Penance Road was simply a stretch of old and surprisingly well-maintained reasphalt flanked on both sides by glo-rods eight feet tall. They blocked out the artificial lights bleeding through the promenade and bathed the path in a pale, ghostly white. The halos of the rods shone light on devotional objects and tributes that laid abandoned at their base. Lover’s proclamations in twisted pieces of metal, intertwined. Someone’s pacemaker, older than Europa, lovingly placed. A necklace with a cross at the tip. Old world religion.
Mitchell was aware of the stims draining from his system as blood trickled down his side. It wasn’t mortal or anything, but it was bleeding and draining his strength.
At the foot of the gurney, Richard was a picture of stoic giddiness. His face was expressionless and he was still pushing the gurney as he always had, allowing for its hydraulic suspension to do the heavy lifting, but there was an unmistakable glint of excitement in his eyes. One eye watching the stats monotonously display the same numbers over and over again on the touchscreen display, he felt aware and awake.
The assassin, having taken point, focused not on the path, but to what was at the end of it. He had grown up with the name, he had heard about it, seen it in many a different media file, but had never been. His work usually took him to more affluent circles and to darker places around the world. Besides, he had never been one to lose himself in a crowd of anonymous faces that he couldn’t distinguish without facial recognition software and his glasses.
But there was a certain aura of sanctity to the sight rising before him, to the sight that was TechNo-R.
Erected in the war torn ruins of what had been left of the Vatican, the club itself appeared as a series of octagonal buildings clustered around a central tower behind high walls. The outer walls, built in the trace italienne style as an eight-pointed star, held various gun emplacements and automated turrets in their ramparts, guarding the club from interlopers. The entire structure was bathed both in the light of the various holo-signs hovering above the entire structure and from within.
Even from the distance, the noise issuing from the club was coming through clearly; the sound of eerie synthetic chaos, the fringes of what could be called music, echoed in the open space.
They moved across the path outlined by glo-rods, the vast expanse of the outskirts, populated, beyond the lights by the tent city of eight-balled patrons or those who weren’t on the staff roster. The staff slept in sound-proofed sleeping quarters within the depths of the club’s underground levels and for refugees, refuse and tired specheads, there were the tents. Colorful fabrics glowing dimly in the dark followed them all the way to the main gate.
The main gate was its usually crowded self of drifters, cyberpunks and people trying to gain access without the proper creds. They were bottlenecked into lines of two by the small force of armed sledges, hovering over everyone with their grafted muscles and stim-soaked scowls, standing on either sides of a large-spectrum metal detector framing the entrance.
The assassin slunk off to the side of the gurney, allowing Mitchell to slip into the gap and take the lead. He started to rudely elbow people to the side, eliciting a few protests at first, which all fell silent when they glanced at who he was and whose body he was pulling. After the first few people, voices began to rise and people began taking notice. Halfway through to the line, they were parting in droves, turning towards them and watching them move, as if witnessing a pilgrimage. Richard couldn’t help but feel a bit perturbed at the sight of the anonymous crowd of counter-cultural dregs with their hands outstretched, trying to touch the medical equipment or the body of Alex Nothing – almost entranced by the fact that he was even there. Whispers and murmurs of Alex Nothing lives followed them all the way to the metal detector, to the strip of horizontal metal loaded with electric charges, that would fry them if they tried to move in without authorization.
The sledges didn’t say anything. With a buzz and a clank, the last obstacle was lifted and they moved into the crowded courtyard of TechNo-R. It appeared as if the castle itself couldn’t contain everyone that was in it and so had vomited them out to maintain its sanity. The sea of bodies that stood, laid and sat strewn all across the open space in various states of engagement with each other, drugs, or metanet peripherals enveloped them. But, just as quickly as the line outside had parted, they, too, began to notice the presence of the three intruders. Recognition, Mitchell saw through the ever-increasing stim metabolization, traveled through them like an infectous wave and coated everything into itself. By the time they had managed to slowly move to the middle of the courtyard, to the monument to tech (a formless statue built entirely of devices of all kinds), the crowd had started to slowly chant.
By the time four sledges nudged and shoved their way to them, bulging muscles and custom, large-caliber assault rifles intimidating enough to keep the sea of outreached hands at bay, they were all shouting. Alex Nothing lives! Alex Nothing lives!
One of the sledges, towering over the assassin, bent down and whispered, his voice a thick sludge of HGH tones, “Mister No-R is expecting you.”
With the sledges surrounding them like mobile safety towers, they were led through the courtyard and the giant double doors leading into the main floor. There, congregated around the central dance floor, itself a raised, square-shaped stage above which someone, hanging from a complex harness web, was writhing, making the music the shapeless, anonymous bodies below were dancing to. But the moment they stepped in, the music flat lined on a stable tone and the silence that followed weighed heavier. Mitchell felt all eyes on them, as well as the traveling whispers of Alex Nothing lives, as they made their way through the floor. By the time they had come to the halfway point on the side of the dance floor, the rhythmic whispers had reached a frantic pitch and the music, as if to give further support, had started again, keeping time with the proclamation.
Alex Nothing lives. Alex Nothing lives.
Under this uncanny surveillance and soundtrack, they made their way all the way back to the club, passing by the neon back-lit bar and the parting ocean of specheads. There, a freight elevator activated by a palm scanner waited for them. The sledges called it, ushered them in and they rose to the higher levels, the music following them up, growing fainter by the second.
The elevator opened onto a narrow, long hallway lined with old oil paintings, one of Frank No-R’s notorious abandonware obsessions, on both sides, lit up by warm orange strips of light above each frame. The sledges hung back. Richard pushed the gurney after Mitchell and the assassin, down the hall to the double French doors leading into, he guessed, Frank No-R’s office.
When they stepped through the doorway, they found Frank No-R standing, hands in his pockets, over a rail-thin spechead furiously scrubbing at the floor with a rag; right next to a bucket that he kept dipping and wringing the rag into.
Mitchell and Richard exchanged glances. The assassin seemed unfazed.
Upon noticing them, Frank No-R sent the kid with a half-hearted compliment. The kid rushed on by, briefly stopping to glare at Alex Nothing’s unconscious form, but quickly deciding not to dawdle too much. He closed the doors behind him.
“What was that?” Mitchell asked.
“That was staff trying to clean up the last of Haruka-gumi’s oyabun off my floor.” Frank No-R said. He glanced at the gurney and raised an eyebrow, “What the hell is that?”
“That?” Mitchell said, “Alex Nothing.”
Frank No-R whistled, “So that’s what the fuss is about. Alive, isn’t he?”
“Yes.” Richard said, “Healing nicely.”
“Richard Seliere. Flesh engineer. Pleased to meet you.”
“Charmed.” Frank No-R pursed his lips as he turned his attention to the assassin, “So you’re him. The faceless one.” the assassin nodded, “I’ve heard about you, but never thought I’d meet you under such… amicable circumstances.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Mister No-R.”
“Am I to understand that one of you has the drive?” Frank No-R asked.
“That’s the part where it got a little… confused.” Mitchell said.
“The original drive was destroyed.” Frank No-R opened his mouth to protest, which prompted Mitchell to hastily add: “But before it was, Alex here copied its contents into his own mnemonic. The only reason why we had to take a detour was because we didn’t know if he had a dead man format set, and couldn’t risk it either way.”
“That’s a relief.”
“Now,” Mitchell sighed. The last of the stim was leaving him, “Do you mind telling me just what the fuck it is that everyone’s been running after all night?”
Thank you for reading!
Below you can find a glossary of terms for clarity purposes. Above that, you will find the previous entries.
This is the first time I am doing the A to Z Challenge – I tried last year, but couldn’t get the A off the ground, let alone continue. This year, I came with a bit more preparation, and am hoping to make it to the end in one piece. Well, okay, making it to the end – one piece is optional.
It is nearing the end now… according to the dictionary, “xenium” is “a gift made to a guest or ambassador; a compulsory gift” which, the contents of Alex Nothing’s mnemonic drive very much is.
Also, there is a very subtle indication as to why the assassin doesn’t mind not having a proper face.
A is for Ante
B is for Blood
C is for Cut
D is for Dummy
E is for Exit Card
F is for Follow Suit
G is for Grand Slam
H is for Heading a Trick
I is for Incorrect Deck
J is for Joker
K is for Kill
L is for Left Bower
M is for Marked Card
N is for Natural
O is for Overtrump
P is for Pot Limit
Q is for Quads
R is for Real Deal
S is for Suck Out
T is for Tonk Out
U is for Under the Gun
V is for Vole
W is for Wastepile
GLOSSARY OF TERMS
Sledge: Hired muscle. Shorthand for “sledgehammer.”
Spechead: Another name for a TechNo-R regular. “Spec” stands for “specification”, as in, “specifications” on devices, emphasizing the technocentric concept / society of Virusalem, centered around a club literally titled “Techno.”