1 – 5, “Reverberate”

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TW: Injury/Blood, Medical Procedure

           “How are you feeling?” Wes asked as they crossed one of the main streets.

             EJ grunted. 

           He had been checking in on her every once in a while, though she only ever grunted her response. Wes interpreted the grunts to mean, “I’m fine,” though they were probably closer to something like, “everything hurts, please shut up.” Neither of them were feeling very talkative, but Wes needed something to distract himself from the anxiety buzzing in his gut. He tried to focus on making sure EJ was still doing alright. It provided a sort of mundane concern that was significantly less distressing to think about than the fact that he had just been chased through the city by armed soldiers. Or the fact that those soldiers were after the person he was now escorting to his house. Where he lived. Where they’d probably try to find her. 

           Wes cleared his throat suddenly and blinked hard, pushing those thoughts away.

           “Uh, feeling alright?” he stammered. 

           “You just asked me that,” EJ groaned.

           “Oh, right. Sorry.”

           They walked in silence for a time. Wes needed to start considering how he was going to treat EJ’s injuries.

           He had a good stockpile of manual-use medical supplies at the house—spray-cast, sterilizers, autosyringes, and the like. When his parents first figured out his new address, they had sent him boxes of supplies containing everything from basic groceries to what had once been an expensive model of health scanner. The packages had been their silent way of trying to end an argument without actually apologizing. At the time, he had been living independently for months and didn’t have room to spare for boxes of stuff he didn’t ask for, which had only made their gesture more annoying than it already was. Most of what they had sent him still sat in boxes in his storage compartment, unopened. Perhaps it would finally see some use tonight.

           Wes figured the old health scanner would be a good starting point in assessing EJ’s injuries. Its medical database was likely a couple years out of date by now. Still, it would help him keep track of everything that needed to be done, and maybe even offer an insight that Wes would have otherwise missed. 

           He looked over to EJ, who had insisted on walking without support a little ways back. She had quickly recovered from the tiredness of sprinting through the streets, which wasn’t a real surprise to Wes after he had seen how incredibly muscled she was. He was still winded, of course. He wasn’t nearly that athletic. As she walked beside him, she held her neck wound with her good arm like Wes had instructed, pinching and applying pressure to the area where the skin was torn. The blood that had been dripping down her neck and back had dried now, and crusty, red flakes of the stuff dusted the back of her shirt. Wes’s hands were still stained with dry, red streaks too, which made his fingers twitch uncomfortably. He didn’t like when his hands felt dirty, and he was itching to wash off a bit. He tried to ignore the uncleanliness that he felt scratching at his palms as he glanced over at EJ, taking in her neck injury and dislocated arm again. As he did so, she shot him an annoyed look. 

           “Before you ask me again: I’m exactly the same as I was three second ago,” she said.

           Wes didn’t mean to ignore her, he was just focused on other things.

           The arm was a relatively simple fix. He’d need to check for nerve and muscle damage, get the arm back into position, then spray-cast or wrap it. If there were internal damages, he could administer reparative enzymes with the autosyringe. EJ wasn’t actively writhing in pain, so it likely wasn’t too bad. Still, it would be good to get some basic meds in her system—pain killers and the like. 

           The neck wound was a different problem entirely. It would need to be stapled or stitched and spray-casted at a bare minimum. The tear in the flesh would heal, of course, but he wasn’t sure if the electroreceptors would return to full functionality. Wes had never seen someone simply get up and walk away from an injury like this. Despite how bad the neck-wound looked, EJ had only expressed a low level of electrosensory distortion. She reported mild pain and said that her senses felt blurred on the left side when she pulsed. Thinking about it now, Wes would have expected significantly more distress caused by the injury. Electroreceptor injuries were incredibly complicated and they varied wildly in severity depending on where a receptor was injured and what kind of receptor it was. 

           An adolescent Wes had once injured a facial receptor by picking too much into his growing adult skin. He was fine. Such an injury would be the tamest example of receptor damages. Facial receptors were plentiful—each person easily had over 50 of them—and they were the smallest of the two receptor types. Even the worst injuries to facial receptors were mostly negligible, and a person could even stand to lose multiple facial receptors entirely while still maintaining full electrosensory capabilities. 

           Compared to that, EJ’s wound was located on the opposite end of the injury-severity spectrum. She hadn’t wounded the facial receptors, but rather the spinal receptors—which were larger, more sensitive, and ran along the back of the neck. People only had a handful of spinal receptors, roughly 8 to 10 per person per side of the body, and they were the strongest of the electrosensory organs. Spinal receptors were responsible for sending most incoming electrosensory information to the brain for processing. Without them, a person’s electrosenses were effectively blind, and the individual would have their whole equilibrium thrown off-balance. Losing even a single spinal receptor could disrupt everything from a person’s ability to balance to their internal temperature regulation to their sleep cycle and so on. Wes had even heard of cases where a single, precisely placed injury to a spinal receptor had cut off the functionality of all other receptors in the face and neck entirely. That type of injury was called electrotory-paralysis, and it was practically lethal without treatment by heavy augmentation or intensive cloning and transplant procedures to completely replace a person’s electroreceptory system. 

           Spinal receptors were used by the brain to help regulate some seriously important bodily functions. In fact, modern medical science estimated that the brain regulated nearly 60% of the body’s functionality through the electrorecetory system alone. Sustaining heavy damage to any part of your amp or spinal electroreceptors was like experiencing multiple severe concussions or even a stroke. People who lost entire spinal receptors could suffer every symptom ranging from visual blindness to organ failure.

           And yet, despite all of that, EJ was trudging along beside him, seemingly fine for the most part. Back in the bridge shaft, Wes hadn’t really processed the full severity of her injuries, likely because of how anxious he had been. A whole spinal receptor of hers had been cut through—well, shot through, he suspected. At the very least she should be experiencing extreme sensory disorientation. The only explanation he could come up with to explain how she could possibly still be standing right now was that maybe she was operating entirely on adrenaline overflow, pulling her body along on sheer determination to survive. But that clearly wasn’t the case. She didn’t seem on edge or alert. If anything, she was exhausted, not hopped up on adrenaline. She was walking fine, breathing fine, and she was still fully capable of conversation—well, their limited exchanges had been more akin to sarcastic commentary than real conversation.

           Wes was baffled, but the bafflement was beginning to give way to intrigue. He needed to get EJ under that health scanner and figure out what was going on. He knew that the two halves of the brain could function as a whole when cut into two separate pieces. Had the same phenomenon occurred with her electroreceptor? 

           Before he could speculate much further, something in the distance grabbed hold of Wes’s attention. A little ways down the street, he spied the beginning of the steep, dirt path that led to his front porch. He followed the path down with his gaze and found himself staring at what was quite possibly the most beautiful sight he had ever witnessed. In a small plot of land beside the main street, Wes’s modest, antique home stood stalwartly, illuminated majestically on one side by the faint glow of the greenhouse beside it. Wes pulsed to gratitude, feeling tears well up at the corners of his eyes as he was overcome by a wave of profound relief. He blinked them away, immediately feeling childish for getting emotional over simply being home. He couldn’t help it, he was just so worn out.

           “There it is!” he cried out. Then, realizing his own volume, he said quieter, “See it?”

           After everything that had transpired today, he wanted nothing more than to throw open the door, dive into the comfort and safety of his bed, then promptly pass out for the next seventy years. But he couldn’t. The mental image of a dismembered drone lying on his floor reminded him that he still had a job to do. 

           I promised plantboy I would at least get him functional, he reminded himself, tightening his grip on the bag of machine components from the college.

           Miraculously, he hadn’t lost anything in the chase. Once EJ had stopped leaning on him, insisting that she, quote, “didn’t need to be babied,” he had distracted his anxious mind by taking a thorough inventory of the bag’s contents. Despite some intense jostling, everything appeared to still be functional.

           A sudden, anxious realization clawed its way to the forefront of his mind. Plantboy wasn’t his only problem anymore. Wes straightened, then stole a glance back at EJ, who was still holding the nasty, red gash in her neck. In his mind’s eye, he saw the All-Seer soldiers charging him, shouting after her. He realized that he still had no idea why they were chasing her.

           Muted alarms began blaring in the back of his head, warning him of the countless potential dangers that could come of his decision to help her. He knew that part of him—the terrified, death-fearing corner of his soul—wanted nothing more than to run far away from whatever it was that this wounded stranger had gotten herself mixed up in. 

           So why couldn’t he? 

           Why couldn’t he bring himself to abandon her for his own safety? Back in the bridge shaft, why had the decision come to him so clearly? He had been absolutely sure of the choice, not a fragment of questioning static drifting through his mind. And yet, he found himself now perplexed by what he had known for a fraction of a second to be immutable certainty. How did that work? How could you be questioning of your own assured certainty, the clarity that you yourself had experienced in that very moment? It was as if some distant part of him beyond his own mind, nothing more than a faint frequency rattling in his empty amp, had known that he needed to make that decision, despite the associated risks. 

           Wes stopped walking and furrowed his brow at that thought, pulsing to concern.

           What have I gotten myself into?

           He sighed. It was far too late and he was far too exhausted for this strain of paradoxical contemplation. He couldn’t afford to be wasting his dwindling mental energy when he still needed a sharp mind to treat EJ’s wounds properly. What had been the longest and most stressful day of his life thus far wasn’t finished just yet. 

*          *          *

           EJ squinted through the dark towards a faintly glowing structure in the distance. Normally she’d feel her way through streets and buildings with her electrosenses, but the last 30 minutes of searing pain in her neck had beaten that instinct out of her temporarily. 

           The building that Wes gestured towards was a small, white structure in an otherwise empty plot of land. It was boxy and simple, antique in design, and built out of practically ancient materials. Even at this distance, she could make out dark, wooden framings around the windows and doors. Wood! Not the expensive, showy, preserved kind, either. It was just mundane, rustic wood, like it had been cut from a tree and everything. She blinked at the shack, incredulous. Had she died and her soul been transported to some kind of ancient antiquities show? No, that wasn’t right. Even the prior iterations of life had been more advanced than this archaic building. 

           The house that stood before her hadn’t been what she was expecting at all. Most housing districts were dense grids of compact living cubicles. Even in the less crowded city sectors, very few people lived in solitary houses anymore. Organized housing districts were simply more efficient, and the GCA would compensate anyone willing to live in their appointed districts with various quality of life benefits. EJ had assumed that maybe Wes lived in some sort of student housing complex or shared tower, but that didn’t appear to be the case. He lived in the middle of nowhere, which was saying something considering the fact that they were in city central. She glanced around at the surrounding area. The quick survey let her spy the illuminated college spire in the distance, but that didn’t tell her much by way of position. Still, it would be a good landmark for when she’d need to find her way back out of this area later tonight.

           She turned back to the house as they approached and noticed a glowing, domed structure stood beside it. The dome was large enough that EJ briefly wondered if it was a shield or cover of some kind for the small, wooden shack. Wes’s whole house could probably fit beneath the thing. With the two structures beside one another, the dome looked like something out of a speculative science show—existing in stark contrast to the little wooden building, like placing a toy gun next to the real deal. 

           “That’s your house?” she asked her guide. “Uh, you mean the big dome thing and not the storage shack, right?” 

           “Sort of,” Wes laughed. “That’s my greenhouse.”

           EJ was caught off guard by the statement. The geometric structure was huge—much larger than was necessary for growing some flowers. The walls of the structure were repeating hexagonal panels, held in place by a silvery, metal bracing that seemed to run between the panels. The walls of the dome weren’t entirely opaque, as a faint level of light seemed to radiate out from within the structure, splashing cool, white light onto the walls of Wes’s house. 

           “Greenhouse? I think you mean cultivation unit! You could grow enough food in that space to feed a whole city sector, Wes.”

           He laughed at that. Seeing him smile lightened a small piece of EJ’s soul.

           “I, uh, may have a bit of a thing for plants,” he responded sheepishly.

           “Ew,” EJ teased. “Didn’t need to know that.”

           “No, not like that! Not at all like that, ew!” 

           His face immediately flushed bright red and his pulse went embarrassed. This time it was EJ’s turn to smile. It felt nice.

           “You sure about that?” she prodded further.

           She almost started a joking pulse before she remembered the pain in her neck, and caught herself. Her words hung in the air awkwardly, unpunctuated by emotion. It made the sentence sound empty, like a drone had spit it out of a cheap vocal processor. 

           “Uh, that was a joke,” she clarified after a silent moment. 

           Wes chuckled. She was glad she could make him smile.

           Even stronger than the pulsing wound in her neck, EJ felt a stab of guilt in her gut for dragging this stranger into her dilemma. Worse still, he was now offering to help her, even after she had jeopardized his life in her botched escape plan. It ate at her heart knowing that she wasn’t done taking advantage of his kindness. As it stood, her plan was to receive medical treatment, then pilfer supplies and disappear when the kid went to sleep. The least she could do for him at this point was get out of his hair before he was too far tangled up in her own messes. She hoped to the prior iterations of life that Seyet’s men hadn’t gotten a good look at him. She’d never be able to forgive herself if they tracked him down looking for her, and the poor kid got hurt because she had tried to save her own skin by involving him. 

           EJ realized then that she still thought of him as a kid, despite knowing that Wes was older than her by a couple years. She couldn’t help it after seeing the way he had blubbered back in the bridge maintenance shaft. It kind of reminded her of the others back at the station.

           Oh static, she thought. They’re probably worried.

           She dismissed that thought quickly and stepped down the path towards Wes’s house.

*          *          *

           A short time later, Wes had EJ sitting in his kitchen. He had originally extended to her the invitation to sit wherever she’d like, but she had elected to sit on the kitchen counter next to the water dispensary. EJ was already a head taller than Wes and sitting on the counter positioned her somewhat out of his reach, especially in regards to her neck wound. Rather than fumble his way through an awkward explanation of his own faulty invitation, Wes elected to simply retrieve the chair he normally kept on the front porch and relocate it to the kitchen. After dipping out to grab the health scanner from his box-filled storage compartment, he had returned to the kitchen to find EJ seated in the chair. 

           He set the scanner on the counter where EJ had been sitting. 

           “I’ll be right back,” Wes said, not giving her time to respond before slipping away to his study. 

           The study was a small room within the house, likely intended to be a bedroom. Wes had moved his desk and holo-dispaly in there instead, and he used the space to work on projects. He did sleep in the study from time to time, though it was mostly a side effect of working too late into the night and passing out at his desk. He had relegated his actual bed to the greenhouse, naturally. 

           Wes shut the door behind him as he entered, and knelt down. There on the floor, he had arranged the dismantled pieces of an armless courier drone like a sort of deconstructed puzzle. Actuators and carbon-fiber framing braces all radiated out from the armless chassis of the drone, which he had placed in the center of the floor. This let him see where pieces would need to be reconnected once he was reassembling plantboy. He could have easily found the design schematics for standard model courier drones in company public record databases, but he was lazy and this was a simpler method of keeping track of everything. 

           “Hey, buddy,” he said to the robot mosaic in a quiet, almost soothing voice, as if the pieces of plantboy were a child tucked into bed and awaiting a lullaby. “I’m sorry that took so long, but I got the parts we need.”

           Plantboy didn’t respond, as Wes had removed his old power cell earlier that day. 

           “And look,” Wes continued.

           He spread the bag of pieces open on the floor and rooted around for something inside. A moment later he retrieved what he had been looking for and held it up to plantboy’s detached chassis between his thumb and pointer finger. 

           The small, metal rectangle was coated in a thin layer of synthetic green coloring and was no longer than Wes’s thumb in length. It was a data stick, the kind Wes usually stored his assignments on. This particular data stick also contained classwork, though it was of a much more interesting variety of assignment. Wes had made sure to retrieve it from his workshop locker back at the school.

           “Last year I coded an emotion module for my class project,” he explained. “It’s hardly an AI system—far from it in fact—but I think I could modify it for you to use. It would let you run various protocols to signify emotional response. I’m not using the module for anything really, so I thought you might like it.”

           A moment passed. Wes frowned at his own words.

           “I mean, I know you can’t really think things.”

           Plantboy lay silent in pieces on the floor. Another moment passed. Wes made an annoyed expression.

           “Okay look, do you want the module or not?”

           “Who are you talking to?” came a familiar voice from the door suddenly.

           Wes shrieked and whipped around to find EJ standing at the entrance to the study.

           “Static, EJ, you scared me!” Wes breathed. “Can’t you knock?”

           “I did, actually.”

           She gestured towards her neck with a dried-blood-coated hand. 

           “I wanted to ask if you have like a towel or a new shirt. I have bled all over your kitchen floor,” she said dryly. 

           Without being able to pulse, her words all sounded empty and lifeless to Wes, which made it impossible to tell when she was joking. He could see the exhaustion in her. Her face was pale and she seemed to wilt as she stood there in the doorway.

           “Oh, shit, I’m sorry,” he said, and began to stand. “Yeah, come with me.”

           “Are you talking to a scrapped drone?”

           Wes pulsed to embarrassment and felt his face grow hot. From where he was still half-kneeling on the floor, he looked up to meet EJ’s confused expression. The two exchanged confused and embarrassed glances for a moment. 

           “Yeah,” he conceded. “I was.”

           EJ frowned slightly and raised an eyebrow, looking from Wes to plantboy then back to Wes. After a moment she simply said:

           “Oh, uh, alright then.”

           Wes cringed.

           “Why don’t I get the sterilizer set up and take a look at your neck?”

           He stood up, switched off the light in the study, and guided EJ back towards the kitchen.

*          *          *

           EJ squirmed in her seat as Wes worked on her. Having someone else properly tend to her injuries was a new experience that made her bristle with discomfort. It was too vulnerable for her liking. She fought the instinct to pulse to embarrassment or something more hostile.

           He had started with a thorough sweep from the sterilizer, which killed the germs with light and sound or something like that. Like the doctor characters she had always seen in dramatic, entertainment media, Wes insisted on explaining his whole process between mouthfuls of scientific babble that she didn’t understand. EJ ignored most of it, but made agreeing “mhm” sounds like she was listening whenever he made eye contact with her. 

           After the sterilizer, he had scanned her with a hand-held display tablet of some kind, then nodded positively before setting the tablet down and feeling her injured arm. He futzed with the upper arm for a while, painfully kneading her bicep and shoulder. Then he realigned the shoulder joint, gave her a quick word of warning, and pushed hard suddenly, gripping EJ’s dislocated arm tightly and bracing his other hand on the base of her neck. The arm snapped back into place with a sickening, wet POP, and EJ groaned loudly in pain and exhaled forcefully all at once. She had to bite down on her finger to keep from screaming something truly obscene, which left red indents in her skin. Wes jumped back at the sound but collected himself a moment later. He helped her rotate and move the shoulder carefully, feeling out the limits of her arm’s range of movement. Then he spray-cast the arm to keep it stuck in a comfortable position and helped her cinch the arm to her side with a sling. 

           Now he worked at her bullet wound with a needle. She felt the prick as it pushed into her neck, then a pulling sensation on her skin as the stitching thread was dragged through the wound. She had expected more pain, but in truth, she could barely feel the nano-fiber thread as Wes pulled it through her skin again and again, stitching her injury closed slowly. He worked methodically with deft movements, clearly experienced. 

           She sat silently, only now beginning to feel the depth of the exhaustion that had settled in her. She let her eyes close. A moment later, the stitching was done.  

           “That should be good,” Wes finished, giving the thread a light tug before tying it off.

           EJ nodded, then winced as the stitches pulled taught. She swore. Fresh, hot blood dribbled from the stitching, and Wes dabbed it away with a wet rag.

           “It’ll take some getting used-to,” he warned, setting the needle onto a sterilized tray he had prepared earlier.

             He washed his hands in the kitchen’s water dispensary, then retrieved a long, tubular device from the counter and walked back over to stand before her. He presented the device and she took it cautiously. 

             “I’ve loaded this autosyringe with growth enzyme and pain killers. It should help your body repair things in your neck.”

              He smiled, then put a hand to his chin and adopted a questioning expression. EJ cleared her throat.

           “Thanks,” she said, shifting in her seat and feeling awkward under his contemplative gaze. 

           Static, were all medical appointments like this? EJ had never experienced the luxury of attending a proper medical facility. She had always bandaged her own wounds and gotten her own medications from auto-vendors. There were free medical facilities throughout the city, of course, but they were all staffed by AM-Peer medical bots. You couldn’t exactly waltz in there with a bullet in your gut and expect them to not ask any questions. EJ suspected that the bots were programmed to look for any excuse to take patients to the college hospital. Nothing was truly free in the city, and no resource went un-monetized by the GCA. 

           “If you can help it, try to not pulse or actively tap your electrosenses,” Wes advised. 

              Pff, easy for you to say, EJ thought.

           “I’ll be honest, I’m not entirely sure what’s going on with your injury, but we can check how it is in the morning.”

           EJ realized he was pulsing to concern. She felt a quick surge of worry at that, and reached back to feel her stitches.

           “What do you mean?”

           “Well, the bullet didn’t just graze you. It managed to cut through one of your spinal electroreceptors.”

           EJ gave him a blank stare.

           “So?” she asked when he didn’t explain further.

             “So?” Wes looked appalled at her questioning, like he didn’t understand what part of this wasn’t clicking for her. “So you should be in significantly worse condition.”

           EJ made a face like she had just been accused of something heinous.

           Oh, I see what the problem is, she thought.

             “Look, kid, I know you may have never seen a bullet wound before, but that was nothing compared to some of the injuries I’ve sustained,” she retorted, punctuating her statement with a snort in place of a sarcastic pulse. “One time there was this—”

           “No,” Wes said, cutting her off and waving a dismissive hand. “This is serious. I’m talking about like organ failure levels of serious.”

                EJ didn’t feel like her organs were failing, so she continued to give him a doubtful expression. When that didn’t seem to convey her lack of understanding, she shrugged. Wes sighed.

                “Spinal electroreceptors are really important. Your brain uses them to help regulate your internal equilibrium. Losing a whole receptor can make you overheat, it can stop you from ever sleeping again—the list goes on and it’s all awful, really. Hard to fix, too.”

           “But I didn’t lose a whole receptor,” she said in a level tone. “You just stitched it back together and I’ve got this, uh, this thing.”

           She gestured with the autosyringe full of growth enzyme.

             “Well, no, but the spinal receptor on your neck was completely torn through. That should have caused some serious trauma.”

           “I mean it hurt like a—” she began, but Wes didn’t stop talking.

           “I would have expected you to completely shut down hours ago but you managed to run through the city then walk all the way here. You even expressed that you could still pulse and use your electrosenses, it just caused you mild pain.”

           Wes kept the same stunned expression on his face as he spoke, eyes wide and mouth agape. He looked like he was either on the verge of scientific breakthrough or full mental collapse, it could have easily gone either way.

           “Look, you’re kind of freaking me out,” EJ said. “Why don’t we worry about my receptor thing tomorrow and I’ll let you know if I feel like my brain is leaking out through my nose or whatever, alright?”

             Wes took a deep breath and rubbed his face with both hands. 

             “Sorry, you’re right,” he said. “Do you want to wash off? There’s a shower upstairs and I could bring you a change of clothes.”

           EJ felt the stab of guilt return.

           “That’s alright,” she lied. “I can wash off in the morning.”

           A warm shower sounded absolutely heavenly right now, but she felt far too guilty to take him up on the offer. She’d have to settle for a cold bath once she got back to the deployment station. From there she could flesh out the plan to get out of city central and as far away from Seyet as possible. Wes nodded.

           “You need to get some rest for those injuries to heal. There’s a bed in the study, you’re welcome to it,” Wes offered. “I’ll clear my stuff off of the floor, and if you need anything I’ll just be in the greenhouse.”

           He motioned towards a glass door at one end of the room. EJ could see the geometric dome outside, glowing faintly from within. 

           EJ nodded and followed Wes back to the room where he had knelt and spoken to the pieces of robot that littered the floor. He pulsed to embarrassment as he quickly stashed the scrapped drone in his bag, piece by piece, before helping her set up the modular bedding that detached from the wall of the room. Then he took the bag and turned to go. 

           “Thank you, Wes.”

           “Yeah,” he said with an exhale. “No problem.”

           Then he left, shutting the door behind him. EJ waited for the sounds of Wes moving throughout the house to stop. After a couple of moments, she heard a door open and close. Then everything was silent, and EJ was left to her own devices, accompanied only by the dull ache that resonated through her entire body.

           Alright, she thought. Just a few hours of sleep. Then I’ll grab what I need and get out of here. 

           EJ tried to get comfy on the simple bed, but every position made some part of her ache more. Even just lying flat on her back made the fresh stitches in her neck burn with agitation. Eventually she settled on an awkward lean against the wall with a pillow propped behind her back. It was awfully uncomfortable, but it minimized the pain from her injuries. She told herself that the awkward position would help her wake up, and forced herself to be as comfortable as she could manage.

           Just a couple hours, she told herself as her eyelids fluttered shut.

           Then the exhaustion overwhelmed her, and EJ fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

*          *          *

             Lying on his bed, Wes stared up at the hexagonal paneled ceiling of the greenhouse. It had already been an hour, and sleep was nowhere in sight. Whenever he closed his eyes, his mind flashed through the scenes from earlier in the day—EJ bleeding, the faction soldiers charging him, the chase, all of it. So he kept his eyes open, staring upwards into the dark. He tried to quiet the thoughts bouncing around his skull, but he couldn’t. There was still too much he didn’t know, too much he didn’t understand. It put him on edge. 

           Why was EJ fine despite her injury? Why was she running from the most influential faction in city central? He had wanted to ask her more questions, but he had seen how exhausted she was. He was tired too, of course, not to mention completely brain fried. He tried to tell himself that he could ask her in the morning, so there was no point theorizing. It didn’t work. His racing thoughts entertained every possibility, no matter how improbable or fictitious it seemed. Briefly, he even considered that maybe the two situations were connected somehow. Maybe EJ was wanted because she was some sort of medical anomaly in terms of her electrosenses. No, that didn’t make any sense. Setting aside the fact that a medical anomaly like that was pretty much biologically impossible, the All-Seers were information and tech brokers. They primarily dealt in selling off data-mined schematics and designs. Why would they suddenly dip into the medical industry? 

           This close to the college, that would be an especially risky move. AM-Peer put significant resources into controlling the flow of medical products, information, and services in the city. Wes’s professors all claimed that it was to keep medical facilities streamlined and people safe, but everyone saw through that. The GCA didn’t really make decisions based on people’s safety anymore.

           Wes turned over and checked his display surface. Another half-hour of sleepless night had passed, and he was rapidly approaching the early hours of the day. He groaned, sitting up and reaching to access the greenhouse control panel, which folded out from the side of his bed. 

           After a moment of feeling around in the dark, he found it and opened the greenhouse display. He set the tiles of the greenhouse wall to half opacity, turned up the temperature slightly, and lowered the moisture levels in the air. Half a second later, the whole greenhouse began to whirr mechanically as moisture was pulled from the air and the walls began to buzz with electricity. It made the building hum a low tone that almost felt like the pulse for passive contentment in a weird, artificial kind of way. Wes liked to think that it was the plants pulsing, all telling him that they were well maintained in a little choir of grassy complacency. 

           He climbed out of bed and watched as the greenhouse walls shifted from opaque white to semi-translucent. The color of the tiles changed, but the darkness in the greenhouse stayed about the same. It was maybe a tiny bit brighter, but that change could have easily just been Wes’s eyes adjusting to the dark. Wes watched his greenhouse work with a small measure of self-pride. 

           He had designed and built the whole structure himself. Well, it was an ongoing process, really. The modular watering system was going to be one of the finishing touches, but that plan had to be thrown out with his delivery being stolen. He was content to work around the setbacks. They provided new little puzzles to occupy him in the free time between classes. The greenhouse project had been one puzzle after another, each starting with a question. The first question had been how to regulate light, then water, and so on. Wes had solved all these problems one after another in spectacular, inventive fashion.

           The greenhouse regulated its own sunlight through the repeating hexagon tiles that made up its domed exterior. Wes wasn’t much of an architect, and he had initially struggled to decide on an efficient shape for the greenhouse. He figured the shape would largely be determined by the needs of the plants, of course, so he looked into the first major accommodation he would need to design: the building needed to let in sunlight. Well, windows could do that, but windows were boring. Wes turned instead to the modern design of cultivation units, researching how automated farms accounted for sunlight levels. He had expected some kind of giant aperture in the ceiling that opened to let light in. A bit of reading into how cultivation units worked had revealed the disappointing truth. Nature was fickle, and automated industries hardly had time to account for the whims of the atmosphere. The companies that managed the cultivation units had decided to cut out the middleman entirely and create their own sunlight, hence the modern innovation of artificial sunlight generators. Duh. Wes thought that was a lazy solution and not nearly as fun as a giant, dramatic aperture in the ceiling. He didn’t keep a greenhouse to turn a profit on mass-produced greenery, so he could afford to take some creative liberties with his design. In the end, he never managed to find a structurally sound way to make the roof open and close in accordance to outside light levels. Instead, he had made the walls opacity adjustable by inventing his own material, like the whole building was made of tinted glass.

           There were plenty of materials on the market that could adjust their opacity, but they were all either too complicated or not complicated enough or simply too expensive. Wes had ultimately invented his own, which he called “photo-permeable ‘lectric network tiles,” or PLNT. It made him chuckle every time he said it. The material was glass-like, but it was made of a two-part epoxy mixture, which made it easy to inlay each tile with circuitry. Running electricity through plates of the material would cause pigmented particles in the PLNT compound to align, which would make the tiles appear more colored, and thus more opaque. With a greater current, the compound would react stronger, causing the tiles to turn fully white and opaque.  It was like holding a powerful magnet to the underside of a surface covered in tiny flecks of metal. He could modulate the level of current going through the tiles to adjust how much light was allowed into the greenhouse. It wouldn’t solve the problem of rainy or overcast weather, but he had been sure to supplement the system with artificial sunlight to account for that. 

           After finalizing the design for PLNT and creating enough tiles, Wes had been able to construct the dome of the greenhouse. With all the tiles connected physically, Wes could hook them all up to the same current and use the whole system to heat or cool the greenhouse between light from outside and the heat generated by the current in the walls. From there, he had easily been able to hook up a machine that could regulate the levels of water in the air and tie it into the central circuit of the structure. The whole thing connected back to sensor readouts in the control panel. 

           Wes glanced down at his control panel and watched the greenhouse adjust to meet his input specifications. If he was going to be wide awake, he may as well get some work done, he figured. 

           A short time later, plantboy lay half-assembled on a pop-up table at the center of the greenhouse. Wes’s variety of plants were kept on shelving platforms welded to small-scale magnetic suspension rigs. With the floor of the greenhouse being a large, dense metal plate, Wes was able to shift around the layout of his plants with relative ease. For the time being, he pushed them all to the edges of the dome, encircling himself within rings of lush greens and browns. It was a configuration that he used often, as it opened up the center of the dome and allowed him to work on whatever he’d like in the place where he felt the most creative and relaxed. 

           Wes pushed his goggles up his face and hefted the mechanical ankle he had just finished assembling. It was a lot heavier than he had expected. That was good, considering that plantboy would be using the weight of the feet to keep from falling over. Problem was, Wes didn’t know if plantboy’s legs would have the strength to lift his feet into full steps. Plantboy may have to spend his first few days shuffling around until Wes could find a way to cut weight from the feet without compromising their structure or function. He thunked the whole foot and ankle contraption onto the workbench awkwardly, then plugged it into his tablet with a cable. It was finally time to test his programming. Wes took in an excited, anticipator breath, held it, then ran his code. 

             The ankle jerked into sudden motion, twisting and bending, thrashing its way across the workbench. Wes yelped and jerked backwards, then grabbed for his tablet. As he did so, the ankle lurched backwards, pulling the tablet along with it by the cable that still connected the two devices. The tablet slipped barely out of Wes’s grasp. He grabbed again and managed to get a hold of the cable and disconnect it from the ankle. The mechanism stopped abruptly, frozen in a pivoted state like it had been folding itself in two. Error messages assaulted Wes’s tablet, but he stopped the program and closed the alerts. 

           “Well, I guess it works,” Wes said to himself, triumphant in regaining control over the program test. 

           He hadn’t expected the internal motors to be that powerful. After some tweaking, minor repairs, and an updated program, Wes tested the ankle with the code once more. And it worked! The ankle delicately measured out Wes’s desired pouring angles and kept its balance on the wide, metal foot construction. Fueled by this success, he quickly hammered out a reversed replica of the mechanical foot and ankle to be plantboy’s other foot. A quick test of the feet together showed that they were accurately synced and equally balanced, though still on the heavier side. Perfect. He meticulously connected the ankle mechanisms to plantboy’s improved legs, then put everything together. He had even managed to find a new display screen for plantboy’s chassis and rig it up to an external camera feed that was shoddily attached to both of plantboy’s shoulders, 

           Plantboy’s original design—the one made by the delivery company, not Wes—had used cameras so the couriers could see where they were going and make adjustments to their delivery path. That system had been damaged when plantboy’s arms were chopped off, so Wes overhauled and rebuilt it himself. He didn’t have plantboy’s arms to properly mount anything onto, so he settled for screwing the cameras directly into the carbon fiber torso. They hung over the sides of the drone’s chassis where the arm holes still gaped. It wasn’t a very secure fastening, but Wes didn’t have a better method for attaching the cameras at the moment, so it would have to do. Now planyboy would be able to see the plants he was watering, which would let Wes do all kinds of fancy tricks with his programming.

           Wes hauled the newly assembled plantboy off the table and carefully lowered the cumbersome drone to the ground, setting it in a crouched position. 

           “Static, you’re kind of heavy, bud,” he groaned to the still-powered-down drone.

           The new and improved plantboy was a tall but bulky thing. Just as he had designed it, the drone was about 50% leg, 40% feet, and 10% body. A pair of three-toed, metal feet, each larger than one of Wes’s fully splayed hands, formed the base of the drone. From there, the complex ankle mechanisms connected to equally complex, multi-braced leg structures, which bowed backwards at the knee. The legs ended in a short, squat torso, which was pretty much just a display screen in a black, carbon fiber frame with a metal brace screwed into the top of the chassis for a watering can to be mounted to. Two rotating cameras stuck out of the sides of the drone, like the bulging eyes of a dragonfly. Wes thought it was cute in a distinctly ugly kind of way. The arm-holes were still there, of course. Wes didn’t have a clean solution for that without reprinting the frame of the drone, which he had already decided wasn’t worth it. He figured that the holes would let him easily do maintenance on plantboy’s internal components and made sure to waterproof all the wiring that ran through the interior of plantboy’s open torso. He double checked his waterproofing, then his wiring, then his assembly of plantboy’s parts. All good. He would attach the watering can once he was ready to fully implement the drone.

           That meant there was only one thing left to do. 

           Wes pulled the emotion module from his pocket and slipped it into the port on his media tablet. Immediately his display screen became a convoluted sea of digital symbols that Wes recognized as his shabby code project from last year. He sorted through the lines of text for a time, then got to work. 

           He’d need to update the code first. It had been written as a supplemental code-bundle for bots that already had an onboard AI. The AI would sort through the code and basically format the layout of the program to match however they had decided to run their own internal systems. It was also written as a growing code-bundle, meaning it was left open-ended intentionally so that a more complex AI could adapt the file however it wanted. Plantboy wasn’t a bot, though. Wes liked to imagine pieces of a personality in the drone, but in truth, he knew it didn’t have any AI implementation. So the emotion module would need to be somewhat overhauled to mesh with plantboy’s internal systems. That was simple enough to do. 

           Next he’d need to turn the module into plantboy’s brain. As it stood, plantboy’s brain was a company-owned relay station floating in orbit. It was what the delivery companies used to give wide-spread signals to all their active drones simultaneously. If Wes didn’t remove that “old brain” receiver and swap it for something new, planyboy would try to run off to deliver packages in the middle of its greenhouse duty. 

           In making a new brain for platboy, he’d need to clarify the difference between the drone’s online or “awake” brain and its offline or “asleep” brain. That was simple enough. He had already mulled this question over and come to an idea that satisfied him. Obviously plantboy’s awake state would be watering the plants. As for the sleeping state, Wes was going to set aside a section of the greenhouse to be plantboy’s recharge station. While it was asleep, plantboy could simply go inactive and charge its battery. Wes’s greenhouse already collected solar energy all day to run its own systems, so it would be easy to syphon off a tiny portion of that solar cell and feed it to plantboy. 

           Additionally, Wes would need to create a trigger that would cause plantboy to switch on and off. That was equally easy. While offline and charging, plantboy could be constantly tapping Wes’s various greenhouse sensors to tell when the plants needed any form of tending. If sensors detected that the average, internal water levels of, say, 80% or more of the plants were dwindling, plantboy and his trusty watering can would get to work. Once the sensors were satisfied, plantboy would go to sleep on his recharge station. Simple. 

           Wes typed the necessary code into his tablet and double checked everything. After a few edits, it was perfect. He unplugged the emotion module and cradled plantboy’s brain delicately in the palm of his hand. He was practically shaking with excitement at this point. Well, excitement and exhaustion. Wes’s brain told him that the sun would be rising soon, but he willed himself to ignore that realization.

           Wes had originally grabbed the emotion module for his own entertainment. Only after retrieving the piece had he realized how it could function as the necessary piece of plantboy’s new brain. While it would have been quite entertaining to program plantboy with some basic emotional expression—Wes had been considering an angry chassis wiggle when plants weren’t watered and a happy, robotic chime when the gardening was complete—he had ultimately cut those parts of the program from his design. He was worried the emotion code-bundles would get too complicated for the drone to manage, which could result in shutdowns or faulty watering. Wes wasn’t exactly working with a powerful processor here, and he didn’t have an orbital broadcast relay or an AI at his disposal to make plantboy any smarter. Sometimes projects had to shift suddenly from the original design to maintain their efficiency or functionality. For now, that was fine. If he really cared, he could find a way to work it out later. Right now he was far too excited to get hung up on that.

           Wes plugged the module into plantboy, backed away, and tried to resist the urge to squeal in delight as the initialization message popped up on plantboy’s display screen. Slowly, the machine began to buzz and whirr, coming to life before Wes’s very eyes. First the cameras focused, then the display pulled up the greenhouse sensors, then the legs began to tentatively extend. Wes couldn’t hold in his excitement any longer. He flailed his hands and pulsed to a mixture of triumph and excitement as plantboy calculated its balance and rose successfully to its feet for the first time.

           “Yes!” Wes exclaimed.

           As the sun began to rise, Wes spent the next hour running plantboy through various test paths in the greenhouse. Everything seemed to be in working order. The drone could fully lift its metal feet, its ankles didn’t seem to have any problems maintaining the various angles of pouring water, and it was processing the camera feed information smoothly. Wes powered the drone down, strapped a half-full watering can to its head, and moved on with his tests. Here, he encountered something he hadn’t expected. 

           After successfully pouring water over three plants that Wes had spaced out in the center of the greenhouse, plantboy’s leftover speaker flickered online with a low level of quiet static. Wes cocked his head and stared at the drone. He had deleted all programming for the drone’s onboard speaker, it shouldn’t even be functional. He didn’t need plantboy saying things like—

           “Please confirm your delivery!” the drone announced suddenly through a thick layer of static. 

           Wes jumped back.

           “What the—” he started.

           “Please confirm your delivery!” plantboy chimed again. 

           Wes stared at the drone, mouth open in confusion. 

           Didn’t I delete all of plantboy’s old files? I guess something in my program accessed the onboard audio.

           He certainly hadn’t programmed plantboy to do that.

           Wes powered down the drone, pulled the emotion module, and checked it. Then he checked the files stored on the new plantboy. Sure enough, he found the old audio files from when plantboy had still been a courier, though he wasn’t sure how they had gotten there. He deleted them, then triple checked his program. No, there definitely wasn’t anything in the emotion module’s programming that even remotely accessed the drone’s old speaker. 

           So he updated the module, plugged it back in, and rebooted the drone. He was faster with his second round of testing. In just a half an hour Wes was refilling the watering can stuck to plantboy’s head. So far, everything was running perfectly fine and plantboy hadn’t made a peep. Not a sound. He didn’t know what the problem had been, but he guessed that deleting plantboy’s old files had solved it somehow. 

           “Well, you’re just about ready for gardening duty,” Wes told the drone with a proud smile. 

           “Delivery confirmed!” plantboy cheered. 

           Wes started again. Then he frowned.

           “How?” he groaned, rubbing his temple and pulsing to annoyance. “I deleted those files entirely, you shouldn’t even have them. They don’t exist anymore!”

           “Delivery confirmed!” plantboy agreed.

           “No, not confirmed! Not at all! How are you doing this?” Wes demanded.

           He powered down the drone and pulled open his code one more time. The tiles of the greenhouse were beginning to shift for the day, turning slightly more clear and revealing a dark, overcast outdoors. Wes groaned and glared at the code adorning his display surface. 

           “I don’t get it. What part of this am I messing up?” he lamented. 

           After checking through the program’s recorded run-log, he found it. A single line of code was run in the background of several other functions at timestamps that matched the various instances where plantboy’s speakers had spit out a line. Wes isolated the line and read through it. Or, he tried to read through it, but it wasn’t even code. It was just numbers, not a program at all. He compared it to his own code to see if the long stream of numbers was being pulled from somewhere in his program. Maybe it was some kind of weird metadata in the courier drones. He ran a cross-analysis program. It came back with zero hits. Wes shook his head, growing exasperated. Where had this line of numbers come from? It was pages long, he definitely hadn’t typed that. Had some part of plantboy generated it?

           Wes copied his entire code over to a new file, scrubbed the emotion module entirely, and rewrote his code by hand, closely following the older, copied version. Just to be sure, he even wrote in a line that would immediately shut down and disconnect the speaker system on boot-up. Then he plugged it back into plantboy and started the reboot cycle, practically vibrating to the frequency of confusion.

           When the boot-up completed, plantboy immediately began trying to water plants that weren’t there, pouring water right onto the floor. Wes stopped that function of the program remotely from his tablet and put plantboy in a freeze-state. The drone stopped suddenly, still leaning forward with a dribble of water leaking from the spout of the can. Wes stared at the frozen drone, then furiously scrolled through the ongoing program run-log. So far, he didn’t see any sign of the strange number sequence. Wes looked back at plantboy.

           “Well?” he questioned.

           Plantboy said nothing. 

           “Say something.”

           Wes waited for a solid five minutes. Nothing.

           “Of course now the problem can’t be reproduced, but the second I turn you on for real—”

           “Please confirm your delivery.” the frozen drone chimed, quieter this time. 

           “Aha!” Wes shouted, eyes going wide as he pointed an accusatory finger at the drone.

           He hadn’t unfrozen the drone, but the weird number-code ran anyway. He waited. His breathing was forceful with exasperation and excitement and confusion all at once. He glanced down at the program’s run-log and spotted the long string of numbers scrolling across the screen. Another couple minutes passed. Wes ran a shaky hand through his hair.

           “What is happening? Are you doing that?”

           The drone didn’t respond. After waiting a few more minutes, Wes powered down the drone and checked the emotion module. 

           There was new code on it

           Whole, coherent lines of text that Wes hadn’t written, not more streams of numbers. Wes leaned into his screen and read through the code meticulously.

           Something had written an emotional response code into the module, alongside a line of text that would let plantboy bypass his pre-programmed walking route. 

           Wes ran a test program in an attempt to trace the source of the code-bundle, but his tablet said it had come from the module itself. That was impossible. Wes copied the whole module, wiped it, then on his tablet he ran the old version that didn’t have those self-inserted code bundles. After half an hour of an intense stare-down with his display screen, Wes caught a glimpse of another string of numbers popping into the code inexplicably. He breathed out heavily. What had he just discovered? Thoughts were beginning to pour into his mind—some worried, some excited, but most of them just utterly confused.

           The emotion module was programmed to be growing code for an AI to expand on. But plantboy absolutely did not have an AI. Neither did the emotion module. There was no way the school would have given budding AIs to a group of students for a simple class assignment. There definitely wasn’t anything as complex as an AI on the module. If there was, Wes would have seen it in the code. There were only a few other places where the new code could have possibly come from: either it was some piece of plantboy’s old system, or Wes’s tablet was writing it. Again, Wes was fairly certain that it couldn’t have been either of those. His tablet’s only trace of the weird number strings were the ones he had just copied from the module. And plantboy had been wiped multiple times over in the reassembly process. So where were these extraneous bits of code coming from?

           Rain was beginning to drum against the greenhouse dome lightly as Wes ran every possible scenario through his brain. He could feel the bags under eyes like someone had tied weights to his lower eyelids. He exhaled and took a second to collect his thoughts. 

           “Okay,” he said, talking himself through the puzzle. “Something in the module is writing its own code. It didn’t come from me, and it didn’t come from my system, so where?”

           He glanced at the powered down plantboy.

           “No, that doesn’t make any sense. Plantboy was a courier. Couriers have routine maintenance. If he were divergent somehow, they would have spotted it before he was ever sent on a delivery.”

           With each perplexing minute, it was growing more and more tempting to write this off as some kind of one-in-a-million chance occurrence, but he was determined to find a more rational explanation. One-in-a-million chance occurrences didn’t happen to Wes. He wasn’t some scientist on the verge of a world-altering breakthrough, he was just a mildly disgruntled student—thank the prior iterations for that. No, he willed himself to believe in the rational. This wasn’t something spectacular. There was always a reason for these kinds of anomalies. He just had to find it. 

           He ran through the potential sources for the self-writing code again and again, crossing them off one by one. Then he groaned and shot a tired glare at the emotion module plugged into his tablet. 

           “Yeah, it has to be the module. I guess something on it is pseudo-AI.”

           He decided to run one final test. He wanted to see how far the self-altering code bundles would go. Wes was sure that rogue-AI murder machines were strictly the product of entertainment media and speculative science serials, but just in case, he installed a remote kill command into the module. If the self-writing code got out of hand in any way, he could remotely wipe plantboy’s new brain. 

           He took a deep breath, then started the trial. 

           For an hour, Wes let plantboy go about the room watering the various plants that were still pushed to the outer rim of the dome. He waited, pulsing to anxiety as he watched more complex number-strings pop into existence within his code.

           In the first half-hour, the code began to write itself again. First it wrote its own emotional responses. That had not been what Wes was expecting it to start with, but it explained why plantboy had suddenly accessed its own speakers earlier. He guessed that it wanted to start building its emotional expression on exclamations and sound bites. As the drone moved along the row of plants, plantboy chimed “delivery confirmed” after he finished watering each one. After that, new code let plantboy find his own paths, rather than sticking to the efficient routes Wes had planned out and pre-programmed. Suddenly plantboy was cutting across the center of the greenhouse, jumping from plant to plant rather than following a neat circle path around the edge of the dome’s interior. After that, nothing else seemed to change for a while. 

           Half an hour later, at precisely one hour into the test, Wes’s remote kill switch got deleted. He stood up suddenly, holding his tablet and staring at the screen in disbelief. Anxiety began to rise in him, no matter how many times he told himself that rogue-AI murder machines were just the stuff of fiction. Telling himself that it was definitely for science and not because he was terrified, Wes tried to initiate the kill switch. But it was gone. Only a string of numbers sat in its place. 

           Wes watched his code without blinking for another hour, long after plantboy had finished watering the plants. He worried that the next self-writing code would be a command to explore, to go somewhere else like into the house or to some unknown secret location. But nothing else changed. Now planyboy stood beside him at the table, adjusting what it was looking at every once in a while. 

           All Wes could do was set down his tablet and stare at the drone. The joking theory that EJ may be some crazy medical anomaly with unexplainable powers was growing more and more favorable in Wes’s mind out of a sheer inability to comprehend what was happening. In Wes’s defense, the crack theory had backing from the night’s prior events. First EJ’s wounds had been seemingly fine, now plantboy was self-programming. It seemed that nothing Wes had studied made sense anymore—first he had lost biology to unexplained-medical-anomaly EJ, and now robotics was consumed by the anomaly as well. 

           Wes stood up, didn’t bother stretching, and made his way towards the door. It was time to give up. He was exhausted, anxious, and he needed something to drink. Something strong, preferably. If plantboy was going to become magically self-autonomous, he figured there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Maybe after the drone achieved true enlightenment and self-awareness, Wes could convince it to water his plants for him anyway, as a favor for bringing him to life. 

           As he moved to exit the greenhouse, metal footfalls thunked close behind him. He stopped at the door and sighed. 

           “Right. You make your own pathfinding now,” he accused plantboy. 

           “Delivery confirmed!” the drone cheered. At the word “confirmed,” Wes had the distinct impression that the drone was saying “yes.”

           “Great,” he groaned. “You want something to drink too?”

           He buzzed himself through the greenhouse door and stepped into the rain. Before he could take another step towards the house, a loud thud sounded behind him in the doorway. Wes turned around. 

           Plantboy was trying repeatedly to step through the door. Even with the watering can on its head, the drone was shorter than Wes in its usual standing position, but it had extended its legs too far and was now bumping into the top of the doorway. After a moment of robotic struggling and frustration, the greenhouse door began to beep angrily, shouting that something was in the way of the automatic entrance.

           “Calm down, calm down,” he instructed the drone with a tired pulse.

           Wes turned back to help the drone fit its legs through the door. As he did so, he made a mental note:

           Note to self: change the file name from “plantboy” with a lowercase “p” to “Plantboy” with a capital “P”. All hail our self-autonomous greenhouse overlord.

<END OF CHAPTER 5>

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1 – 4, “Resonate”

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TW: Injury/Blood, Panic/Dissociation

           EJ pulled off the tattered smock as she ran and threw it to the ground. Then she pulled up the collar of her undershirt all the way to the top of her neck where the spine met the skull. By pulsing, she could activate the shirt’s pulse-responsive material to shape and adjust the fabric to her needs. She did so, and it tightened to apply pressure around her neck wound, which was throbbing so hard now that the corners of her vision had begun to darken. 

           EJ wasn’t sure how much longer she could sustain her escape on adrenaline alone, but the sound of footfalls close behind spurred her onwards.

           She was in bad shape. 

           Her right arm hung loose at her side as she crossed through the alleyways, its skin prickling with the numb buzz of energy burns from the pulse-weapon that had hit her. Jostling the arm sent pain shooting through her shoulder, which she believed had been dislocated by an augmented punch from Seyet’s security commander. She wrapped her other arm tightly around her aching chest and side, as if she could hold herself together as she ran. 

           Think, EJ, think! You aren’t safe yet, you need a plan. 

              Her instincts told her to find the nearest crowded street and throw herself into it. Masses of people were great for making an escape. They provided cover, they were easy to blend in with, and they slowed down pursuers. It wasn’t much to go off of, but it was a good start.

           Okay, where’s the nearest crowd?

           EJ cut through another alley and popped out onto a side street. Empty. She quickly crossed and ducked into another series of alleyways. When she exited onto the other side, she glanced down the street. 

           That’s when she saw it—the college spire. 

           The spire was a large steel sculpture that towered above most other buildings in city central, making it visible from pretty much everywhere within the district. It had three segments, colored ribbons of steel that spiraled together into a point at the top. Each segment of the sculpture represented one of the three companies of the GCA—blue for AM-Peer, green for Ixeonics, and yellow for Serasynth Co. Each of the colleges had one like this. They doubled as a relay beacon, broadcasting the school’s personal communication feed throughout the city sector. 

           EJ paused to stare at the tip of the spire, which rose over the rooftops of the surrounding auto-vendor shops. 

           The school certainly was the nearest crowd. It operated at all hours of the day, which meant that there was a nigh-constant trickle of students making their way in and out of the campus’s main gate. It was also easily the safest place in city central—protected by an on-board AI security system with access to legions of security drones from across the 99th and 100th districts. Well, it was safe for most civilians. Not EJ. The AI would scan for identification as people stepped into its range. Then drones would be deployed if a threat to the campus population was detected, which usually meant it had picked up on someone registered in the district’s security server. EJ suspected that it also probably scanned for things like augments and weapons, the same way the bouncer pulsed at you before letting you into a club. Did EJ qualify as a campus threat? She wasn’t armed really, nor was she heavily augmented, but a random civilian with no pulse identification and untreated wounds was probably a red flag of some kind. It was the medical facility of AM-Peer, so they’d probably be scanning for injured persons as well, kind of like an emergency bot. 

           EJ hypothesized that there were two likely outcomes from venturing onto the college campus. Either she’d get tagged as a threat and security drones would be deployed to neutralize her, or she’d get tagged as injured, and medical drones would be deployed to hospitalize her. Both situations would certainly scare off her pursuers, but it would also land her squarely in a GCA holding facility, likely hundreds of thousands of bits in debt to AM-Peer as well. 

           Okay, so maybe the college wasn’t her best course of action. But what else did she have? Dammit, the footprints on her tail were getting closer, she didn’t have time to sit here and strategize for perfect outcomes. She just needed to not get shot and/or captured by Seyet’s soldiers. Did that mean that getting shot and/or captured by AM-Peer security drones was a better alternative? Probably not. At least AM-Peer would leave her alive, if only to live out the rest of her life as indentured company property. They’d likely use medical debt to legally force her into the indenturement, but at least she wouldn’t be bleeding from a bullet wound in the neck anymore. 

           She thought about that for a second.

           Oh fuck me. 

           EJ started towards the college spire in the distance. It was the most readily available form of relative safety, and she didn’t have time to consider every other nearby building. She could figure out the GCA detainment thing later. Each step sent waves of pain through her, and she could feel warm blood sticking her undershirt to her skin and dribbling further down her back.

           In the closing distance between her and the college spire, she needed to figure out how to use the campus to escape her pursuers without announcing herself to the college’s security scan in one form or another. EJ’s instincts whispered in her ear once more. 

           If there was just a crowd of students I could slip into…

           Wait a minute. That might work. If she could make the thugs chasing her think she had run into the college, there was no way they’d follow after. If they did, they’d be risking the same security drones that EJ had to worry about. Maybe she could lead them to the front of the campus, then slip into a crowd of students and head back down the main street. Would that work? She’d have to let Seyet’s soldiers get pretty close, close enough that they’d see her headed in the direction of the college, but not so close that they’d see her duck into the crowd a moment later.

           Heavy footprints thudded in the distance, growing louder. No time to think it through, she needed to act now or the plan wouldn’t even get off the ground.

           EJ navigated through some alleyways, almost doubling back on her path but not quite. She positioned herself at a corner street and slowed, waiting for the approaching soldiers. A few deep breaths later, she caught a glimpse of shadows rounding the corner down the street towards her. When the first of Seyet’s pursuit party clipped into view, she ran. Shouting sounded behind her suddenly, and she sped up as much as she could manage. The college was close, and she’d be within sight of it in one more turn, her pursuers close behind. Hopefully close enough to figure out where she was heading, but not smart enough to see through her plan.

           EJ whipped around the corner and headed straight for the college spire, which was set directly in front of her now. Then she saw the campus, and a crucial piece of her escape plan shattered before her eyes. 

           It was empty. 

           Panic surged in EJ’s chest. This was it; she was finished. Seyet’s soldiers would be able to see her when she hit the campus, there were no crowds of students to blend in with. They’d know that she hadn’t actually entered the school. Hell, they’d watch her turn onto the main street and cut her off. Did she just run at the school and hope security deployed? No, that was far from a solution to the problem. She had to hope that the idea of college security would scare off the soldiers. She blinked against the pain that was resonating through every inch of her body. 

           Wait, something was happening just past the spire. The gate was opening. Was it a group of students coming through? She had maybe a couple seconds to make the decision: did she gamble on what was potentially a group of students, or switch course and try to lose the soldiers all over again? A figure stepped through the gate in the distance. 

             EJ didn’t slow down.

*          *          *

             Wes buzzed himself through the front gate and stepped out onto the main street, feeling the anxious pulse leak out of him. There was no avoiding it now. He’d have to walk through the crowded city streets to make his way back home. He couldn’t find the energy to really feel nervous about it, just disgruntled. 

           I’ve survived this before, Wes reasoned. I just need to get home, then I can crash and forget that today ever happened.

             Today had been one disaster after another. He had hoped to get home in time to start building plantboy, as the poor, disassembled drone lying on his floor back home was still barely functioning. But in a single conversation—well, a single conversation that had spiraled into a full-blown panic attack followed by a depressive episode—he had lost all motivation to work on the project that had excited him only an hour prior. 

           Sorry, plantboy, Wes thought. I’ll get you operational at least, I promise.

           Wes closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He still had to force himself to feel emotions, otherwise a low, defeated pulse would leak out of him pathetically. He hated that about himself. When he exhaled, he forced himself to pulse something optimistic and cheerful, even if he didn’t truly feel the emotion. 

           In his electrosense, Wes could feel the mechanical pieces of plantboy in his bag, the swarms of moving people in the streets deeper within the city, and a frantic pulse approaching him. 

           Wait, what the—

             Wes barely had time to process his confusion before someone thumped into him hard. He yelped in surprise but managed to stay standing. He opened his eyes and launched into a rapid string of apologies, pulsing embarrassment and fumbling through his words.

             “Are you alright? I totally wasn’t watching, I’m—”

           Wes shut up.

             The person who had crashed into him was doubled over and gasping hard, barely managing to keep upright. Wes let them grip his arm for balance. 

           Looking over the person, he judged that they were of average height, which was about a head taller than his shorter stature. They were drenched in sweat, which dripped from their short, black hair. Their shirt seemed like it was too tight, even beginning to indent on their dark skin. That worried him. The arm that wasn’t gripping onto the sleeve of his smock hung limply at their side. That really worried him. Despite the haze that had clouded his mind, Wes felt a strong emotion begin to emerge. He pulsed to concern, genuinely feeling the emotion. 

              “Oh shit, hey, are you okay? Do you need me to call medical?”

           Wes felt his mind sharpening, snapping back into focus as his medical instincts took over. He put a tentative hand on the back of the doubled over person. Immediately he felt something warm and damp soaking through the fabric of their shirt, and his hand came away red. Blood. Then he saw the wound beneath the thin fabric of their shirt. It looked like something had torn through their skin, slicing through a couple large electroreceptors just below their skull on the right side of their neck. They had pulled their shirt up and over the wound, then likely tightened the fabric to apply pressure. Normally that would have been a good thing, but the shirt didn’t have the right angle on their neck to apply the proper kind of pressure. Instead, it looked like the tightened material was cinching down around their throat, cutting off part of their air flow. 

             “You need to loosen your shirt,” Wes commanded, still pulsing in concern, “You’re strangling yourself.” 

             The person coughed hard. Then they managed a mangled pulse, and the fabric of the shirt loosened, sliding down their neck and exposing the open wound. Wes swallowed and tried to get a closer look at the injury, but the person used their grip on his arm to pull themself upright suddenly. 

              “Hey, don’t move. You’re hurt,” Wes protested. 

           “Please,” the injured person was pulsing to a jittery, pleading frequency as they rasped out the words. “Just act like you know me.”

               “Uh, what?”

             They wrapped their functional left arm around Wes’s shoulders suddenly, as if the two of them were walking side by side. 

             “Like we’re friends,” they coughed out. “Please.” 

             Wes met their eyes and could see that they were unfocused and hazy. Between cutting off their own air supply and losing blood, the person was likely delirious, not to mention in shock. 

             “Okay, okay,” Wes said confidently. “You’re in shock, you need to breathe. Are you a student here? I can take you to the applied.”

               The person shook their head.

             “No, no. Just walk. They’re following me.”

               Yeah, that’d be the delirium talking, Wes thought.

               “Hey it’s okay, no one’s following you. Look, we need—”

              Wes glanced ahead as he spoke. He looked past the college spire in front of him, and his vision focused on something moving down the street in his direction. A small group of people were jogging towards the front gate, shouting something. 

           The person holding onto Wes swore and gripped his smock tighter. 

              There was a long list of things that made Wes anxious. Surprisingly, medical emergencies weren’t on that list. He had been trained in first aid from a very young age, and he was actively attending the GCA’s very own biomed school. He had seen his fair share of bad injuries during observation periods in the applied course, and as a child, he had even watched with fascination as his own father had gotten stitched up by one of the campus med bots. No, an injured stranger didn’t make Wes anxious one bit. A group of people wearing faction logos on their jackets and running towards him, however, absolutely did. 

             “Hey! Stop her!” Someone shouted from the approaching group. 

             Completely forgetting the injured person still clinging to him, Wes froze, petrified with terror.

*          *          *

              “We’ve got to go,” EJ rasped out. 

             She turned and yanked on the smock of the student. He didn’t follow. 

           I don’t have time for this.

             EJ let go of the student and turned to run once more, but part of her hesitated. Why wasn’t the student running too? He could definitely see the faction logos on the soldiers’ jackets, and everyone in city central knew that the All-Seers were serious trouble. Surely he’d buzz himself back into the school right? Call for security? Anything?

              Dammit, EJ, you don’t have time to worry about other people right now, she scolded herself. 

           EJ took a few unsure paces, then stole a glance back at the student. He was shaking, still standing in place but trembling all over. He had tried to help her, now she was just going to leave him here?

           Goddammit.

           EJ leapt back and grabbed the frozen student firmly by the wrist.

           “You need to run, now,” she instructed, pulsing to reprimand. “Can you do that?”

           The student blinked and twitched, clearly terrified. The only response he could manage was a pathetic whimper. EJ could feel him pulsing to a mix of panic and anxiety. If she left him here, those thugs would tear him apart, looking for her. EJ swore at herself for involving the student in her escape.

           If we survive this, I’m never going to stop pulsing an apology, she told herself.

           EJ dragged the student behind her and took off down the street. Soon enough, he remembered how to move, and began to run with her. They pushed through the crowded streets, people swearing at them as they shoved by. EJ pulsed to get a wide-cast view of her surroundings, and her injury seared with pain. Her electrosensory view of the world came back partially hazy and swirling, like someone had numbed the right side of her brain. She pulsed again frantically.

           Had she lost too much blood? That shouldn’t inhibit her electrosenses, right? 

           Then realization struck.

           Oh. The bullet cut through my electroreceptors.

           With a couple sensors out of commission, she’d have to work with what information she could decipher from the pulses.

           The sensory feedback that she could make out told her that their pursuers had split, sending a couple soldiers ahead to cut them off. The split-off group had tried to get a street ahead of them—taking a series of alleyways to EJ’s left side where her electrosense could still feel things, thankfully—and she could feel them moving like a metal-coated blur in her amp. The rest of the soldiers followed behind, still shouting. She was lucky that they were so augmented, or she would have had a hard time picking them out in a sea of electrosensory feedback.

           The crowds of people were beginning to become aware of the ongoing chase, and they parted to make way for EJ as she ran through the streets, still towing the student behind her. That was bad. If they were making way for her, they definitely weren’t impeding the path of people chasing after them. EJ was hoping the crowds would slow down Seyet’s soldiers somewhat. Without the buffer of needing to push through people, they’d quickly catch up to her. 

           EJ ducked into an alley that headed back towards the college to avoid the soldiers who had tried to cut them off down the street. When she pulsed again, she felt a large metal structure at the edge of her electrosenses, just out of reach. She pressed her pulse harder, but that only made her wound flare with agony.

           Then it occurred to her.

           That’s the bridge.

           EJ switched course suddenly, yanking the poor student through a series of crowded alleys that set them moving away from the college diagonally. She could hide them in the bridge’s maintenance shaft, but she’d need to get there well ahead of their pursuers. 

*          *          *

             Panic was flowing through Wes like a powerful anesthetic, numbing his senses and making his mind swim in a sea of confusion. He felt his shoulders bump and shove past people in the crowded streets, but the impacts were muted and distant, like the sound of a dropped pillow hitting the floor. Were people shouting? He couldn’t make out specific words or phrases, just a general sense of overwhelming noise surrounding him. He was practically flying through the city streets, but he didn’t feel his legs moving beneath him. Logically he knew that his heavy breathing had to be from physical exertion, but it was odd. He didn’t feel like he was running, rather the world was shifting position around him. It was almost like he was watching himself move from over his own shoulder. It was exhilarating, but in a terrifying kind of way that made his stomach churn like he had been dropped from a great height. 

           The whole experience felt like a recurring nightmare—the kind where you died at the end and woke up in a cold sweat. He was trapped watching himself go through familiar motions unconsciously, just waiting for the hidden nightmare monster to snap his neck and return him to his bed with a heart-pounding jolt.

           Wes watched as he was pulled along a complex pathway by the injured individual he had tried to help at the college’s front gate. Where were they taking him? How were they still going?

           In the distance, the transport bridge seemed to be growing larger and larger. Wes realized that the injured person was towing him towards it. He glanced upwards and watched as the bridge grew closer until they were standing right beneath it. Remnants of bots hung from thick cables, draped over the edge of the immense, steel structure. They dangled and swayed in the cool evening air, display screens cracked and blank. In an odd, solemn kind of way, it would have felt tranquil if his mind wasn’t thoroughly terrified and utterly detached from existence at the moment. 

           The injured person ahead of him yanked his arm in a new direction. Wes followed them under the bridge.

*          *          *

           EJ pulled the petrified student around to the other side of the bridge’s main support pillar, which rose out of the center of the street. Just as she had done earlier in the day, she felt around with her good arm for the loose panel in the steel plating, then popped it free with a quick yank. It creaked open on rusted hinges, forming a small entrance into the pillar’s interior that was likely meant for maintenance drone access. EJ grabbed the student by the wrist again and ushered him in ahead of her, helping him duck to fit into the shaft. His whole body was trembling, and EJ eased him to the floor of the small shaft before stepping in and pulling the hatch shut behind her. 

              The interior of the maintenance shaft was dark, except for a small series of flickering pilot lights that extended up the shaft in intervals. There was actually enough room for both of them to sit comfortably in the space, but EJ was far too anxious to sit down—they weren’t in the clear quite yet. If you climbed the shaft, you’d come to a narrow crawl space positioned directly beneath the bridge railway. There, you could access the bridge controls, which was another reason that the maintenance shaft was definitely made for repair drones and not people. Despite that, metal rungs stuck out from the wall behind where EJ was standing and ascended up the shaft. From the narrow maintenance area beneath the rails, you could pop open another hatch and crawl out onto the bridge proper. So much had happened in just the last few hours, it felt like weeks had passed since she had climbed the shaft with her large battery box, though it had only been a handful of hours ago.

           EJ tentatively felt at her wound and pulled away a bloodied hand. Every part of her still ached, but her exhaustion worked somewhat like a painkiller in that she was simply too worn out to care about the pain burning in her shoulder, neck, ribcage, and everywhere else, really. Once she was finally out of this mess—well, actually wait. There were several messes now. EJ made a short list of them in her head. 

           First, she needed to get herself and this kid away from their pursuers. She couldn’t figure out her other messes if she didn’t live through this one first. Unfortunately for her, she was far too stubborn to simply roll over now, which did mean she would need to deal with the other messes she had created. 

           Second, she needed to get the kid someplace that was definitively safe and away from Seyet’s many “eyes” throughout city central. Because apparently he had those. EJ pulsed briefly in frustration despite the pain it caused her. She should have assumed Seyet had her under surveillance. It was an obvious precaution she hadn’t thought to consider, and it had almost cost her severely. EJ shook her head. Dammit, she didn’t have time to beat herself up for stupid mistakes. She was alive for the time being, and she had dragged someone else into this massive fuck-up of hers. She could berate herself all she wanted once she had sorted out mess number two. 

           The thought briefly occurred to EJ that perhaps she was mess number two. She discarded that thought.

           Third on the to-do list, she needed to get out of city central, possibly permanently. Dammit. That one hurt to admit, but she knew it was true. She had spent so much time away from her home district in the months prior that simply the act of catching a transport to city central made her forget every worry. She knew, of course, that coming back to city central had been primarily for business. More than that, it had been about survival—the deal with Seyet had been her only real chance at finally getting away from the various groups of people that wanted her dead. It was an awful position to be in and a worse reason to return to city central, and yet a piece of her had still immediately relaxed upon stepping off the transport and into the 100th district station. And now, that decision to come back home was the very reason she had to leave, quite possibly forever. It felt like she had been betrayed by her longest ally, fatally wounded by her own knife. It sucked.

           Where did she even run to? There were very few places where Seyet wouldn’t be able to chase after her—about six places total she counted. Three of those involved selling herself to the GCA and spending the rest of her life in one of their corporate work camps as company property. After just a few hours of being one misstep away from immediate death, that didn’t sound too bad.

             Actually, no, scratch that. EJ was sure Seyet could find a way to have her assassinated within the company territory. Hell, the GCA would probably cover up the murder for him to avoid bad press of any kind. Damn. Well, that meant the list of safe places was down to about three… Wait. How long had she been ignoring that noise? Heavy breathing in the distance. Had Seyet’s soldiers followed them to the bridge?

           EJ slowed her breathing suddenly and went perfectly still. She listened carefully and traced the direction of the sound. It was…below her? Her gaze wandered down to the crumpled form of the student. Oh. Oh no. 

           He was crying quietly, struggling to take a full breath in between choking out more silent sobs. 

             Oh shit.

             EJ added “making a kid cry” to the long list of reasons she needed to apologize to this poor student. She was mess number two, wasn’t she? She crouched down, feeling the ache of so much running shoot through her legs.

           What should I say? 

           EJ guessed that something to the effect of ‘sorry for kidnapping you, but I’m trying to not get us killed,’ wasn’t going to be very helpful right now. She cleared her throat and managed instead to say:

             “Hey, you still with me, kid?”

             The student trembled in silence. EJ realized that she had been completely tuning him out somehow, as she could now feel his anxious pulse blaring endlessly, like a safety siren warning of approaching danger. She hadn’t even gotten a good look at the student, honestly. She had been far too busy trying really hard to not die, after all.  

               She pulsed towards his smock’s front pocket and a moment later an ID pulsed back, identifying the student. It told her that his name was Wesley Audra, gendered within the male-he/him spectrum, and that he was born twenty-three years ago. His student ID was issued on 3-54, one year ago, as it was now the fifty-fifth year of the third era of the sixth iteration of life. Either he hadn’t been a contracted student in a year, or he simply hadn’t updated his ID. Or maybe it was something else entirely, EJ didn’t really know much about how the GCA ran their company-loyalist boot camps. 

              His facial features were soft and round, and he had long, wavy hair of a reddish-brown color that resembled the rusted tones of the dirt. His skin was a lighter hue than hers, but not by much. Freckles intermingled with the electroreceptor spots along his face and neck, and even covered his forearms down to the backs of his hands. Based on the info in his ID, EJ was actually a couple years younger than this student—Wesley. And still, he looked youthful. It was like he was caught between the final developmental stages of adolescence and adulthood, as if he hadn’t fully completed the growing years of life. It was odd to EJ, though in truth, she didn’t know enough about the stages of developmental life to know if his appearance was truly an outlier or not. 

             EJ tried to form soothing words again, pulsing to comfort.

              “Hey, it’s fine, they’re gone now,” she said quietly. 

             EJ looked for a place to put a reassuring hand but didn’t know if that would overwhelm him further. Instead, she simply gestured with her good hand in the air for a moment, then let it drop—a failed attempt. This didn’t really fall within her area of expertise. EJ took a breath, then tried the reassuring hand thing again. She placed a hand on the student’s shoulder this time. 

              “You’re panicking, you need to try to catch your breath, can you do that for me?” She pulsed to encouragement as she said it. 

           It wasn’t a frequency she used often, but a similar kind of commanding sentence had snapped him out of his frozen state earlier. 

                Wesley looked up at her through wet eyes. Snot was trickling down his face, and EJ fought back the knee-jerk grimace she felt like expressing upon seeing the awful state he was in. She said it again, still pulsing encouragement. 

           “You need to breathe, that’s what you told me, remember?”

              Wesley nodded weakly and took in a stuttering breath. 

              “Good, just like that,” EJ said, nodding and offering a small pat on the shoulder.

             She hoped it wasn’t condescending, but it probably was. After a few more breaths she asked:

               “Can you tell me your name?”

             She already knew it, of course, but part of her worried that if she approached the conversation already knowing everything about him, he’d jump to some crazy conclusion, like she had been sent to abduct him or something. Plus, maybe he preferred to be called something else. It wasn’t uncommon by any means and getting him to talk about himself would hopefully help him calm down somewhat. 

             “W-wes,” he stammered. “he/him.” 

             He pulsed to a frequency that was commonly used to indicate gender identity, in this case male. EJ slowly nodded again.

             “It’s nice to meet you, Wes. I’m—”

           She hesitated. Normally she’d offer a false identity in this situation. When you’ve been so many different people and when large groups of armed thugs wanted a couple of those fake people dead, learning to quickly become someone new on the fly was an easy habit to fall into. Did she need to worry about that now? Probably not. Besides, the only fake name coming to her mind right now was Calinvi. Ew. She was definitely not a Calinvi. She exhaled.

           “I’m EJ,” she finished. “she/they.”

           It had been years since she had freely given out her honest-to-life identity to someone she had just met. It felt awkward and out of her comfort zone. Dangerous, even. Wes nodded back at her and wiped at his face. His breathing had slowed a bit, but he still gasped and stuttered every couple of inhales. 

           “Look,” she said, trying to make her tone sound as confident as she could manage, “We’re gonna make it out of this.” 

           She pulsed to a frequency that she hoped felt at least somewhat confident. Then she opened her mouth to say something else, but her electrosense picked up multiple heavily augmented people walking towards the bridge. EJ sputtered and clamped a hand over Wes’s mouth, not that he was making any noise. Wes whimpered, anxiety rising in his pulse. 

           “No, no, uh, it’s okay,” EJ whispered harshly. 

           The footprints grew closer, and she could hear muffled voices outside. One of them said:

           “Check the bridge.”

           “Like, climb up there?” another asked. 

           “Someone oughta clean up these bots,” a third noted. 

           EJ stopped covering Wes’s mouth, but she put a finger to her lips as if to shush. 

           “Can you stop pulsing?” she asked calmly and quietly. “They might feel your frequency.”

           Okay, probably not helping, EJ.

           Wes clamped both hands over his own mouth and shook his head in distress. Tears welled up in his eyes once more.

           “It’s okay, just keep breathing,” EJ said calmly, though her heart was beating so hard that she could feel the bruises along her rib cage flaring up with pain.

             She needed a plan again. The ladder was too old to risk climbing, the soldiers outside would hear them clamoring up the hollow, metal shaft. It was a hard space to remain quiet in, every little movement creaked or echoed. 

           Still crouched down, EJ slowly reached for Wes’s bag. She raised an eyebrow at him, as if to say, “what do you have?” He nodded, sniffled quietly, then opened the bag to show her. EJ peeked inside. 

           Machine parts?

           She had felt them in her electrosense and assumed they were maybe tools of some kind. She could brandish a tool as a make-shift weapon if it came to that. But no, the bag was full of various robot guts, technical switches and components that EJ knew nothing about. She slowly felt around the bag, sorting through the wires and motors carefully. She found one that seemed heavier than the rest and picked it up, wincing at the sound of metal clanking together in the bag. Then she slowly stood up in the shaft, holding the chunk of metal up by her head like she was getting ready to throw it. 

           She motioned with a nod for Wes to stand up, and he carefully pulled himself to his feet, still trembling slightly. If it even seemed for a second like they were opening the hatch, she’d send him up the maintenance ladder and stay here to thump whoever was checking inside. A voice outside said:

           “Wait. Do you feel that?” 

           Footprints approached the outside of the bridge’s central support beam. Wes whimpered. EJ bit her lip and readied the chunk of metal. 

           “That you pulsing, Tavi?” said a deeper voice right outside.

           EJ held her breath. 

           Shit shit shit.

           “No?” someone further away replied. 

           Something brushed across the outside of the hatch. It creaked faintly. 

           “Huh,” the deeper voice said. “That’s—”

             Suddenly something banged against the outside of the maintenance shaft with a metallic THUNK, then smashed to the ground outside. There were shouts and swears. EJ jumped and exhaled forcefully in shock. Wes whimpered audibly, then clasped his hands over his mouth and nose. More footprints approached.

           “Static, you alright, Zee?” someone outside called. 

             More swearing outside, followed by the sound of jostling and metal being dragged along the ground.

           “Damn bot fell on me,” the close, deeper voice groaned. 

             “What, like from the bridge?” another asked.

             “Yeah!” the first voice responded. “Cable snapped or somethin’, fell right on top of me.”

             There were some chuckles.

             “Oh can it, static brains. You find anything yet?” the deeper voice asked.

              The voices all chattered outside for a moment, bickering and cutting each other off. Then one of them said:

             “Seyet’s not gonna like that answer.”

             There were grunts agreement.

              “Whatever, let’s just get out of here. Vaen will figure this shit out for him.”

               The chatter and footsteps began to grow distant. EJ let herself breathe again, then lowered the piece of machine she had been holding. Blood was trickling all the way down her leg now, sticking her foot to the inside of her boot. She was lightheaded, and darkness was encroaching on the edge of her vision once more. 

             “They’re gone,” she breathed. “I think we made it.”

*          *          *

           Wes exhaled slowly. Even if the nightmare was finally over, the fresh memory of terror lingered in his mind. When he closed his eyes, he could clearly see the group of faction soldiers charging him at the college front gate. He took in a sharp breath at the thought of it. 

              What is going on?

               His arms and legs ached so intensely that simply standing made him feel like he was going to collapse for a week straight. He had to hold onto one of the steel rungs that jutted out of the wall to keep himself upright. How had this person, EJ, managed to keep running like that? Who was she anyway? And why were the goddamn All-Seers after her?

           It was too much to think about for what little brain space Wes had remaining after the whole ordeal. EJ put her back to the wall, then slid to the ground.

             “I’m so sorry, Wes,” she muttered.

              “It’s okay,” he replied out of habit. 

           EJ gave him a doubtful look.

           Okay, no, it absolutely wasn’t okay. Today alone he had been forced into two separate panic attacks. He had been stressed out and anxious all day long and then faction members had chased him through the city. I mean those people had guns and shit! They killed people! And they were probably the same group that had stolen his greenhouse pieces by cutting off plantboy’s arms—like savages

           Wes wasn’t going to bring any of that up, of course. She had kind of just saved his life, right? She had jeopardized it first, sure, but then she had saved it. Wes shook his head.

           “Thanks for kind of saving us,” he said. “And thanks for making me run back when I froze.” 

           EJ nodded, then prodded at the bleeding hole in her neck. 

           “Oh shit,” Wes said, suddenly remembering her injuries, “You’re still hurt.” 

           EJ snorted, then winced and groaned in pain. 

           Yeah, she knows that already, dumbass.

           “I can take you to the college, we have a medical suite there,” Wes offered.

           She knows that too, dumbass.

           “Absolutely not,” EJ shot back. “I’m not letting some GCA jackasses scan me into their database.”

           Wes made a questioning face. He needed to assert himself as a medical professional here. He wasn’t a medical professional, of course, but she didn’t know that. She needed treatment. Wes conjured some fancy sounding injury descriptions in his head.

           “You’ve sustained multiple fractures in your chest, you’ve got abrasions all over your arms and legs, you’re bleeding from an open laceration in your neck that has torn your L3 and L5 electroreceptors, and your right arm has become completely disjointed.”

           Wes opened his mouth to speak again, but EJ frowned, so he shut up.

           “That bad, huh?”

           Wes nodded. Cool, that had worked. Wes suddenly felt very official, like he was the resident expert in the room. He was…kind of.

           “You need medical attention. You’ve lost way too much blood and the muscles in your right arm are probably damaged. Do you feel lightheaded? How’s your vision?”

           “I feel fine,” EJ huffed. “And my vision is perfectly normal.”

           Wes made an “are-you-sure-about-that” kind of face.

           “How’s your pulse?” he asked. 

           EJ groaned and pulsed to frustration, then swore. She rubbed the bridge of her nose like she had a headache. 

           “It’s not great,” she admitted. “It goes out fine but comes back blotchy, unfocused on the right side. And it hurts, too.”

              Wes didn’t want to upset her, but he needed her to recognize how bad the injuries were. Admitting that her electrosenses weren’t working very well was a good first step.

           “Look, if we don’t treat the receptors on your neck soon, I’m not sure they’ll heal functionally,” he said with a grimace. 

                EJ groaned louder and rested her forehead on her knees.

               “Fuck.”

             Wes didn’t say anything. This whole situation was so bizarre. Here he was, standing in a dusty drone maintenance shaft with a person who had come to him for help, then gotten him chased across town by faction thugs. She had talked him through a panic attack, helped him focus enough to snap out of it, and now he was trying to talk her into getting medical help. 

             The whole thing was just too much, piled on top of everything else that had already happened today.

             “I don’t live far from here,” Wes offered. “If you won’t go to the college, maybe I can patch you up.”

             His professional, resident expert tone was slipping.

             Uh, have you thought that one through, Wes? he thought immediately. All I know about this person is that she’s wanted by a dangerous faction. 

           Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He also knew that she was injured and needed help. He knew that he could provide that help. 

             Wes let go of the ladder rung he had been holding onto, then pressed a shoulder into the back of the maintenance shaft hatch. It popped open. 

           Wes extended a hand to EJ.

           “Come on. I’ve got a basic med station at home and I’m a GCA certified medic.”

              Okay, so that wasn’t entirely true, but it wasn’t really a lie either. His applied medical courses were only permitted to teach the GCA-approved curriculum, and it was only by GCA approval that the college was able to staff the applied course with student officials. Wes hadn’t ever actually worked in the applied course, but he had shadowed older peers who had positions there.

             EJ didn’t speak for a moment, then she pulsed in concession.

           “I’m sorry,” she said. “And thank you.”

           “No problem,” Wes replied.

           Okay, no, it absolutely was a problem. Wes ignored that thought, however, and helped EJ to her feet. Then he cautiously pressed the hatch open further and peaked outside. Right outside, pressed up against the opening hatchway, a mostly intact bot lay on the ground in a heap. It was old, and Wes wasn’t sure if its blue plating was artificially colored or simply the result of weathering and decay. Its head resembled the old-fashioned kind of bot facial display that he had only seen in decades-old entertainment media. It couldn’t possibly be that old, right? Back then, delivery had been conducted by fully assembled bots with AI and everything. That business model had quickly died out, as the bots had been too expensive to maintain and manufacture. Once the cheaper and AI-lacking courier-drone was designed, delivery companies all switched over to variations of the now standard model—models like plantboy. 

           Then Wes spotted the company logo that was laser-printed into the chassis of the bot. It read, “Trans-City Porter Co,” but someone had scratched through most of it till all that remained legible was “Porter.” 

           “Trans-City Porter Co?” Wes read aloud. “Weren’t they pre-GCA?”

           EJ pulsed to a frequency that meant “I don’t know.”

           “Whatever they were, we owe them for saving our sorry asses. I mean, we were totally—”

           Wes cleared his throat abruptly.

           “Sorry, not helping,” EJ said, pulsing to apologetic frequencies. 

           “It’s okay.”

           Wes let EJ put her functional arm around him, which was hard with how much shorter than her he was. Then he shifted to support her weight as much as he could and helped her down the dark street towards his house.

<END OF CHAPTER 4>

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1 – 3, “Amp”

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TW: Injury/Blood, Violence, Weapons

           EJ could feel the music resonating inside the building, despite how little sound actually escaped the dense walls of the night club. She tried to scan the interior with her pulse, but it seemed to vanish once it hit the building’s exterior. Despite the blind spot in her pulse that was this nightclub, the rest of the city around her began to pour sensory information into her mind. She filtered through it as she perched on the roof of a nearby building. 

           Night life was beginning to overtake the city streets. EJ could feel people wandering into the streets below, making their way through alleys and out of buildings. That was good. Groups of people were a great cloaking device, and not even the dullest faction thug would waste a bullet on a crowd comprised mostly of shifting bodies that they didn’t want to hit. She pulsed once more at the nightclub below. 

           The Evening Upgrade wasn’t the most popular locale for late night city life. It played host to a more specialized audience of city residents—delinquents like EJ. Despite being only a few streets from the college, the Upgrade was securely positioned in the center of swapper territory, which scared off most of the students and filtered the club population into two primary camps: people who had an in with the local faction, and people who could sneak their way around the territory. EJ fell into the latter of the two groups. The club’s location and usual clientele made for a relatively hidden base of operations for a plethora of illegal activities, including drug trade and augment swapping. She had been here a number of times already, mostly for various business transactions of the aforementioned illegal activities. In the past, however, she had been able to pulse through the building and get a quick read on the dance floor. Swappers and tech dealers were weird like that. They wanted to be hidden from security drones, but visible to anyone who may be a paying customer. Whatever was preventing her from seeing into the club would likely be impeding business in the club as well.

           EJ frowned. 

           That’s not a good sign.

           She had run into similar tricks before. Music was fundamentally just a mish-mash of frequencies, which made it stupid easy to use a dance club as a sort of frequency-masked area with enough speakers. Despite that, EJ should have still been able to catch the club in her pulse. She should have felt the electricity and conductives making up the structure of the building, but the area didn’t seem to register at all. Closing her eyes and sweeping the area with just her electrosense, the building registered like an empty black hole, sucking in her frequency and offering no sensory feedback. It was an odd sensation, one that she hadn’t run into before. She had grown used to being able to rely on even fragments of sensation provided by her electrosense. Truly getting no feedback at all from the building was concerning.

           Theoretically, you could cause a pulse black-out like that in a few ways. The building could be entirely made of some sort of non-receptive material, like a ceramic-carbide. That was impossible, of course. EJ had been to The Evening Upgrade before, and was pretty sure she would have heard about the building being overhauled and rebuilt with new materials. Furthermore, ceramics were expensive. EJ had tried to build herself a ceramic vest for a very dangerous job a few years back. She had discovered that a single, twenty-hundredth by twenty-hundredth square of the stuff—a space no bigger than the palm of her hand—sold for roughly one-thousand bits. Covering a whole vest would have been somewhere around fifty-two thousand bits, practically enough money to sustain anyone for over a year of luxurious living. Thinking about trying to construct an entire building of the material, even using a cheaper synthetic like ceramic-carbide, conjured a number in EJ’s head that was larger than she was able to comprehend. No, the building definitely wasn’t made to be pulse-proof.

           Likely, the music in the club was being layered with a complex weaving of counter frequencies. Counter frequencies made it hard for most modern tech to receive input by drowning everything in multiple layers of grayspace. Grayspace frequencies were like negative numbers. For every frequency, there existed a theoretical grayspace frequency that was equally powerful, but in the opposite direction—either higher or lower on the standard frequency scale than people could perceive via electrosense. 

           In that same example of negative numbers, say you knew that your enemy’s weapon activated on any frequency between the range of positive one to positive three. By running the counter frequencies negative one to negative three, their pulse wouldn’t be strong enough for their weapon to detect the activation frequency, rendering them unarmed. 

           EJ wasn’t sure how the specifics of setting up counter frequencies worked, but she knew that most modern tech had grayspace inhibitors built in, preventing devices from potentially reaching such frequencies. It was theorized that long-term exposure to grayspace could have a multitude of adverse effects on living things. The proper science of it all was still in flux, which meant that there were dozens of regulations on anything that could potentially express the unexplored frequencies. Of course, older tech—anything developed before grayspace had been discovered—lacked such inhibitors. An antique speaker or media tablet could be rigged to produce the negative frequencies, which would cancel out whatever range of activation pulses you rigged the device to emit. That would make it impossible for your average club-goer to buy drinks at the bar through their transaction chip, but more importantly it would prevent anyone from activating pulse-sensitive weaponry, which was exactly what EJ was supposed to be bringing to this meeting. 

           Could counter frequencies black-out a whole building like this? She wasn’t sure. The grayspace would prevent her from activating tech, but she should still be able to see the building in her electrosense. The building should have conductive components, and there was definitely power running inside. Perhaps this was some kind of stronger frequency., some sort of advanced cloaking tech.

           EJ exhaled and dropped the pulse she had been pointing towards the club. Not being able to scan the building from the outside meant she would be doing all her reconnaissance while in the club. If this strange electrosense shield continued inside, she’d be relying entirely on sight and sound—senses that were unreliable in a loud, busy club full of people. If she needed to make a quick, emergency exit, she’d be figuring it out on the fly. That wasn’t her preference in such high-stakes situations, but she was plenty capable of thinking on her feet if she needed to. If all went well, of course, she wouldn’t need an emergency exit. 

           EJ clutched the briefcase under her arm a little tighter. The stolen sonic canon inside was her only real bargaining chip. If they believed that she could get them more weapons like it, she was in. If they didn’t buy her story or the weapon, if things went south, most of her arsenal would be nullified by the counter frequency. No gun, no pulse-bang modules, nothing. That would leave her with a single knife and her own wits. 

           EJ had to hope it wouldn’t come to that. 

           Once she had run herself through the plan one more time for good measure, EJ slipped back down to the main street and positioned herself one alley away from the club entrance. She had put on a formal, black smock and some nice, black pants to match. She slicked back her short hair and obscured the details of her face by wearing a standard model media link, which clung to one of the electroreceptors on her upper cheek and projected a simple, rectangular holo-display over her eyes. Before approaching the club, she locked the briefcase to her left hand with the magne-grip implant in her palm. 

           She took a deep breath, pausing for a moment to adopt the character of her tech-dealer alter ego, a confident individual that went by the online moniker “Trill.” 

           Don’t screw this up, EJ thought. 

           Trill approached The Evening Upgrade, half-million-bit briefcase in hand.

           Multicolored lights shone dimly from behind the light-shielded glass door, and EJ could hear the music booming as she approached. It made sense that Seyet would want to meet here. The club was full of people, which generally deterred anyone from pulling a gun on you. He wouldn’t need that deterrence, of course, as he already had a counter frequency jamming EJ’s gun with grayspace. Perhaps he was worried that Trill might bring a more old-fashioned firearm to the meeting, one that didn’t require pulse authentication to use. 

           A tall, heavily augmented individual with angular features and no-nonsense eyes stopped her at the door. EJ could feel large portions of their arms, legs, and neck in her electrosense—combat upgrades likely.

           The bouncer eyed the briefcase in EJ’s hand. 

           “Trill, I presume?”

           EJ nodded. 

           “Mr. Seyet is waiting for you.” 

           The bouncer’s voice was steady and cold, their features unflinching. The pulse that accompanied their words attuned to the deep frequency of seriousness, a tone often used to indicate formality in business transactions like this. EJ nodded to them in response and tried to take another step towards the door. The bouncer quickly stopped her with a metal hand to the chest, pushing her back a pace. 

           “No one’s allowed in with unscanned cargo.” 

           “This briefcase doesn’t open until we’re negotiating pay. Seyet’s eyes only.” EJ responded in a deeper voice than she normally spoke in, underlining her words with a serious pulse. 

           The bounce just stared down at her. EJ glared back. Through electrosense, they could see exactly what EJ was bringing. The briefcase wasn’t pulse-proofed in any capacity, and she certainly wasn’t trying to hide the pistol stashed in the waistline of her pants. The two weapons were a distraction from the knife sewn into her sleeve, which would be somewhat obscured by the pulse-reactive fibers in her smock. If all went well, she wouldn’t need to worry about the knife, but it was the best back-up plan she had. After a moment, the bouncer snorted and pulsed to confirmation.

           “Fine. Arms up.”

           EJ complied, putting her hands in the air as if to surrender. This was the usual pat-down routine for getting into places with any semblance of security. You’d be pulse-scanned for items, disarmed, then allowed to proceed. The bouncer gripped EJ’s left shoulder tightly with an augmented hand. EJ felt the motors in the robotic hand cinch down on her. 

           “Easy, pal. I’m not going anywhere,” EJ said as Trill. 

           “I don’t doubt that. This is for my safety, pal,” the bouncer tinged their words with a biting frequency, still speaking in a steady voice. “So I can break your shoulder if you try anything.”

           EJ let the bouncer remove the pistol she had stashed in her pants. They gave the weapon a quick once-over before tucking it away in their jacket. As Trill, EJ pulsed in annoyance, as if taking the weapon from her was nothing more than a time-wasting inconvenience. When she pulsed outwards, she caught another glimpse of the knife in her sleeve. It was still mostly obscured by the smock and didn’t fully register to her electrosense. Perfect.

           “We good now?” EJ questioned with more annoyed pulsing. “Or are you going to keep Seyet waiting?”

           “Please follow me.” 

           The bouncer pulsed the light-shield door open, releasing a flurry of colors and sounds from the club interior onto the street. The colors danced across EJ’s face and glinted off of the sleak, black metal of the bouncer’s augmented arms. They motioned for EJ to step inside. She did so.

           EJ let the flashing lights and generic beats wash over her as she entered the club. The bouncer stepped in after her, letting the automated door slide shut a moment later. They motioned with a nod that said, “let’s go,” and EJ started towards the back rooms where she assumed they’d be holding the meeting in quieter chambers. But the bouncer caught her by the shoulder and pointed her towards a table just off the main floor instead. There, a single person sat. A larger individual in a puffy jacket, silvery metal plating covering one side of the face—Mr. Seyet, leader of the All-Seers. 

           Strange

           Stranger still, the club wasn’t full of people. In fact, it was practically empty. Sound spilled endlessly from various speakers built into the walls, but no DJ stood in the usual glass display-cubicle. A handful of Seyet’s minions lurked in a couple corners, leaning against the walls and watching the club. A couple of faction lackeys sat at the bar but hadn’t ordered drinks. 

           They’re taking this deal seriously. That’s good, EJ thought. Or they’re making sure they have an open space to fill me with bullets. That’s bad. 

           Another oddity floated to the surface of EJ’s thoughts. Her elecrosense flickered.

           Wait a minute, I can feel conductives.

           Somehow, whatever they were using to mask the building’s exterior didn’t carry over into the club interior. EJ was a bit baffled but didn’t dwell on the strange cloaking for too long. She could use her electrosenses again, that’s what was important. She made a mental note to scan the club from the inside whenever she could.

          When they reached the table, the bouncer who had led EJ through the club motioned for her to take a seat. 

           “I’d like to keep this quick, actually,” EJ began, pulsing in a serious frequency. 

        “Please, Mx. Trill,” Seyet cut in. His voice was low and confident, layered with a quiet pulse to the relaxed frequency. “Take a seat.” 

           He turned to her, showing the side of his face that wasn’t plated with metal. A wide, self-assured grin stretched across his face. It made something inside of EJ feel nauseated, but she pushed it down and maintained a serious, business-like expression. She tried to not stare at the facial augmentation. The plating covered half of the top of his head and split perfectly down the center of his nose but didn’t extend down to the mouth. Instead, it wrapped around the side of his head, covering where his other eye would be. It was as if a hemisphere of his brain had been replaced with hard machinery. Part of EJ wondered what an augment like that was for. Across the surface of the flashy augment, a smattering of small, red, mechanical eyes glowed, humming with electricity. EJ thought for a moment that the eye displays were simply ornamental, but when she blinked, she could have sworn that several of them had shifted position. Hair only grew from the unplated side of Seyet’s face, and a long, curly stream of black locks flowed down over his shoulder, highlighted with streaks of metallic gold that matched with the colored eyelashes. His lips were brightly outlined in a similar wispy, gold filigree, and filled in with a deep, purple, synthetic coloring. Appearance augmentation seemed to be something he was fond of, and quite skilled at. EJ had to admit that Seyet was quite fashionable. Handsome, even. Though, not her type. 

           Definitely not my type

           He motioned at the seat opposite from where he sat with an open hand. Each of his fingers were covered in rings of various colors and sizes, with his pointer and middle fingers bearing a sort of multi-segmented claw fixture. Again they seemed simply ornamental at first. EJ only noticed their sharpened, bladed edges on a second glance.

           She nodded, then carefully took the seat and placed the briefcase in her lap, still magne-locked to the implant in her palm. As she did so, the music died down slightly. EJ guessed that they would still be running the counter frequency, however. It just wouldn’t be as potent. The bouncer positioned themself directly behind her, standing above the two at the table, but staring straight forwards. EJ took a breath.

           “Mr. Seyet, I believe—” she started to say as Trill, but Seyet silenced her with a raised hand. Dammit, when were people going to start letting her speak in full sentences? She had memorized a whole spiel to sell this, and she was eager to get the negotiation on its way.

           “Why the rush, friend?” Seyet spoke through the same, sickening smile. His teeth were outlined in gold and silver metallic trim, and something glowed from within his mouth. Speech augment, EJ guessed.

           “It’s rather dangerous to move through the city with something like this,” EJ responded, tapping the briefcase. “I’m sure you understand.” 

           Seyet nodded slowly and pulsed to understanding.

           “Of course, of course, I understand. Commander Keddik?” Seyet motioned towards the bouncer standing behind EJ with one hand. “Can you assure our guest that the location is secured?”

           Commander Keddik grunted.

           “I can, Mr. Seyet. We are the only ones in the building, aside from a handful of my guards watching the entrances.”

           It was a dangerous truth that EJ was already well aware of. Despite the pounding of her own heart in her ears, EJ forced herself to look relieved at the statement. Seyet tapped his facial augment with two clawed fingers.

           “Trust me, I keep a close eye, or several, on everything that goes on around here.” 

           He laughed. As he did so, EJ caught a glimpse of several eye-displays on the facial augment swiveling towards her. She wasn’t sure what the augmented segment of Seyet’s face did. Was it just a visual augment with multiple inputs? Some kind of surveillance camera feed?

           “I’m glad to hear it,” EJ said, stretching out her serious frequency to trail after her words. She was preparing herself to push the pulse out around her to check out the club. She needed to get a good look at everything herself. 

           The counter frequency that was being run through the music would prevent her from pulsing to activate any tech, but it wouldn’t stop her from using her electrosense to snoop around. She couldn’t sustain the pulse in a wide-cast, or she’d likely give away the fact that she was scanning the area. Instead, she had to use a quick snapshot, pushing her pulse throughout the whole building but only for a split second. The information would come all at once, which meant it would only be accurate as far as her brain was able to process it. She had used this trick before, of course, and took a moment to think about the details she’d need to focus on. 

           How many guards, how armed, and where, she reminded herself. 

           Then, she blinked, and shot the pulse across the room all at once. 

           EJ felt a rapid series of sensations vibrate in her gut, and images flashed in her mind for only a second. 

           Somewhere around eight guards, maybe less. She was sure of at least five of those, however, as they were heavily augmented, which made them stand out more in her electrosense. All armed—three with firearms, two with pulse-weaponry, and she felt a few more metallic buzzes that were likely something for hand-to-hand combat. Two by the bar, two by the door to the back rooms, one in the corner by the door. Potentially a few others in the back, she wasn’t entirely sure. They were spaced out enough that she wasn’t immediately worried. Still, this place would light up with gun fire faster than an illegal bot fight if they detected any foul-play on her end.

           EJ took a breath, and opened with the first line of Trill’s sales pitch. 

           “This tech is difficult to get your hands on. I’m sure neither of us want it falling into the hands of some other faction.” 

           She pulsed to serious, business tones again. Phrases like this were how tech dealers tried to hook clients on making a deal. The phrase said, “I’m eager and willing to sell to you,” but also said, “unless you’d like me to take this sale elsewhere.” EJ tapped on the briefcase in her lap. 

           “Remind me,” Seyet said, “Exactly how you did get your hands on this?”

           “We produce it ourselves,” EJ lied flawlessly. 

           “We?” 

           “Yes. A team of developers. Hidden between the undeveloped city sectors.” 

           “I see.”

           He’s testing me? Why would he agree to meet me himself if he didn’t trust my story? Or perhaps they think I’m an imposter? I need to be careful. Push for a deal, but not too hard. 

           Seyet scratched something into the surface of the table with his clawed pointer finger absentmindedly as they spoke. Then he tapped hard, and the point of the claw sunk into the soft, synthetic tabletop. 

           “I know we are newly acquainted, Trill, but traditionally, when I go out of my way to meet for a business negotiation, I like to meet my potential business partners face-to-face,” Seyet said, obviously referring to the media display covering the upper half of her face. 

           He wants to be able to read my expressions, EJ thought. 

           Any tech dealer worth their bits—hell, anyone participating in illegal trades of any variety—made sure to obscure their face. If a security drone got a clean scan on you, you’d have your face plastered all over the security server’s main feed. Fast way to lose all your customers. EJ had figured that Seyet may ask her to reveal her face. He didn’t trust something about her. That was to be expected, of course. “Trustworthy” was the last descriptor you’d use for a tech dealer. And yet, something about his composure unsettled her. There was something else that Seyet was worried about. Something he suspected of her, more than just a false deal.

           Do they think I’m here to kill him? 

           No, he wouldn’t have agreed to meet if that was the case. Or they’d have simply shot her at the door and been done with it. 

           She glanced down at Seyet’s scratching. The design carved into the tabletop was partially obscured by his fingers where he had stabbed the surface, but from what she could see, it vaguely resembled some kind of writing. EJ couldn’t immediately discern any meaning in the carving. The script was entirely composed of straight lines, like the tallies used to teach children to count. It was far from the interconnected dots, swoops, and footnotes that made up modern texts. 

           Another language? Code? Perhaps just gibberish?

           Seyet cleared his throat. 

           “Well, Mx. Trill?”

           “Yes, of course, my apologies.”

           EJ tried to pulse to disconnect her media link. Nothing happened. 

           Remember the counter frequency, static-brain?

           Well, at least that confirmed that their safety measures were still in effect. EJ manually disconnected the media link from her electroreceptor, pulling it from her face and placing it on the table. Seyet smiled. 

           “We’re among friends, are we not?” He pulsed calmly to relaxation.

           With her face now revealed, EJ made sure to keep her features emotionless as she spoke. If he was trying to read her, she wasn’t about to help him out.

             “Of course, Mr. Seyet. ”

           “You mentioned that your team operates out of the undeveloped sectors? That’s pretty far from city central.”

           EJ nodded. More testing? Was he just looking for confirmation of authenticity? Maybe she should push to show him the weapon. That would certainly lend her some credibility, but he might read it as hasty, eager to leave. Like a scammer would be. Trill wasn’t a shifty tech-dealer, they were a person of business. 

           Before EJ could form a response, Seyet spoke again.

           “You know, about the same time your associates contacted my agents, I heard there was a bit of a scandal involving stolen tech in sector eight,” he said, pulse remaining steady in the relaxed frequency. Some of the eyes on the augmented side of his face twitched. 

           Panic surged inside of EJ, and she forced herself to retain a calm presentation. 

           So they do suspect a false deal. I need to defend Trill’s reputation, then push for authenticity.  

           Yes, she could parry this blow. She had always wormed her way through these types of interactions before. 

           For the first time since sitting down, EJ made Trill smile. Not an over-the-top, open-mouth smile like Seyet. Just a simple grin. She raised an eyebrow.

           “Is that a threat, Mr. Seyet?”

           “No, no, of course not,” he said, returning to his table carving. “ I would never threaten a friend. Consider it a business concern. Reassure me, Trill.” 

           “Well, friend,” EJ laced the word with a harsh frequency, “I’m happy to report that you’ve horribly misunderstood the rumors.”

           Seyet raised an eyebrow. 

           “Oh?”

           “You see, it was our tech that was stolen,” EJ lied confidently. “There was a leak from a prior client. We dealt with the—ahem—unsatisfied customer and recovered our stolen products.” 

           Seyet put a hand on his chin and nodded slowly. EJ let her words hang in the air before she continued.

           “Now, if you’ve heard of these rumors, albeit incorrectly, then surely you’ve heard of what our product can do. I’ll have you know that I did come a long way to meet you here, Mr. Seyet, because I thought you would perhaps be open to communication and further business dealings. But I will not be threatened with illegitimacy.” 

           EJ set the briefcase on the table with an abrupt thud and used it to push herself up from her seat. 

           “Clearly you aren’t—” 

           Before she could finish her rebuttal, the familiar robotic grip of the bouncer standing behind her, Commander Keddik, clasped her on the shoulder and shoved her back into the seat. EJ sputtered.

           “Oh, save me the overdramatic sales pitch,” Seyet said. “You’ve made your point.” 

           He gestured with an open hand towards the briefcase. EJ blinked. 

           Am I…am I in? That worked?

           She released the handle of the metal case from her magne-grip module. Luckily, the augment wasn’t pulse-activated, so the counter frequency couldn’t nullify it in any way. Then she cleared her throat, sat up a little straighter, and input the code to open the briefcase. The locks clicked in compliance, and EJ rotated the case to face Seyet. The faction leader slowly lifted the case open, revealing the weapon inside to only himself. EJ felt him pulse, likely checking the pieces of the canon. A moment later he pulsed to amusement, and slowly lowered the case shut again. 

           When the briefcase closed and EJ could see Seyet’s face, he was wearing a wide smile. EJ hesitantly let herself grin as well. The glowing, red eye modules on Seyet’s augmented face swiveled about. 

           Seyet chuckled to himself. It was a low, growing laugh that he entertained for a few moments. EJ was glad that he was excited about their deal, but this was certainly more of a reaction than she had expected. He just kept staring down at the briefcase, smiling and shaking his head. 

           No, not at the briefcase, EJ realized. He’s staring down past it. At the table-drawing?

           Seyet chuckled once more, staring down at the table where he had carved into its surface earlier in their meeting. He brushed away some chunks of the table with a hand. 

           “Tell me,” Seyet said, his voice suddenly turning dark, “Do you know the origin of your name?” 

           EJ furrowed her brow in confusion. What did this have to do with names? Was he referring to the codenames used by people like them, tech dealers and faction leaders? Names like Trill and Seyet? Seyet lightly traced over his carving in the table. 

           “Ellen-Jane. EJ, I suppose. It’s based in the writing of prior iterations, is it not? Progenitor-speech.”

           EJ’s blood ran cold in her veins. 

           “Shit.”

           Details from the meeting thus far suddenly clicked into place. This had always been a set-up.

           She tried to stand quickly but two mechanical arms seized her with a forceful grip and planted her firmly in her seat, arms locked at her sides. EJ growled. No way she was bargaining out of this one, but she couldn’t fight her way out either. Seyet roared with laughter, a mad bellow not unlike EJ’s own cackle at the bridge earlier in the day. 

           “You must honestly believe me to be made of static!” He almost spat his words at her in the sudden episode of unbridled amusement he was displaying. “I’ve watched you, Ellen-Jane. I’ve watched you across every sector you’ve run from, followed you into every little hidey-hole and through every little job of yours.”

           He hissed the words in triumph, standing and leaning over the table. EJ spat at him and pulsed to hatred. Not her best comeback, she’d need to workshop that one. He chuckled, then tapped the side of his augmented face and the eyes all focused on her. She would have thrown rude gestures at the eye modules if her arms weren’t being held. Again, not her best work. She was down to just a knife and her wits, the exact position she had wanted to avoid at all costs.

           “I see everything that goes on in the world-city. I have eyes in every district. I’ve watched you make your way through other factions, other sectors. I watched as you plucked that sonic canon away from those goons in sector eight. You’ve practically done my work for me.”

           “What do you want to hear, ‘you’re welcome’?” EJ pulsed to sarcasm. “Oh! Does this mean we can still work together? ‘Among friends’ and all that.”

           The clever retorts were getting better. Barely.

           Seyet ignored her. EJ flicked her wrist, activating the magne-grip module. No other guards had responded yet, she needed to act. Now

           “They all want you dead, you know,” Seyet continued. “That’s what I promised them if they’d hold off for now. Though I was hoping you’d get through a few more before you inevitably made your way here. Unfortunate.”

           The knife ripped free from her sleeve, flying towards EJ’s hand and snapping into her grasp. Before they could react, she flicked her wrist again and reversed the lock, sending the knife flying straight at Keddik’s face. The augmented soldier let go of the mange-grip arm and snatched the blade out of the air between two robotic fingers, then promptly snapped the blade in two. 

           Damn, that was expensive.

           No more knife, now she was just left with her wits.

           Seyet’s commander swept an augmented arm around, lunging for EJ’s throat, but she managed to reach up and deflect the attack in time. They grabbed onto her nicely slicked-back hair instead and yanked hard, pulling her head upwards. EJ threw herself up and backwards, slamming her skull into the metal hand, which flew back enough to smack the commander in the face. She grunted in pain but felt the mechanical vice on her other arm and her hair loosen for a moment. She took that moment to reach across and activate the magne-grip once more, locking her grip onto Keddik’s other arm. Then she planted a foot and pivoted as hard as she could, slinging her assailant across the table as she stood up. They hit the surface shoulder-first and slid across, leaving streaks in the synthetic, plastic material. 

           EJ booked it. 

           “Get her you static-brained drones!” Seyet bellowed. “GET HER!”

           EJ heard shots ring out around her. She flashed another wide-cast pulse and felt steel rapidly hurtling towards her—one bullet towards her right leg, another at her left shoulder, and a third arcing too wide to hit her. She twisted herself quickly on her left leg to avoid the shots as she ran, feeling the bullets zip past in her electrosense. She threw her pulse back up just in time to feel more metal ringing through the air towards her. No wait, there was more. People were emerging from the back rooms. One of them fired a pulse weapon towards her. Additionally, she could feel the augmented commander closing on her and she approached the door. 

           Shit shit shit.

           EJ hit the floor to dodge the best she could but wasn’t fast enough. White-hot pain seared suddenly in neck, and she could feel warm blood beginning to trickle down her back and chest. She’d found herself in potentially lethal situations like this before and had taken a handful of wounds from conventional bullets and pulse-blasts alike. That was the only reason she was able to force herself to keep moving through the pain. She had managed to miss most of the pulse-blast that had been headed towards her, but the spread of the shot had still clipped her on the right arm. Her arm buzzed, mostly numb, and she could see her skin through holes in the sleeve of her smock where the blast had melted through her clothes. 

           Dammit, this was a nice outfit.

           Instincts still pumping in her chest, demanding that she keep moving, EJ flung herself back to her feet. Just as she did so, a metal fist collided with her gut. EJ wheezed but kept standing and managed to block the next swing from the commander, which had been aimed at her head. 

           “Neat arms,” EJ taunted, barely managing to dodge another rapid punch that sailed past her face.

           “Soldiers, who said you could stop shooting?” the augmented assailant shouted between grunts, ignoring EJ’s banter and landing a blow against her shoulder that made something pop painfully inside.

           Wait, what-the-static? They want to be shot at?

           Sudden cracks rang through the club once more, somewhat drowning out the sound of Seyet’s shouting and the generic, techno-beats pumping through the club speakers. They must have shut down the counter frequency to let the soldiers shoot, not that it mattered now. Keddik had already taken her gun. 

           EJ kept her pulse up and could feel the bullets in the air. She used a low, resonating frequency to feel where Keddik would swing next. Luckily for her, their arms were entirely augmented up to the shoulder, so she could feel the mechanisms pivoting the robotic muscle of the arm. The hardest part of reading the incoming blows was the commander’s torso. She couldn’t block, counterstrike, and dodge bullets all while watching how the augmented individual was twisting to aim the punches. 

           EJ got in a couple hits, feeling the familiar ache of hand-to-hand combat in her arms. Then she jumped back as quickly as she could to avoid an incoming shot. Keddik didn’t seem phased—they barely reacted to EJ’s hits or the volley of bullets. They approached through the gunfire, even swatting a bullet out of the air with a metal forearm when it sailed too close. In the space between exchanging blows, EJ could feel every part of her thumping with pain. Keddik lunged to close the distance between them again, winding back for another punch.

           EJ’s pulse picked up on another large pulse-blast incoming directly behind her. 

           Shit.

           Moving before even thinking, EJ snapped her wrist to activate the mage-grip module. As the commander’s punch came hurtling towards her, she twisted to the side and locked onto the metal arm. A second punch collided with her side a second later, and EJ felt something crack. She grunted loudly against the pain and threw Keddik’s weight against them, using their lunge to spin them into the oncoming pulse-blast. The same pivot-deflection move had worked out twice for her now.

           When the blast collided, EJ was safely shielded behind the body of her foe. Keddik cried out in pain as the beam of weaponized energy melted through the back of their clothes, exposing an extensive series of mechanical bracings running down their spine like a steel exoskeleton. EJ barely managed to reverse her grip module in time to avoid being pulled with the commander as they crashed into the soldier who had fired the pulse weapon.

           Time to go

           Against the pain that was thundering through her, EJ braced herself and charged the club’s ornate, glass door. She felt another blast in her electrosense behind her, from the direction of Seyet. 

           Goddammit, EJ, she scolded herself in her head.

           She had been busy dodging other bullets and hadn’t had time to worry about Seyet’s own potential armaments. That was sloppy.

           Wait. That wasn’t a bullet. 

           Oh shi—

           The blast of the sonic canon hit EJ like a bolt of lightning. More than simply killing your target, the canon was designed to incapacitate whoever you were aiming at. It did so with agonizingly painful beams of concentrated sound waves. EJ felt the shock of the weapon tear through her skin and vibrate to her bones. At first there was a loud POP, and EJ could hear herself crying out in pain, but then the world seemed to go silent. A second later, a coursing wave of intense nausea throbbed in her head and coursed down through her limbs. 

           Then EJ’s weight hit the glass door to the club, and a thousand shards of crystal raked across her body as it shattered. She hit the ground outside and rolled onto the street. 

           Time to—EJ. You need—up.

           Even the words she told herself in her mind were swimming in a sea of pain, and she heard them cut-out in her head, broken up by audible static that fuzzed over parts of her own thoughts.

           She pried her eyes open, but the world around her was an endless black void of nothingness. She thought she was standing, as she could distantly feel the twitching muscles in her calves. But then again, she felt her muscles ache and twitch all over. She tried to pulse, and for a fraction of a second her electrosense illuminated the world around her. She got a flashing image in her mind of the street stretching out before her, wires in the ground from the college’s central power grid snaking back towards the college’s spire and the bot-graveyard bridge in the distance. Then a jolting spear of static shot through her head once more, and the image vanished. 

           EJ blinked hard several times, beginning to make out shouts from inside the club. Slowly, her vision returned to her. 

           You need to go, NOW, the voice in her head demanded. 

           Cradling a mangled arm and bleeding from the neck, EJ managed to throw herself into a shambling jog towards the college in the distance. 

<END OF CHAPTER 3>

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1 – 2, “Frequency”

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TW: Panic Attack, Depressive Episode

            The main streets were relatively clear of their usual bustle when Wes left home and headed up towards the college. He estimated there was maybe a good hour of blissful, empty city before the evening vitriol began to ooze back into the streets. That gave him just enough time to slip into the workshop, grab what he needed, and get back home before the streets began to overflow with the writhing throngs of city life. He grimaced at the thought of it. Too many people. Too much noise. There was a reason he attended a good ninety percent of his classes from home.

            Wes ran calculations in his head, pulsing to a subtle anxiety that accompanied him whenever he had to cross normally busy segments of the city. 

            Fifteen minutes to the campus, fifteen back. He told himself with a deep breath. Five minutes to get downstairs to the workshop.

            Wes nodded as he walked. So far, the perfect multiples of five in his minute estimations were a good sign. It didn’t mean anything truly, but it always calmed him when the numbers worked out nicely like that. Perfect numbers meant perfect results, or at the very least, visually pleasing ones. 

            If my new organizational system remains intact, twenty minutes tops to find what I need

            Wes’s quick steps faltered for a moment as a horrible possibility presented itself in his mind. 

            But if the workshop is in its usual state of nightmarish disarray… 

            Wes quickened his pace. Relying on faulty, unknown variables? Had his brain been replaced with static? He pulsed the frequency of self scorn. That kind of lazy, half-assed calculation only ever added up to one thing—unpredicted results. Wes didn’t have time for unpredicted results.

            What if it’s worse than I can account for today? What if they undid my perfect organization? It’ll take too long to find what I need—up to an hour, potentially.

            Images of a crowded central street flashed in Wes’s mind, and he felt his pulse double down on the frequency of anxiety. At its busiest, the streets of city central could quickly swallow him in a sea of moving bodies, pulling him beneath waves upon waves of pushing arms and shoving shoulders. 

            Wes paused for only a moment, just long enough to let the terror of the idea tickle the back of his mind. Then he took off running down the empty street towards the college in the distance. 

*          *          *

            A short time later, Wes buzzed himself into the school resource center by pulsing through his ID. As the mechanical door slid open in front of him, he rested his hands on his knees and gasped down hungry, desperate gulps of air. He had never been very athletic, but life still found ways to make him run from time to time, despite his best efforts to avoid any form of physical exertion. Once his lungs weren’t stabbing at his insides with each inhalation, he stood up, took a couple deep breaths, and walked into the building. 

            Now, I should have plenty of time to find everything I need, maybe even reorganize the shelves if it’s bad, he reassured himself.

            The Biotechnical College of Modern Medicine consumed a sizable chunk of city central, even bleeding into the adjacent 99th district. The vast campus space was comprised of three main parts: the student wing, which hosted classrooms and teacher offices; the workshop, which housed advanced tools and resources for student use; and what was referred to by students as “the applied course,” where a portion of campus was actually a functional medical office staffed by teachers and highly ranked student officials. As a student here, Wes had been to the applied course a handful of times for both assignments as well as personal health concerns. As a child, all his early developmental appointments had been conducted here on campus. The applied courses had supplied his meds as well as a few surgeries he had once needed. For your average civilian, that would have cost a fortune. Of course, Wes’s connections made money a nonissue, especially in regards to college expenses. 

            He banished those thoughts immediately, before they had time to get stuck in his mind. He had gotten good at that in his years away from home. 

            When Wes finally arrived at the workshop, he buzzed himself in and let go of the breath he had been holding onto. The anxious undertone in his frequency gave way to a pulse of full-blown relief. Everything was as exactly as he had left it, various tools and mechanical components neatly organized according to his experimental “relevance” system. Over the course of the last semester, Wes had spent some time observing how often various tools and pieces in the workshop were used, and how often more of one item needed to be ordered for the school’s supply. Based on his findings, he assigned each item stored in the workshop a number that corresponded to how frequently the item was needed. Once his preliminary data gathering had been completed, Wes was able to sort everything into the workshop’s mechanical, sliding shelves by grouping items that shared the same relevance score. It was a simple procedure really, but he predicted it would revolutionize the way his fellow students in the workshop conceptualized organizational streamlining in their own, personal storage systems and workplaces.

            Wes walked to the shelf control terminal and pulsed through his ID once more to gain access. The small display screen chimed to indicate it had been unlocked, pulling up a picture of Wes from the year prior when he had last gotten his ID renewed. His hair had been shorter then, and his wavy, red-brown locks now hung well beyond his shoulders. Longer hair wasn’t a very popular style at the moment, but that kind of thing had never really concerned him.

            Wes reached into his pocket and retrieved his media tablet, a rectangular display screen that stored files and doubled as a journal in which he could draw out his designs. On it, he had written out each of the components he would need to rebuild the broken drone lying on his floor back home. Next to the list, he had sketched out a quick rendering of what he envisioned the new drone looking like. Wes was calling the design “plantboy.bot” in his media tablet. He told himself it was a temporary design name, but he knew that the silly, little moniker was already sticking in his head as this drone’s new identity. 

            Wes double-checked plantboy’s design.

            The new blueprint kept the same structure of any standard-model courier—a basic, bipedal walking machine. Problem was, Wes wouldn’t be able to add arms back onto the drone. After cracking the machine open and checking the condition of its internal structure, Wes had discovered that the drone’s shoulder supports had been compromised in the arm-removal process. That made it impossible to attach arms to any form of shoulder joint without carbon printing a new frame entirely. He could do that here at the school on one of the large-format carbon printers, but the process would take an hour minimum. Wes had ultimately decided that his time was more valuable to him in this scenario than the quality of plantboy’s torso. 

            Sorry, plantboy. 

            On any vaguely humanoid design, arms were a crucial component of the machine’s ability to balance. If he was set on using the drone’s armless frame, he would need to work around that deficiency as he was rebuilding plantboy. 

            Wes’s solution to this problem was relatively simple: two big, metal feet. Well, the solution was more about the ankles, really. Rather than spend the time and resources needed to calibrate the drone’s balance entirely in its legs, Wes had dipped into his study of biological life, figuring that he could create a sort of mechanical ankle for the bot to supplement its balance in the same way his own, organic feet and ankles did. He pulled up the design for the complex mechanism on his media tablet. 

            While it had originally seemed like the lazy design approach to take—nothing more than a work-around to bypass a broken piece—Wes had discovered a speck of genius to be found in his robotic ankle. Before his delivery had been stolen, he had been planning on using hyper-precise timers to control how much water each of his plants was receiving. Wes was pretty sure he could rig the actuators in the complex ankle mechanism he was building to be relatively precise in their own right. Now all he needed was an old-fashioned watering can. Sure, he was swapping automation for a small level of manual labor, but he theorized that it may be even more precise in its end result. By affixing a large watering can to the head of the drone, Wes could manually fill the can with precisely how much water he hoped to expend. In place of his stolen timers, he could write a program that had the drone’s ankle mechanism lock at a specific angle, causing the can on the drone’s head to dispense water on whatever plant it stood in front of. The program could substitute for a timer by controlling exactly how far the drone would lean forward, as steeper angles would cause water to dispense much faster from the can. In a janky, roundabout way, that would let Wes tailor the amount of water dispensed to the needs of each plant, just as he had wanted to do with the timers. It wouldn’t be as accurate as the timers would have been, but it would have to do. From there, all he needed to do was calculate the rate at which water dispensed from the nozzle of the can on an average pouring, which would give him the information he needed to extrapolate the varied angles to program into the ankle mechanism. 

            Wes had already decided on what angle constituted a “baseline pour” from the can, and used it to deduce the water dispensary rate through a series of complex equations that he had finished up before leaving the house. He quickly scrolled over to the calculations, which spanned multiple pages of writing, and double checked his work. 

            I may be a mechanical genius after all, Wes thought, pulsing to what was perhaps his rarest frequency—self pride. 

              Wes chuckled to himself as he looked over the design. The whole thing was simultaneously simple and needlessly complicated all at once—silly and stupid. But it worked. It worked, and it was his. Entirely his. He had come up with the solution and designed each custom part by himself. Perhaps that’s what made him love plantboy the most—the fact that it was all his. Creating plantboy made Wes feel smart. But more than that, more than simply highlighting his own intelligence, creating plantboy made Wes feel creative

            In everyday life, he often found himself bothered by any design that didn’t shortcut its way into perfect efficiency. But this design was different for some reason. He had subverted any logical solution to his problem, while still accomplishing his end goal with relative precision and efficiency. His design was the definition of the phrase, “just crazy enough to work.” But the best part? It would look entirely ridiculous from the outside—a robot with a mundane watering can strapped to its head. No, it wasn’t until you delved into the deeper functions of the bot, into the very heart of the machine itself, that you would detect just how clever and well-designed the whole thing was. 

            Wes used the control terminal to navigate his perfectly organized shelves of machine components, which slid along a mechanized track in the ceiling of the workshop. As he retrieved the pieces of his little project, pulsing contentedly, Wes found himself to be genuinely excited. Perhaps plantboy would be the first engineering project that didn’t make him immediately remember his disdain for the entire field of robotics.

            “Wesley?” A soft, older voice questioned from the door.

            Wes jumped, dropping a few machine components which hit the ground with a heavy thunk. He had been so caught up in his drone design that he had somehow managed to ignore the sound of heavy workshop doors opening behind him. Wes quickly picked up his pieces before turning to face the source of the voice.

            Professor Hennil, his Advanced Sensory Robotics teacher, watched him with a cocked head as the automatic entrance closed behind her. She was an older woman, with pure-white hair buzzed to its shortest length. She wore a long, white lab coat with the simple staff ID badge pinned to the front pocket, like an exposed motherboard encased in glass. Pulsing through the device would allow her to quickly display her identity, station, and rank in a compact holographic projection. A thick strip of metallic gold underlined both of her faded, green eyes, an indication of visual augmentation. 

            “It’s the first day of 3rd cycle break, dear. What are you doing here?” Professor Hennil pulsed to amusement, a smile cracking on her face. 

            “I uh, got an idea. Needed to get some stuff to build it.” Wes tried to hide his embarrassed frequency behind a playful chuckle. The persona he had just maintained a moment earlier, that of a confident and clever designer, dissipated into nothing but awkward, bumbling static. 

            “Must be quite the idea, then. Mind if I take a look?”

            “Uh, yeah, sure. Here,” Wes set down the pieces he had retrieved and walked over to her, handing her the media tablet. Hennil scrolled through the pages of design, followed by the calculations, before settling on Wes’s sketch of the drone with a watering can strapped to its head.

            “Hm. Interesting,” Hennil noted to herself, pulse shifting from amusement to intrigue momentarily. “I take it this is some kind of liquid transport?”

            That was a silly thing to call it, but she said the words with the same, serious inflection in her voice. Wes knew it was the voice of a seasoned mechanist and designer. Before taking up life as an educator, Hennil had been the lead designer at AM-Peer, one of the founding companies of the Governmental-Company Alliance. 

            “A greenhouse bot, actually,” Wes corrected, still pulsing to embarrassment. Damn, it was a tricky frequency to shut off once it got going. 

            “And this,” Hennil said, scrolling to the sketch of the ankle mechanism, “some kind of compounded actuator?”

            “Uh, that’s actually an ankle,” Wes stated, not thinking to offer any clarification.

            Hennil looked at him over the tablet, raising an eyebrow. 

            “Pardon?”

            “Well, I had my timer relays stolen so I’m using a courier drone to make a bot that can lean forward to water my plants without losing its balance and falling over. Hence the ankle.” Wes pointed to his head as he explained, as if he too had a watering can strapped to his torso where his face would be. 

            “A bot for garden duty is certainly—” Hennil’s contemplative expression shifted suddenly to confusion, and she pulsed briefly in concern. “Wait, did you say they were stolen?”

            “I guess the courier was walking through swapper territory. They must have cut off its arms and taken my package. When it showed up to my house it didn’t have either,” Wes explained.

            “I see.” Hennil eyed him, still visibly confused. “That is rather unfortunate.” 

            Wes offered a half-nod in response. 

            “So instead of a timer-based system you’re going to attach a watering can to the head of this,” Hennil paused to glance back down at the media tablet. “This plantboy.”

            “That’s correct, Professor,” Wes said, standing up a little straighter and finally managing to get his embarrassed pulse under control.

            Hennil thought for a moment, looking over Wes’s calculations before speaking again.

            “Don’t you think that’s a little—”

            “Silly?” Wes interjected, suddenly worrying about the critique of a master engineer looking over his design. “I know there are easier ways to accomplish this, but—”

            Wes lept to soften the blow of incoming criticism, but Hennil raised a silencing hand, pulsing to the frequency of consideration. After a moment in thought, she smiled. 

            “I admit, I was going to say ‘foolish,’ but the word carries more of a negative connotation than I intend to express. You’re absolutely correct, Wesley. The proper descriptor, I suppose, is infact silly. But more than that, I would venture to call this contraction clever.” 

            Wes blinked. His professor, who was perhaps one of the most intelligent mechanists in the field of robotic design, had just complimented his creation. Almost immediately, the split-second of stunned pride reversed itself in full force. Wes wasn’t sure how to react. What was the appropriate pulse here? Pride? Gratitude? Did he thank her or try to turn down the compliment? I mean, he was far from deserving of such praise. 

            Wes’s mind began to buzz with a torrent of thoughts.

            This isn’t praise I can accept, right? No, it’s meant for someone else, someone who will actually do something with their life. I was just tinkering with a broken-down drone that plopped its corpse onto my front porch. Plantboy isn’t more than a lazy fix for my greenhouse problems. And people have probably designed a mechanical ankle before, right? Does she know that? Does she know I’m just cheating my way into this praise?

            The thoughts quickly overwhelmed his mind, and Wes felt his lungs grow tighter. His hands were shaking lightly, and the lights in the room seemed to get intense suddenly, overwhelming even. They were like massive spotlights, projecting beams of hot, uncomfortable attention onto him. He wanted to leap for something to hide behind, somewhere safe where he could curl into a ball and drown in the whispers echoing in his mind. They reminded him that this was just a mistake, that this was a trap. This was a tactic from Hennil to expose him as the fraud that he was. Wes tenses his muscles, unsure if he was fighting the urge to run or simply paralyzed out of fear. Suddenly the tightness in his lungs snapped, and Wes realized that he hadn’t been breathing. He drew in a stuttering breath, but it wasn’t enough. His breaths devolved into quick, short bursts, like he had just run from his house to the workshop. 

            Wes tried to pull himself from the deafening static in his head by focusing on Hennil. She was saying something. What was she saying? He could see her lips moving, but sounds were still impossible to make out through the din of the voices in his head, bombarding his mind with questions and doubts. Wes slipped a hand into one of the side pockets of his smock and felt through the contents until his finger grazed something cool and metallic. The sudden sensation seemed to spark something in Wes, and he was able to recognize the panic that was building in him. 

            With some concentrated effort, Wes managed to get his breathing back under control. He felt the voices in his head grow quieter as he grasped the coin in his pocket, running its smooth edges against the palm of his hand. He took a breath and tried to focus on Hennil once more. As he did so, her words began to become clear again. Part of Wes relaxed suddenly, and he felt himself pulse distantly to reassurance. 

            “—so I do believe there could be quite a few applications for a mechanism like this,” she was saying. “Very well designed, Wesley.” 

            Wes managed to nod and smile like he had been listening. Hennil handed the tablet to him and clasped her hands behind her back, adopting a professional-looking stance that would have intimidated Wes if his brain space wasn’t already occupied by dozens of chattering thoughts. What was he pulsing right now? Was it a mess of mixing frequencies, or nothing at all? Wes just hoped it hadn’t been confusion, or something equally embarrassing. He could only feel his frequency as something distant, like an audio file being played at its lowest volume in another room.

            “Of course, I should expect nothing less from the child of Muirenn and Khels, two of this college’s very finest. Indeed, it seems you have inherited their intelligence on the front of robotic innovation.” 

            Wes felt the comment jolt through him suddenly. It resonated clearly in his mind, turning the rest of his swarming thoughts into a quiet layer of background static. Wes gripped the coin in his pocket with a full fist, forcing himself with some effort to not immediately pulse to defeat. Hennil continued.

            “You know, it was in this very workshop fifty-some years ago that their breakthrough brought us modern amp-intuitive technology. Yes, I remember what life was like before such conveniences were available.” Hennil laughed at her own remarks. “Forgive me. I’m sure you are already quite aware of such facts. I can’t help but wonder in excitement at what your grand discoveries in this field shall bring into the world.”

            Wes didn’t move. All his energy was being devoted to preventing himself from pulsing in a way that would expose his true feelings on the subject. He forced a generous smile to appear on his face. 

            “Uh, maybe it’ll be robot ankles?” Wes managed to stammer out.

            Hennil laughed. 

            “Yes, perhaps it will be. Do me a favor and lock the terminal when you leave the workshop, Wesley.”

            Hennil dismissed herself with a polite nod, and turned towards the door. She buzzed herself out, pulsing through the badge on her lab coat which beeped as she did so. She turned over her shoulder before leaving.

            “Oh, and Wesley?”

            Wes blinked. 

            “It was a delight to run into you, but please make sure to take an adequate break before classes resume. Wouldn’t want you to use up all your brilliance on robot ankles before getting to my class,” Hennil smiled, pulsing to indicate a joking tone.

            “I’ll try not to,” Wes responded, adding a chuckle that he hoped sounded amused.

              Then she turned and exited the workshop. 

            Wes leaned against the shelf control terminal and slid to the ground, letting go of the coin he had been gripping in his pocket. He fought against the instinctual pulse of defeat, but it leaked out of him anyway like a low, pathetic whine. He wished he could express something else for once—anger, frustration, maybe even just cold, honest sadness. But it was always defeat. Just empty, meaningless defeat. 

            It seems you have inherited their intelligence on the front of robotic innovation, Hennil’s voice repeated in his mind.

            It’s always their intelligence, Wes thought. That’s what I am, after all. Theirs. 

            It took effort to think the thoughts. For a time, all he could manage to do was sit there, his professor’s words reverberating through his skull. The automatic lights of the workshop detected no movement after a while, and shut off, but Wes still didn’t get up. 

            The only light remaining in the room was the glow of Wes’s media tablet and the control panel of the workshop terminal. Wes glanced down at the media tablet next to where he sat. His eyes scanned across the sketch of plantboy, trying to distract from the emptiness that had turned his mind into static. But it was no use. The spark of proud creativity was gone now. 

            Then Wes’s eyes flickered across the media tablet’s time display, and he felt a vague feeling emerge through the emotional smog. It was anxiety, he realized. But why was he anxious? 

            Realization crystallized slowly in his mind.

            I have to get home. 

            His hour of empty streets was fading fast. He didn’t have time to sit here and mope, he needed to get back home before people flooded the streets. 

            Come on, pull yourself up. Wes tried to point the thought at himself with as much feeling as he could muster. Find something to feel again, grab onto it and hoist yourself up. 

            Wes pulled himself to his feet, triggering the workshop’s automated lighting. He blinked against the sudden brightness, then spotted his machine parts as his vision adjusted. He shoved the components into a bag that someone had left behind, slinging it over one shoulder. He took a precious few moments to stymie his own defeated pulse, regaining some control over his emotional expression. He couldn’t eliminate the feeling in his own mind just yet, but he could at least stop his pulse from expressing the emotion. That was the first step to locking the feelings away again. 

            After centering himself, Wes pulsed through his ID at the door. Even waiting for the large, metal door to slide open was agonizing, as he was now all-too-aware of his dwindling minutes. Wes turned to the side and shimmied through the small crack before the workshop entrance had even finished opening all the way. 

            He checked his tablet once more. 10 minutes before nightlife consumed the city streets. The familiar rattle of an anxious frequency flickered in his amp like a dying circuit. That was good. If he was going to get home before the streets flooded, he was going to need to feel something, anything to convince himself to move again.

              If he booked it back towards the house, he could probably still make it through light street traffic. He took a deep breath and pulsed to a vaguely optimistic frequency, trying to prepare his body for more running—this time with the added weight of machine parts in a bag slung over one shoulder and a panic attack threatening to shut down his muscles. 

            Wes took a deep breath. Then he remembered. 

            I forgot to lock the terminal. The thought pounded in his mind suddenly like a blow to the head. 

            He glanced at his tablet once more, anxiety amplifying in his pulse as he imagined the crowded streets of city central. 

            9 minutes.

            Wes groaned. Then he booked it back towards the workshop, only minutes remaining before he would need to push his way through swarms of people just to make it back home. 

<END OF CHAPTER 2>

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1 – 1, “Pulse”

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            “Please confirm your delivery.”

            The courier drone at Wes’s front door chimed its automated response and awaited a reaction.

            “Please confirm your delivery,” the contraption repeated a moment later, its voice devoid of any human cadence or tone. Loose wiring dangled from the gaping holes where its arms had once been attached to the rest of its simple, bipedal frame. The mesh netting that would have held a package was completely missing from the back of the machine, seemingly cut from the drone’s torso entirely. Wes pulled his stylus from the front pocket of his smock, using it to scratch at his head as he looked over the dismembered machine, puzzled. 

            Courier drones were designed with theft in mind, of course. Built of a fairly modern carbon fiber material—engineered to be both sturdy and light-weight—the drones’ arms were designed to interlock behind the torso, forming a sort of protective cage around the delivery parcel that would only unlock upon arrival at the delivery’s intended recipient. In theory, this ensured the safe delivery of every order. As Wes had just discovered, however, the drone’s design did little to prevent someone from simply removing the protective cage of the machine all together, disconnecting the courier’s arms at the shoulder joint to access the ordered goods. It was certainly a creative bypass, and Wes nodded at the work in a quiet acknowledgement of cleverness. Tech dealers and swappers were smart. Courier drones, on the other hand, not so much.  

            Wes glanced down the dirt path that connected his front porch to the main road. A sparse trail of mechanical odds and ends every few feet seemed to suggest that the amputee robot standing before him had continued to shuffle along without hesitation, even as its arms were plucked free of its precisely engineered frame. 

            “You didn’t detect when your arms were removed? Don’t you guys have sensors for that?” Wes chided.

            “Please confirm your delivery,” the drone retorted automatically.

            Wes shook his head in a mixture of amusement and mild exasperation. Instinctually, he pulsed along with the emotion as he spoke at the drone. As he did so, a low, buzzing energy began vibrating the air directly around him, suffusing his words with a layer of annoyance in the form of an electric frequency. Wes felt the familiar energy prickle along his skin as it created a looping electrical field stretching from the current-producing organ in his gutcalled an ampto the electroreceptors in his face and along the back of his neck. The indented dark spots under Wes’s eyes and across the bridge of his nose hungrily sucked in the static flowing from his amp, creating a circuit of bioelectricity. Everywhere he looked, a ghostly afterimage burned overtop his view of the world, and fuzzy, white static bled into view from wherever electricity buzzed nearby. Under this new layer of sight, Wes could see other energy fields. Well, it was more than simply seeing them. Wes could feel the bounds of their energy. Based on the pull and push of his own electrical field, he could feel the passive, humming presence of anything conductive nearby, as well as anything actively producing a current. 

            The drone standing on Wes’s porch immediately became laced in a complex lattice of flickering trails that highlighted the pathways where electricity flowed throughout the machine. Live wires became glowing, white rivers under Wes’s electrosense, coursing from the drone’s cheap, internal battery down through the simple motors that controlled the machine’s legs. Wes gave the armless drone another once-over. 

              Most shipping companies delivered through these standard model drones. The simple walking machines were cheap to manufacture, easily modified to accommodate various delivery routes, and plenty capable of following an internally calculated path towards a designated set of coordinates. Of course, that’s what made drones equally unreliable at times— internal calculation. Sometimes those calculated paths took the machine right through the center of swapper territory. Unlike bots, drones didn’t house any on-board AI for reasoning or situational awareness. Without it, a drone could lose both arms and keep chugging along towards its delivery point, perfectly unaware of its missing appendages or packages. Wes assumed that the delivery company wasn’t exactly monitoring where the various tech-dealers were setting up shop. And judging by the double-amputee standing on his porch, the drones themselves certainly weren’t capable of monitoring it either.

            “I’m guessing there isn’t a preset message for, ‘your order was stolen on the way here,’” Wes mused, mocking the courier’s digital tone with a higher-pitched pulse underlining his voice to indicate sarcasm. 

            “Please confirm your delivery,” the drone chimed in response. 

            “Yeah, that would be too easy, huh? How else would I experience the absolute joy of filing a digital refund request with the company?” 

            The drone wobbled for a moment, shifting to maintain its balance on the simple, metallic struts that formed its legs. When its footing was determined to be stable, the drone bent its knee-joints to center itself, bobbing in a short, smooth crouching motion that made its actuators whir with electricity. The legs of the machine fuzzed with static under Wes’s electrosensory sight. He watched the drone’s movements, an idea beginning to form in his mind. 

            Wes’s order would take at least a week to refund if he processed the request through the usual avenues. Drones were generally pretty reliable, which meant that faulty-deliveries didn’t happen too often. Moreover, the company he had ordered from was large enough that, frankly, it could afford to ignore every displeased customer with zero consequence. 

            Wes fiddled with the stylus in his hand, pressing the nib into his fingertips one-by-one as he further distilled his inspiration. 

            The drone wouldn’t make it out of the city. Without arms, the courier could barely balance. It shifted every now and then on its metallic struts, desperate to maintain some semblance of mechanical composure. Moreover, the drone wouldn’t have the weight necessary to push its way through a crowded segment of the city, let alone climb the dirt incline leading from Wes’s front porch back up to the main street. Thinking about it now, Wes wasn’t even sure how the drone had managed to get to his door without falling over in the first place. 

            Even if it did manage to hobble its way back to the nearest deployment station, they’d likely recycle the drone for what little of it remained salvageable, assuming the swappers hadn’t plucked anything remotely useful from the drone’s frame already. If the drone had been reduced to simply a pair of legs and an automated speaker, as Wes suspected it had, the company would likely just trash the whole thing and order themselves a replacement from one of the factories manufacturing thousands of courier drones every day. 

            Wes ran a quick cost analysis in his head, computing the average price of the drone’s components and comparing it to the cost of his own order, which had been a series of time-controlled switches that were precise to the nanosecond. He had been planning on using them to automate his greenhouse’s water usage to perfectly maintain the specific watering needs of each plant in his care. Wes had spent the better part of last month planning it all out, calculating the timer delay and accounting for each and every drop of water. 

            The switches were easily worth twice the value of what remained of the dis-armed drone, even if Wes calculated generously in favor of the drone’s total worth. Wes thought about it for a moment, looking the drone over with a meticulous gaze that quickly and almost subconsciously summed up the working condition of the drone’s remaining pieces. Then he blinked, and shrugged, pulsing to the steady, middling frequency of reluctant acceptance. 

            I mean, it’s better than nothing, he thought. 

            “Please confirm your delivery,” the robot suggested. 

            “Well, alright then.” 

            Shouldn’t be too difficult to hook this thing up to a hose.

            Wes popped the magnetic clasp on his smock’s front pocket, replacing the stylus in its sheath before rooting around for his transaction chip. A moment later, he pulled it from the pocket, held between his pointer finger and this thumb. Pulsing allowed him to channel his electrical field through the chip at a unique frequency, creating a signal tied to his personal funds account. Well, it was his parents account, really. Wes didn’t have any money to his own name just yet, other than the few physical coins he kept in his pockets. He liked the way the smooth edges of the coins felt along his fingertips. Playing with them helped him think. 

            These days, most people paid with complex etchings—beautiful designs placed under the skin and layered with advanced micro-circuitry that would allow the bearer to effectively broadcast their personal transaction code by simply pulsing at the right frequency. Wes would have done the same—not so much for the aesthetics as much as the convenience—but etchings had never seemed to settle with him. He had tried getting one a few years back, right after moving to the city. Wes had been rather proud of himself for coming up with the design—it was simple line art, depicting a potted plant with a lightbulb sprouting from where the flower should be. Getting an etching was going to be his first big decision since moving out by himself, and the idea of it made him feel bold and proudly independent. He had done the research, braced for the pain of the etching’s subdermal implant, and made sure to scout out the most reputable-looking etching parlor in all of city central before booking his appointment. 

            The initial pain had actually been significantly less than his preliminary calculations suggested it might be. The aftermath of the process, however, had him doubled over and clutching at his arm where it felt like someone had set fire to his bloodstream. Something about his amp’s particular frequencies had almost immediately fried the etching’s delicate circuitry and spoiled the design, causing the ferro-ink to bleed back out through his skin in an excruciatingly painful fashion. The unexpected error had shaken Wes a fair amount. He still bore a series of dotted scars on his wrist where the fried micro-circuitry lingered just under his skin. It would have only caused more damage to remove, the man at the etching parlor had assured him. Thinking about it now made him pulse the deep, rattling frequency of anxiety. Wes didn’t like the thought of some foreign, dead tech stuck inside of him, but there wasn’t much he could do about it. Ever since then, Wes had defaulted to making payments via transaction chip. No more fancy, subdermal amp-tech for him. That was fine, of course. After all, there was another crucial aspect of amp-tech that bothered him, but he never dwelt on it longer than he had to.

            Wes pulsed briefly, pushing his electric field through the transaction chip. It hummed along to the proper frequency, glowing for a moment with white static under Wes’s electrosense. Then he slipped it back into the smock’s front pocket. A moment later, the drone chimed that it had received the chip’s signal. 

            “Delivery confirmed. Payment: two-zero-zero point five-two-zero.” 

            Wes winced, pulsing for a moment in the frustration frequency as the drone’s digital voice reminded him exactly how much he had spent on an order that had never arrived. 

            This is still recoverable, Wes thought, taking a breath. I’ve haven’t got the timers, but I have got this, uh….this…

            Wes refocused, shifting his attention back to the drone standing on his porch. The display screen on its chest was flickering, seemingly unsure if it should be presenting a list of greetings in various languages or a troubleshooting program’s start-up menu. A moment passed, the display switching rapidly between the two screens as Wes watched, slightly mesmerized by the flashing light. Then, the whole display fluttered in one final, electric hurrah before blacking out entirely.

            I’ve got this mess, Wes finished the thought in his head. 

            “Uh, you alright there, drone?”

            “Please wait for assistance. Your delivery is on its way,” the mechanical voice said in its unwavering tone. 

            “Somehow I seriously doubt that,” Wes raised an eyebrow, underlining his words with a high-pitch pulse. 

            The drone remained silent. Wes waited. Nothing. So he pulsed at it in a questioning frequency. 

            The drone’s legs wavered for a moment, as if preparing to hobble away, then froze in place. Something internal whirred and clicked angrily, like two mechanisms grinding against one another. 

            Well that can’t be good, Wes thought. He could hear something in the robot’s torso trying unsuccessfully to push against the rest of the drone’s internal mechanisms. It buzzed endlessly, going nowhere. 

Then it all stopped abruptly. 

            In his electrosense, Wes could feel electricity beginning to pool together where the arm motors should have been connected. It was trying to move its missing arms, Wes realized. The drone probably thought that it still had his package to deliver, safely tucked away beneath its now removed arm-shield. White static fuzzed into view around the machine’s speakers. 

            “Have a good—” Wes held on for a moment, expecting the automated response to conclude properly, but the phrase was left hanging. A moment passed again. Then, from the speakers once more, the drone’s voice chimed:

            “Good—good—good—g—” and shut down once more. The words were distinct, but oddly syncopated and mangled in pitch. 

            “I really don’t think you are, bud,” Wes grimaced. 

            “Have—have—have—have delivery!” This time the audio was sped up and high pitched. Wes was barely able to make out words through the growing distortion in the drone’s digital tone.

            The courier lurched backwards in an attempted step away from the door. The awful sound of machinery crunching against the carbon-fiber frame returned, and Wes winced, pulsing instinctually to unpleasant surprise. The drone shuddered, its motors sputtering in one last, futile attempt at moving properly. Then the entire contraption crashed to the ground with a sharp cuh-CHUNK. Wes winced again, pulsing to pain. For a moment, he simply watched the pitiful courier drone where it lay in a heap outside his door, wires leaking onto the porch from its arm-holes. 

            “Uh, why don’t you come inside and let me take a look at you?” 

            Wes waited. The courier drone’s display screen flickered to life for only a moment.

            “Please—” The digital tone pleaded before cutting-off its own sentence. 

            Wes gathered the fallen drone and pulled it inside. 


            Sitting on the edge of the transport bridge with her legs dangling over the side, EJ gazed down fondly at the city streets, which extended out below her and stretched endlessly into the horizon. This high up, she could hear the sounds of street chatter and bustle only as a whisper in the breeze. It rose into the air alongside the smoke and steam, and she breathed it in readily like it was the very lifeforce of the city that sustained her. After a week of scouting around city sector 8 with a group of swappers who smelled like melted wiring fermenting in a puddle of rusty sewage, she cherished the familiar stench of city central’s acrid air. Even the worst smog here was still preferable to the trash heap that was sector 8. 

            Damn, it’s good to be home again, EJ thought, pulsing to the steady frequency of comfort.

            EJ stood up and wiped her grimy hands on her jacket. Then she took a deep breath in and pulsed outwards on the exhale. It was a low frequency, the kind that wasn’t strong enough to register on even the simplest of transaction chips. It was a frequency that she had somewhat invented—or at least that’s what she told herself. She knew, of course, that it didn’t really work like that, but EJ had never heard of anyone using their amp in the same way she did. For most people, pulsing was like having an extra arm. It provided a tool that made interacting with the world a lot easier. Pulsing let you hand money to the cashier, it pushed open your front door, and it made gestures alongside your words to indicate how you were feeling. People don’t think about using their arms. They just do so. The same was largely true for pulsing. 

            But EJ’s electrosense wasn’t like an additional arm. No, it was something else entirely, like having a fully-functioning, second brain in her gut. Pulsing informed every second of her life. It told her how many people were around at any given second—how far away they were. It told her who had a gun stashed in their belt and who had a knife in their boot. Just by pulsing, EJ could tell where the incoming blow would land, and how confident her assailant was—how quickly their heart was beating, how fast their brain was firing, how much power their mechanical implants were running on. Even as she pulsed now, standing atop the bridge, she could feel the world around her pouring sensory information into her mind. She could feel the rails running beside her along the bridge, the internal mechanisms housed within the frame of the immense structure, and the half-dismantled bots that hung from both sides of the bridge, banging and scraping against one another in the light breeze. 

            Ah, the discarded robot corpses

            They were EJ’s favorite part of the transport bridge. They hung from both sides, strung up by their own mechanical intestines. Lengthy reams of multi-colored wires suspended the bots in the air like the grotesque, spliced-together puppets of some swapper technophile. In places, some of the bots dangled low enough that you could shake their mechanically-jointed hands from the city street below. EJ loved the grim, mechanical aesthetic of it all. In an odd way, it made her feel powerful. She liked to imagine each decaying bot that hung from the bridge had once been some foe of hers. Perhaps the one with no lower half was that tech broker with the fake eye, back in sector 10. He had been particularly creepy. And maybe the bot dangling by whatever wiring remained in its ankle joint was the faction leader in sector 8 whose portable sonic cannon she had just stolen. But of course, the specifics of the scene didn’t really matter. None of them did anymore, not from where she stood now. They were all so impossibly below her, hanging from the various nets she had gotten them all tangled in before slipping far, far away. And she was finally out of their reach, standing atop the transport bridge, breathing in the city she had always called home. From here, she could see everything—the old drone deployment station, the college in the distance, the whole city itself. It was like a living, breathing being, stretching out in all directions. 

            And I’m its soul, she thought to herself, feeling the waves of her own pulse pitch slightly upwards towards the frequency for joy. 

            In this bridge-fantasy, she was finally free. Without anyone left chasing her, it was all hers. She could go wherever she’d like, be whoever she wanted to be. Anyone who would stand in her way, anyone who would chain her to this anxious, cautious life was hanging from a bridge—defeated, trapped, or simply too tied-up in other, more immediate threats.

            EJ blinked suddenly, shutting down her imagination and finding herself back atop the city central transport bridge. Her pulse faltered for a moment before she managed to catch it and return to the blank frequency she had “invented” to scan large areas. It was probably best to leave the foe-slaying fantasies safely tucked away in her daydreams where they wouldn’t immediately get her killed on the streets. 

            EJ sighed, letting the impossible scene seep out of her with the exhale. 

            It was a musing she entertained more than she cared to admit these days. Perhaps that was because she knew it was far from anything she would ever truly achieve. 

            Freedom? Not a chance in static. 

            Part of her knew that she could only really run for so long. The city only had so many nooks and crannies to duck into, and sooner or later she’d exhaust her remaining hiding places. Then what? Who would catch up to her first?

            In all her years of running with the various tech-dealer factions, EJ had always found a way to avoid the larger, dangerous conflicts by being quick and clever. Sure, she was plenty capable of throwing a punch or aiming a shot, but that didn’t mean it was the smart thing to do if you wanted to keep breathing. More than a few factions wanted her head now, and trying to fight back on the frontline was a surefire way to give them exactly that. After a few years of jumping from group to group, she’d become quite skilled at avoiding the muscley, soldier-type assignments, bargaining or manipulating her way into a more specialized role that kept her safely distanced from the street skirmishes. Then, when a job pay-out was enough to refund her monthly expenses, she’d bail. Yes, skimming wealth from off the top of the money pile and disappearing into the night: that was how she lived. That was how she had managed to scrape by for so long. How much longer could she make that work?

            EJ returned her attention to the low, buzzing frequency that hummed softly in her core, taking a second to collect herself. She just needed to remind herself that she was almost done. Just one last job, and she’d be set. Hopefully. Assuming the plan went off without a hitch and she had prepared well and countless other little details that could immediately leave her high-and-dry, surrounded by enemies on all sides. 

            Oh wonderful.

            With some effort and some deep breaths, she pushed down the anxiety and crammed it back into the little box of ignored problems that sat in the corner of her brain. Then she shifted her focus back to the real reason she had climbed to the top of the bridge: a battery. A very large battery, actually. She had spent a good chunk of time lugging it up the bridge’s central maintenance shaft to get it all hooked up. Even with a mag-grav module cutting the weight of the box in-half via magne-gravitic suspension, the thing was stupid heavy.

            The black box was easily as tall as she was. Two cables, about as thick as her wrists, protruded from the side of the battery box. Each cable ended in a forked prong that EJ had pinned over the rails before pulling herself up onto the part of the bridge that formed a bit of a barrier, fencing in the transport bot’s path down across the bridge. Under her electrosense, she could see that the battery flickered with only a few fading sparks of electrical charge humming within it. That wouldn’t be the case for long.

            Everyone living in city central’s streets syphoned power from the bridge. It was part of the reason why no one removed the hanging bots—they indicated where power could be tapped from the rails. When power reserves began to run low, you’d simply bring your fuel cells to the bridge and hook them up to the rail for a day or two. When the next transport bot crossed overhead, powering the rails, electricity would flow down and give you a free recharge, courtesy of the college’s central powergrid. Normally, EJ would stick to smaller, more portable power cells, or even disposable charges. But today she was doing a favor for some friends, and that called for a bulky battery. 

            As she double checked the battery box cables, EJ felt her wide-cast pulse beginning to tremble. Instinctually, she hauled herself back up onto the raised side-barrier of the bridge and braced herself against nothing more than her own, crouched stance. Half a second later, the small tremors became large vibrations that physically shook the metal struts of the bridge. A thousand volts of raw, electrical current poured into the rails as a buzzing white-noise filled the air. EJ felt the sudden force of energy slam against her own frequency as a strong electric field expanded outwards rapidly from the charged rails. Through her electrosensory view of the world, the bridge thrummed with a powerful, all-consuming light that highlighted the entire metal structure and made the electro-receptive spots on EJ’s face prickle. Through the dense field of energy that permeated the air around her, she closed her eyes and kept pulsing her “invented,” wide-spread frequency. 

            She was grinning like an idiot. She couldn’t help it. All around her, across the bridge and down its long metal legs, she felt the very world itself come to life. Her heart leapt with a mixture of anticipation and adrenaline and her frequency rose instinctually towards excitement.

            Mechanical arms and legs began to flail, surging in desperation to perform whatever task they had once been in the middle of completing before shutting down and being hung from a bridge. Eroded voice files played through blown-out speakers, and long-dead display screens flickered tentatively to life, shining light through shattered glass and distorted digital menus. 

            As the transport bot hurtled down the tracks towards the bridge, suspended overtop a powerful magnetic field, EJ cackled in delight. Any sound she could possibly produce was almost immediately swallowed in the cacophony of heavy machinery produced by the transport bot thundering over the bridge, lugging dense, metal shipping crates behind it. Through tightly shut eyelids, EJ could feel the heavy gust that issued forth from the sheer speed and weight of the moving transport. The wind threw her short, shaggy hair in every direction and thrashed her jacket against her sides. It threatened to blow her off the bridge completely. EJ fought to maintain her balance, viewing the world entirely through the fuzzy, grayscale lens of her electrosenses. The transport bot and the magnetic rails beneath it appeared as a nearly solid white line that blurred at the edges, waves of a strong electrical field emanating out from around it. She could feel the individual, twitching digits of each robot hand below, and she could see the power flowing into their rusting central processors through the wires suspending them. She knew that if she swayed forward even a hair she’d be struck but the full speed of the transport and likely torn to shreds by the velocity it commanded. If she leaned back even half a step she’d be thrown off balance, and likely fall from the bridge to the street below. 

            EJ cackled once more. It was a wild, uncontrollable reaction that poured from her body freely, as if the electricity in the rails was shooting through her chest, causing her lungs to expel the laugh in violent, involuntary gasps. Her fingers clutched and whipped in quick, frenetic twitches and her neck jerked about, locking at odd angles before buckling and locking again in quick succession. She felt each of the bots hanging from the bridge shudder and tremble alongside her, she felt their brains flicker to life and their hearts pound out the electrical rhythm of their decaying, mechanical existence. To the beat of the rumbling transport, to the rhythm of robots trapped in an endless un-death, she cried out the agonizing notes of her own organic life. 

            And then it passed. 

            The transport shot along the tracks and into the distance beyond the bridge. The coursing wave of pure energy that had flowed through the rails only moments ago dissipated in an instant. The hanged bots returned to their silent gallows, clanging against each other as they swayed gently in the breeze. All at once, the electric symphony vanished into static. 

            EJ’s lungs rasped against her ribcaged. She sputtered for a moment, blinking through blurred snapshots of the world swimming around her as she pried her eyes back open. She was lying on the warm metal structure, in the space between the rails themselves and the raised side of the bridge where she had been standing when the transport crossed. She didn’t remember how she had gotten down off the ledge and into the transport bot’s path. Had she fallen, or simply laid down and drifted off for a moment? It didn’t matter, really. 

            Despite the self-inflicted coughing fit and the brief moment spent lying down, EJ felt energized as she pulled herself to her feet. She felt alive again. She disconnected the cables from the rail and draped them overtop the black, metal battery box. She didn’t need her electrosense to feel the power cells inside brimming with a fresh charge. 

            EJ grinned, pulsing to contentment. 

            This was her little revitalization ritual. Each month, as the regularly scheduled transport rolled across the bridge, she’d breath in the fresh energy it brought with it, and vent all the anxiety, uncertainty, and stress. Sure, that manifested in the form of a mad, uncontrollable cackle that was frankly a little concerning, but the din of the transport kept the noise muffled and that little box of ignored problems in the corner of her brain repressed the red-alerts of a dwindling sanity. She’d leave with a full battery and a re-energized spirit. 

            “Well, mission success I guess,” EJ remarked to herself.

            As she prepared her mag-grav module to safely take the battery back down the maintenance shaft, the peace of mind granted by her little stress-relief excursion to the bridge began to wear off. As she descended the bridge and headed back into the city, the cold gravity of her situation began to weigh on her mind once more. 

            I’ve only got one shot at this, she reminded herself. One shot, and then I’m either free forever, or six feet under.

            She needed to get the battery back to the others pretty quickly, no more time for stress relief and stupid stunts. After all, she was going to need the rest of the day to plan for her meeting later tonight. 

            In all her dealings with him thus far, EJ had come to understand that the leader of city central’s largest swapper faction wasn’t a very patient man. He was dangerous, well-informed, and he always got what he wanted one way or another. One week ago, she had promised him access to advanced, pulse-responsive weaponry worth over half a million bits. 

            In a matter of hours, she was supposed to deliver on that promise. 

            EJ pulsed the low, whining frequency of anxiety. 

<END OF CHAPTER 1>

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