am able.
I am brought back to the sharp glare of worklights by the feeling of a deep wounding intrusion; one I cannot place upon reaching the silver pane of consiousness. I probe, gently, about my body, then about what parts of Shell I am able, with my limited senses, but find no hurts or breaks.
Curious, I rouse myself fully. Only then do I note that there are three blands in the roomwith me, prodding and moving about with strange unfriendly slave machines in their fists. One sticks me, none too gently, with a sharp metal cousin; I flinch in response. My ribs ripple slightly.
A silent explosion of purest magenta strobes throughout the room. The three blands freeze; one drops his meter and claws at his eyes. I strive about me for the source, before realizing
I moved my head
Flicker is back and waiting.
The bland who prodded me moves around to face me. I look at him; he jumps slightly as my eyes track his path. I test flicker with an old trick; my eyes swim as the retinal changers grab sensor time- my eyes turn to mirrored marbles. I can see his image wavering across them. He stops, looks; fascinated, he moves in closer to test the ‘changers responses.
Long forgotten messages move my right arm; Shell responds with creaky slowness and protesting signals as I grab him by the throat. His shout is cut off; his colleagues move quickly for the door, but I squeeze and his choking stops them in their tracks. They both look at me as, triumph of small proportions, I turn to face them, right hand still holding the prodding Bland up on his toes. I look at him, at them; back again. Finally, I slowly release my grip. He does not move, for moments; then bolts from range. With no combat reflexes left, with no Mode to endanger him, I force myself to sit slowly on a chair that one had been using to stand on so as to see the top of my head.
Scientists, these. They do not run, nor call for aid; instead, they slowly return to stand before me, intently examining my face. I look into each of their eyes in turn, moving only my own; dropping the ‘changers, I offer them the sight of my own senses.
This causes some excitement. One of the Blands motions frantically at one of his companions, who is nearest the bench of tools. That one shakes himself, quests about and returns to face us with a small box, which he hands off to the first.
But I am no longer –
The thought stops, and I force myself to remain still, holding my eyes open for the laser which runs electromagnetic fingers over the soft frilly muscle of my one true iris and retina. There is a pause. The laser flicks off, a signal for the three blands to cluster around their tool as if I am forgotten. They wait what seems an eternity but is perhaps five seconds before a green light blinks on the box.
I am known.
I am human.
They look at each other before all turning to slowly face me. I do not move. The leader (?) proffers the box to me, and I rouse Flicker enough to wash a wave through myself before vanishing into the light in pure reflex, all save for my one eye (my human eye) which I hold on them. One hand reaches for the box; they can only slightly see me, so perfect is the wash, until I take the box from their hands and turn the back towards myself.
Then I wash the ‘changers and glance down at the box, hidden behind my photons and forces.
There is a picture there, with meaningless data inscribed across it; a picture of a Bland female, striking, with dark hair and mismatched eyes
one of which is clearly artificial, the result perhaps of an injury or defective genome. I am about to raise the box to return it when Flicker, traitor golem, washes the air before me Silver, turns it mirror, my wrist passing through it holding the box. I see the slight distortion of myself before Flicker drops the skinfield entirely, leaving only the dark and mottled flesh and steel of the chroman that I am.
Slowly, then, the image from the box builds up across my face. I watch the human eye and mechanical cousin settle precisely across my sunken metal orbs; watch the cheekbones delicately flutter onto my own, and there she is, staring back at me from the mirror, holding her wrist out into the glass, brunette hair waving in an imaginary breeze which is just chilly enough to bring a flush to her cheeks.
She is smiling.
I am smiling.
Flicker, in gleeful commentary, mimics a flood of glittering dust pouring from my face as the hot salt of tears unfettered by chromatics track their way down across her/my cheeks.
Then all is dark.
The East River is a sullen, dark and oily thing that winds its way through canyons of ruined steel and concrete. Ignored by man and City alike, the waters mutter to themselves as they slip along between the sharp and stony obstacles. I do not know why I am here.
A last fading bit of me wishes again, hopelessly, for the Steyr and the peace it might offer. I have time to wince as whatever it is that is inside my head snarls anger and smashes the thought flat. The sensation is not unlike the first moment of a very, very bad hangover. There is a faint, nearly silent muttering inside me that it takes me several seconds to realize is my own voice screaming obscenities from behind whatever barrier it has been placed.
I’ve stopped. Crouched, supplicant, waiting, I scan the night, or the thing using my eyes does. Small things creep and flutter; machines whir or clank or squeak through their unknown errands. I wait.
The noise, when it comes, is noticeable chiefly as a difference in the sounds that surround me/it. A fluttering which brings a shudder of recognition, revulsion and horror; then the nearly silent wing enfolds me and lifts me off my perch. I go limp, both from fear and by command of my unknown presence. There follows an unknowable time of strange and sudden accelerations coupled with the equally sudden and apparently random clasping of whatever it is that holds me. I imagine a giant bat with no skeleton but me, a manta ray in black, following alternately a glider’s track and a butterfly’s wander through the nighttime sky.
When it drops me, I’m entirely unprepared. Naturally. Luckily I’m only ten feet up, and whatever it is that is with me is ready for the landing; my ankles flex, my knees as well, and I land into a crouch without rolling – something that would have surely broken both ankles and possibly knees were I still a human.
Then my conveyance is gone. I stand swiftly, feeling again the strange sensation of colors washing over my skin- but it’s gone, suddenly, as whatever I am decides that basic black will likely suffice.
Running through an invisible jungle of rushes, weeds, oily scum and water.
Before I/we break out of the fields into a clear shoreline. The night is overcast, but there is light far away over the horizon. Likely that is Humanhattan. There is also light to my left, along the shore; light that is the steady clear white of humankind, not the flickering of ruins nor the infrared of the machines (that’s the strange color I see, I realize). Curious enough to venture that way even without the other moving my muscles, I slide down the greasy shoreline towards the light.
It’s slightly inland. As I approach, I remain in the relative dark of the water’s edge, at the base of a slight rise in the land as it moves in from the sea.
I see a large, flat plain with the intermittent striations of Cyclone fencing. Spotlights flicker; not swiveling, they instead simply come on, then vanish, only to reappear aimed in another direction. After some moments of silently watching, I realize that the cones of brilliance are responding to slight sounds in the area outside the fence.
Several seconds spent in survey-
Concrete, lots of it, grass, churned-up areas with craters or holes at their approximate center, and far off, lights along a wall, a recognizable defensive perimeter. Slight flickering of movement along its top. The Other calls to some unknown ally in a voice I cannot mimic (radio, notes the last of me somewhere deep inside). In response, a large crackling breaks out to my left; three or four spotcones converge on it. In the resulting daylight shine, I see a large shape lumber up from the ground; there is a distant shouting and the well-remembered rippling tearing noise of massed fire. Small specks of light begin to spring from the perimeter, converging as well on the moving shape – which, I realize, looks to be a medium-sized autotruck. A few moments later, there is a gout of sparks as the truck’s accumulator is hit, followed by an actinic flare of light and the distinctive sharp crack of the supercoils shorting to ground. The fire tails off.
What are they doing here? People? Where are we?
The roaring above tells me, right on cue. Kennedy airport, once named Idlewild. The roaring above grows into a visible fireball, drops quickly to the ground. Just before vanishing from sight behind the perimeter, a bright tongue of plasma emerges from the bottom. Braking. Too many gees to be manned; must be a supply drop of some kind.
I can feel the Other prick up its ears, listening to my thoughts. I try to stop, go blank, perform a zen koan, but it’s too late; the analysis continues relentlessly on, an almost autonomic reaction after these years of war. Unmanned drop inside the perimeter; ergo, they’re cut off from resupply any other way. However, it reached the ground; therefore it’s either too fast or too far from the World Trade Massdriver to suffer the fate of the sparks I’d seen over the Hudson and Liberty island. That means there’s a sizeable number of people in there, and the outside knows there is; they are holding out against what I can realize must be a veritable horde of machines from City trying to kill them.
The airport; it’s huge, and flat; a perfect killing zone. The machines can’t get close enough. Nowhere else in New York is there as large an open flat space. The humans must own the tunnels beneath as well, or City would simply burrow beneath.
That means – traitor hope – there must be a good number of them!
I manage to stop thinking about it. The Other howls in frustration and beats against the inside of my skull. Normally, this would be a source of great concern, but in this case I welcome it; so occupied, I couldn’t think about the besieged humans if I wanted to.
Eventually, the Other stops pounding and I sink to my knees, spent. Unable to stay upright, I flop over forward, barely mustering the control to turn my face before smacking into the mud.
No sharp objects wait. I don’t deserve that sort of luck.
Is that why it wants me? Human insight into human intruders? How long have they been here? Why are they here? I step firmly on the flood of questions before I give anything away. God, I can’t even think about my situation; I don’t know what It can hear. I can’t move my own body. I can’t get help; my own kind will kill me on sight. I have to do what I’m instructed when It wants.
A small part of me that once enjoyed a challenge begins to grin fiercely, imaginary blood dripping from its mouth.
Oh, this will be a good game.
Behind and above me, the hammer of the guns begins again as my unaware compatriots fight off another mechanism of destruction. Somewhere several inches below the water I can feel my lips, pressed into the mud, turn up in a rictus grin.
God, please, don’t let me die. Not until I’ve won the game.
A new prayer. A new reason.
The Other is silent, apparently paying me no attention while we’re immobile.
And I will win. I will.
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