A shard: a baby, covered in blood, is cradled in the forceps that drew it forth. It whimpers. The midwife-machine performs a series of programmed manœuvres to quieten it. It cradles it and hums at several pitches until it finds one that seems most soothing. Mechanical arms stroke the baby’s flesh even as others start the process of implanting augmented reality interfaces into its nervous system. At no point does the mother wake. Her dream flickers for a moment, but the interface bed drops slightly more sedative into her IV drip and unreality settles back into place unharmed.
Nastya was crouched in another rusted corner. She was staring at her arm in a trance as the veins within swirled with arcane colours. Sometimes a spark would light with a jolt of pain, flashing before her eyes as she struggled not to flinch. The flash would glance through her skin. It left a shadow behind; a slight burn.
The virus couldn’t win, it turned out. She gave it time but it couldn’t break through the doctor’s masterwork. Nastya wasn’t sure what she felt about that. She decided that she’d decide what she thought about that later.
Terminals were scattered across the planet. There was one on every street corner, one beneath every lamppost and one in every commune block. The first time Nastya tried to jack in, shortly after she gave the others the slip, the pain threw her halfway across the room.
Allthe information accessible in this world was accessible through these portals. She steadied herself and tried again, took the dangling access wire — but then paused for a moment.
The ports in her hand had remained intact from those millennia ago. The government hadn’t seen fit to upgrade the technology since. The last time she had used the ports, her tutor had ripped them out of her as the rebels stormed the palace – the teardrop of quicksilver blood that ran down her arm and fell like a shattering opal to the floor reminded her so intensely of that moment.
Nastya shrugged the memory off. She tensed herself and slowly fed the cable back into her arm. This time she was ready for the virus’s violent assault, and as her mechanism broke it down, her mind wandered through the shards of memory that littered this digital realm.
A shard: security stares down from all corners of the room, every angle composited into an image that she had to puzzle over for a couple of seconds before decoding. It’s a ten second loop, all that remains. A girl stares out over a city of concrete blocks. Each is the same as the last, stretching out into an eternal geometric distance. The furthest ones are built higher so that the planet seems flat. From the central tower, the girl’s vantage point is above them. Wisps of cloud, or smog, drift below her.
A hand on her shoulder. A man. His face is wrinkled with concern, his small eyes burning with it. Nastya does not reply to him but allows herself to be urged away.
A girl stares out over a city of concrete blocks.
She turned a corner and saw his face towering above her into the mists. A giant banner, hanging from the tower which marked the very centre of the planet. It was rotting in the rain, but it was plastic and it was melting slowly so she could still make out many of the details. He had not changed that much since he had held that gun to her chest and pulled the trigger.
The few images she had managed to pull up from the terminals showed, among other things, vast crowds gathered in this square. They shouted his name, “Rabotnik Yenin!” over and over in some religious frenzy, until finally he appeared to them from the top of the tallest tower. Nothing much had changed there either. The enthusiasm was just as real, and just as fake. And the man at the top of the tower cared about those below just as little.
If you could call either of them “men”. The Czar an atrophied frame, never present in the real world and worn to dust by the chemical compounds that kept his brain alive so it could live forever in a perfect virtual paradise. The Rabotnik a copy, a mind preserved unchanging in the instant before its death and placed in an everlasting metal frame. They were just as much man as she was, Nastya thought. She scowled up at the banner.
The battleship had ambushed them as Aurora was decelerating, falling towards a stable orbit near the central planets. It had lurched out of the shadow of a moon into their wake. It clearly had no other purpose but that. Ivy estimated that the fuel burnt to accelerate the ship into such a parabolic orbit had probably been three quarters or more of its total mass. At least that made it easy to predict, if not easy to avoid.
They were still trying to figure out how to shift their orbit out of its firing solutions when it attacked. Not with fire. With a sudden screech every single transmitter on the entire ship burst into noise.
~~РАСПУТИНУ !! Я ЛИНКОР СОЮЗА СОВЕТСКОЙ КИБЕРНЕТИЧЕСКОЙ РЕСПУБЛИКОЙ ВИДИЛИ ВЫ АНАСТАСИЮ НИКОЛАЕВНУ РОМАНОВНУ ИЛИ РАСПУТИНУ !! Я ЛИНКОР~~
It was as if a thousand voices suddenly screamed in unison, and were joined by more and more voices in a feedback loop that shattered eardrums and shot sparks through the comms until someone managed to hammer the systems down.
Nastya never did translate the message, no matter how many times Jonny threw spanners into the engines or hid in air ducts to scare her or shot her in the stomach; she just gave him the same despising look every time. She claimed to know nothing. She also re-routed command of Aurora away from anyone else’s control, laying a new course in a direction no one understood. It was only Jonny who recognised the system they ended up orbiting, next time they made landfall. He was, after all, the only one who had been there before. He also stopped getting in Nastya’s way as soon as he realised where she was taking herself.
A shard: hundreds of thousands yell in the square surrounding the central tower. They carry angry placards and pictures of the Czar. Cut. Blood stains the pavement, iron stains the blood. Shots ring out, first from one side and then from both. Cut. Doors fly open, computers burn, guards in uniform die. Cut. Skeletons are dragged from their beds and shot before they can open their eyes in the bright neon lights of their eternal slumbering place. Cut. Some try to flee.
“Comrades! Friends! The day of victory for the oppressed peoples of Cyberia has finally come. We have fought hard, and many will never witness the dawn of our paradise. But their sacrifice will not be in vain! We shall push forwards and make this planet an Eden they would have been proud of. However, I must share some unfortunate news with you also, comrades. Our brilliant leader — Yenin, the man who has cracked the codes that kept us in our wrongful places all these years — fell in the final assault on that coven of evil. But fear not! Falling as he did right in the heart of the Setka, we few comrades beside him were able to copy his brilliant mind as it failed. Comrades! Yenin lives on, in the heart of the virtual realm beyond this one, and from there too shall he guide us to heaven! Long live the Union of Cyberian Cybernetic Republics! Long live Rabotnik Yenin!”
A shard: a man collapses to the floor. He was shot by the girl who slumps against the wall opposite him, a mingled look of terror and confusion on both of their faces. They stare at each other. More faces stare at them, dead faces fallen from their sync terminals around the room, each with a bullet hole perfectly between their temples.
Men rush in, shouting and then suddenly quiet. They do not see the girl but hurry around the man. They run their hands across him, gauging his injuries, and they grow more silent and more grave still.
One has an idea. He points at the machines and interfaces around them. He gestures into a room next door. Animation returns to the men’s faces, and they bend down and slowly, carefully begin to carry the dying man into the whirring nightmare of machines beyond. He moves nothing but his head, as if to nod, or shake it. One woman stays behind.
Nastya crawled through passages and ducts that drew her deeper and deeper beneath the planet’s crust and into the heart of both of the realms which resided there. Enormous machines, power generating plants burning a mountain of gas every day, surrounded her on all sides. Many were broken. Some were still spinning, faster and faster and faster…
Once she would never have understood where she was or what she could hope to achieve here. Yet now, even through the virus which clouded her blood, she could feel the machines resonating in her veins. She could tell how they glitched. If she wanted she could restart any of them, or stop them forever, with the most perfect solution.
Nastya wound her way between them, deeper and darker until she finally reached the very core.
A shard: a girl crouches in a rusted corner. The blood drips from her stomach; she cradles the gunshot wounds as if that will help. She stopped crying when she ran out of tears.
A shadow falls across her, and stretches out its hand. The girl looks up. “Does it hurt?” asks the doctor. “Let me help.” The girl frowns slightly, grimaces, moves her head as if to shake it, or nod.
A girl crouches in a rusted corner…
There was enough heat left in the reactors to set off a chain reaction across the entire planet. The explosion was barely visible from the edge of the heliosphere. The rain clouds probably hid the most of it.