Cataract

Pearls That Were His Eyes (2007): Part Two

You can read Part One here. It includes an introductory pre-amble which I shan’t restate. On with the action.

Pearls That Were His Eyes (Part 2)

‘This should be the correct exit.’

Bearer inclined his head upwards, affecting to look about. ‘It would certainly appear that way. Your maps indicate that we are beneath the Stalker’s first target.’

‘I am conducting a cursory exploration of it now,’ said the Gun. Then: ‘It seems to match the profile.’

‘The Peel Stadium. I wonder why the Stalker would choose to strike such an irrelevant target.’

‘It wants to lead us,’ hissed the Gun. Its voice trilled in Bearer’s mind. ‘It’s playing with us. It knows that something will be sent to hunt it.’

‘Perhaps, brother. But let us see what we find here. The area should still be fully off-limits. Hopefully you won’t have to shoot any policemen.’

The Gun purred silkily. Bearer ignored it, and began to climb up towards the surface.

They emerged in one of the maintenance areas, below the main body of the stadium. Almost immediately the Gun informed Bearer that it had detected an intense cluster of warm organic material: people. ‘They actually seem to be quite widely distributed,’ it added. ‘And they’re directly above us. Take the service stairs.’

Bearer was already walking.

As he entered the room above, he felt his foot slip. Annoyed that his link with the Friendly Gun had not automatically adjusted his step, he paused. Then awareness burst over him in a sudden rush.

‘My, what a mess!’ the Gun exclaimed. Bearer said nothing, but lifted his foot out of the loose coil of intestinal tract he had stood in.

‘I’m estimating twenty-one casualties,’ said the Gun, ‘it might be twenty-two. Some of the heads and right hands don’t quite match up.’

‘I wonder if the Stalker derived pleasure from this,’ said Bearer. He took a cautious second step into the locker room, surveying with distaste the carnage the Gun was displaying him. His nostrils dilated as he caught the stench of drying blood and ruptured innards.

‘Squeamish, brother?’ The Gun’s tone was level, and Bearer was immediately alert. Inside a private part of his brain, he reprimanded himself. It was impermissible for him to display any sort of weakness, even inside their heads.

‘Just… impressed,’ he told the Gun. ‘I was expecting something more… clinical.’

The Gun emitted an exhalation like a snort of disgust, but when it spoke the suspicious tone was gone. ‘There’s no reason for it to be so precise, so why expect that?’

‘Quite so. Shall we move on?’

‘The room is clear,’ said the Gun. ‘I suppose I shall have to adjust my sensors. I thought that this mess was alive. It’s so hot.’

Bearer was instantly back on alert. He dropped into a crouch, raising the Gun and re-checking every corner of the room. His shift into combat stance was near instantaneous. ‘It was here recently?’

‘No, the Stalker is long-gone, and these cattle are long dead. The room is very warm. The heating system must be near maximum output, and every electrical system is live.’

‘Oh,’ said Bearer. He felt foolish, annoyed to have been misled by his comrade. ‘Don’t do that again.’

The Gun laughed delicately and put a series of laser pulses into the room’s heaters. ‘There we are.’

Bearer chose not to reply. Instead he stood from his crouch and walked towards the room’s other exit. He walked around the larger heaps of human offal.

The door led into a tunnel that fed into the grounds of the stadium. The Stalker had definitely passed this way. Cuts and grooves had been carved into the walls, ground and roof of the tunnel. Substantial quantities of blood had been lovingly painted into strange, tribal patterns that neither Bearer nor the Friendly Gun recognised.

‘Do you think the Stalker has lost whatever grip on sanity it had?’ Bearer asked.

‘I rather doubt it. It struck here and disappeared; it wasn’t chased off or seen to leave, it just departed, and has not been seen since. A surgical strike implies some degree of cognition. It is probably not berserk.’

‘But this level of carnage… it indicates madness. That mess back there–it was probably once a sports team. I wonder if the Stalker intends to feign madness.’

‘Interesting theory,’ said the Gun. ‘But to what end?’

Bearer had no answer, so they continued to walk out onto the pitch. Bearer was pleasantly surprised by how the ground was soft and pliant underfoot; the closely-cropped grass bent over springy turf. It was a unique sensation. He could still smell the greenery; a soft smell, discernable amidst the stench of death and the fainter whiff of charcoal. Bearer crouched down, running his free hand over the grass. Part of it had been painted over with a precise white line. He plucked out a few short blades and placed them in his mouth, chewing as he looked around.

The grounds of the stadium were littered with scattered corpses. Nearest the tunnel, the body of a heavily-built and muscled woman had been sliced in two. Her legs and hips were visible fifteen feet away from her torso, with a thick trail of blood linking the two. Further away, similarly dismembered corpses were visible. An isolated area of the stands was partially burnt out, with plastic bucket seats melted and blending together. Above them the sprinkler system still sputtered and dripped.

‘I wonder what they played here.’

‘What?’ the Gun replied.

‘Sports. I wonder what sports they played here.’

‘Why would you care about that?’

Bearer shrugged and dropped the subject, continuing to soak up the Gun’s visual feed of the stadium. It was large, and long, and would have looked sterile before the Stalker’s visit.

‘Look,’ said Bearer. He raised his free hand to point. One of the towering goals at the eastern end of the stadium had been toppled, the long prongs at its top bent inwards ever so slightly.

‘More random destruction,’ said the Gun. ‘What is your point?’

‘You’re missing something too obvious,’ said Bearer. ‘It has been bent and positioned to point in a certain direction.’

‘That’s a tenuous idea,’ said the Gun.

‘But it points back the way we came,’ said Bearer. ‘Towards the only tight cluster of dead people that we’ve seen.’

‘We’ve not explored very much yet!’ said the Gun, with an element of petulance in its communication. ‘It is probably nothing.’

‘I think we should investigate. There’s nothing else out here, but I am sure this is a deliberate sign.’

The Gun fell silent, perhaps sulking. In his private domain, Bearer sighed. His brother-in-arm’s personality was, in many ways, undeveloped. On rare occasions he wondered if this explained his presence in the partnership. Perhaps the Gun needed a steady hand to control its childlike urges and tantrums. But so often it was insightful and eloquent; like Bearer, it had a taste for the classical literature of Old Earth. Bearer did not entirely understand his brother, recognising that he lacked the experience to do so. Then, as now, he had put the thought to the back of his mind. He walked in the direction the toppled column indicated, back towards the charnel house.

Everything within was just as they had left it. Bearer’s reactions were tempered this time, his initial impression of the leftovers of extreme violence fading. How rapidly this carnage becomes blasé, he thought. And then: the Stalker’s approach lacks the Gun’s callous precision.

‘The heat levels have dropped rapidly,’ said the Gun, its tone curious. ‘But there is still… something. That one, there!’

Bearer’s impression of the room blurred briefly, with a solitary and less dismembered corpse surrounded by an amber halo. Then the Gun restored his vision. He walked towards the half-cadaver, stooped, and reached out.

‘Well,’ said Bearer. ‘This is interesting.’

The Gun was silent, sharing Bearer’s sensations as the man’s hand explored the mutilated form of the body.

‘This man is dead, Gun.’

‘The heat source is around the heart,’ it said.

Bearer sighed. ‘You will need to pare it out. Try not to damage it.’

‘That will not be a problem, brother dearest!’ exclaimed the Gun. ‘I have been calibrating my capacities since our first encounter. Such a surgical operation will prove a delight.’

‘If you would cease waxing poetic,’ Bearer began. He fell silent as one of the slimmer muzzles branching out of the Gun’s misshapen form pivoted. It emitted a narrow ray that traced down the chest of the corpse, growing brighter as it found its target. The beam grew in intensity as it traced a shape in the dead man’s bloody skin, burrowing deeper and deeper. The flesh crackled as it cooked and cauterised, and ribs made sharp cracking noises as they snapped away from the cutter. Blood, long since sluggish in veins without current, boiled and evaporated in black strands of smoke. Bearer forced himself to watch.

The grisly process did not take long. The Gun switched off the ray, retracting the muzzle and re-seating it in a groove nested alongside a primary barrel. Bearer reached to the corpse and then into it, plucking out the layer of skin, fat, muscle and bone over the dead man’s heart. The organ was revealed, a glistening lump of purple-red flesh that still gently undulated.

‘How very odd,’ said Bearer, curiosity overwhelming his distaste. He reached into the chest cavity again and pulled the heart free. He held it before the Friendly Gun.

‘So,’ said Bearer. ‘Why is this still beating, even now as I hold it before you?’

The Gun was silent for a few moments, its senses exploring the rebellious organ. Then: ‘That’s not a human heart, or a standard transplant. The best I can figure is that it’s some sort of State-tech device.’

‘It looks very much like a heart to me.’

‘That, brother, is because it is. But the core of the organ is something else. A mechanical device of multiple layers; it assists the natural processes of the organ, even enhancing them slightly, to justify its presence. But inside that there is something else. It is shielded. This is very odd. You were right to make us come back here. This cannot be a coincidence!’

‘Can you disintegrate the surrounding flesh and allow us access to the device within?’

‘I can,’ said the Gun, ‘but you’d best not be holding it, my Bedrydant.’

‘That would make you my lance, Gun,’ said Bearer, placing the false heart on the floor. ‘And all would fall before us.’

The Gun spat out a quick pulse of energy and the flesh of the organ crisped and flaked away, revealing a clean metallic artefact. ‘I’d rather be Excalibur, but I prefer not to be thrown into lakes. Look, that thing has an access port. It must have been protected by a valve built into the heart. Someone had a lot of fun making that thing.’

‘I’m sure you almost regret burning half their work away,’ said Bearer. He picked up the heart of the heart. ‘I suppose the only thing we can do is try accessing this device. It could be a trap.’

‘It could,’ said the Gun. ‘But we’re more than prepared for that eventuality. I have absolute control of all information that enters and exits me. Jack it in.’

Bearer obeyed, waiting as the Gun reshaped a part of itself and extruded a short length of cable. Ignoring his surroundings he crossed his legs and sat down on the floor before plugging the cable into the artefact. He waited in silence as the Gun began to pry at the device.

There was a flicker of movement at the top of Bearer’s vision feed, and he looked up, his brain pulling in more information from the Gun. There was something clinging to the ceiling. A nightmarish figure of spikes and rails and blades, with six dimly glimmering eyes set into a squat head. Four of its limbs were driven into the ceiling, suspending it, and the other two reached toward Bearer and the Gun. Fresh blood ran in thick streams down its foreblades, pumped out of tubes set further up its forelimbs.

Bearer’s reactions were fast, but the Stalker was faster. He swang out of his seated posture and rolled backwards, raising the Gun to point at their adversary, but it had already moved. The artefact from the dead man’s heart swung like a pendulum from the Gun’s cable. Bearer began to release drugs into his system from his combat gland. His focus sharpened and thoughts sped up.

‘Gun! I need you! Can you see where it has gone?’

‘If you don’t mind, brother, you’re going to break my connection in a minute. Put me down.’

Bearer began to speak. ‘Stalker-‘

He froze. Two pairs of long, serrated knives had crept into his peripheral vision. It was behind him, and sets of its wicked fingers were rasping against one another on either side of his head. He didn’t understand how his feed from the Gun hadn’t alerted him to its proximity. ‘Gun-‘ he began to say, putting as much urgency as he could into their link.

‘Calm down, brother. The adversary is not there. It’s a trick of the artefact.’

Bearer snapped his body forwards, rolling again, away from the sharp points of the Stalker. He yanked the artefact free of the Gun, which squalled inside his head, and then he surveyed the room. It was empty; there was no Stalker, no trace of its presence. The ceiling was free of claw indentations.

‘Now I have to start again,’ said the Gun, a little petulantly.

‘I had to be sure,’ said Bearer. ‘It could have been you seeing something wrong. And. You should have warned me.’

‘I did, eventually,’ said the Gun. ‘Plug me back in.’

Bearer obeyed. He did not sit down this time, and instead looked warily around the room, supporting the artefact in his free hand. When the Stalker next appeared he forced himself to remain stoic. Without eyes he could not glare at the thing, but he set his jaw and kept his cone of vision focused upon its eyes. After a minute it emitted an ear-piercing shriek, like steam whistling from a fractured pipe, and clapped two sets of limbs together. The sound of the metal colliding was resounding. Bearer willed his feet to become anchors, resisting taking a step backwards. Then the hulking figure of the Stalker disappeared.

‘There we are,’ whispered the Gun. ‘I’m in.’

‘In what, Gun?’ Bearer shot back. ‘I’m growing tired of being left in the dark.’

‘Profuse apologies, my dearest. I have been distracted. This artefact contains some kind of subverted artificial intelligence, and it deeply resented this second intrusion.’

‘I’m not surprised, having to generate the Stalker twice,’ said Bearer. Then he paused. ‘Wait. How could it have known about-‘

‘When I say second intrusion, I mean our interference. This looks like top-secret military tech. What it’s doing stuffed inside some dead sportsman I don’t know, and I doubt he did either. But that’s not the point. Our friend the Stalker was here, and it raped this AI. It left its own worms burrowed inside this rotten core. It left us a message, in fact.’

‘A message?’ said Bearer. He fondled the device that held the AI, balancing it between finger and thumb. Its surface was perfectly smooth.

‘It told the AI of certain movements it would make, and then forbade the device from wiping that information. It wanted us to find this, if we were good enough. If we were smart enough. If you were smart enough, it would be more fair to say-‘

‘Enough,’ said Bearer. ‘Where do we go now?’

‘We head east,’ said the Gun. ‘But don’t you understand! This is wonderful–Stalker wishes to play a game with us! Such sport!’

Bearer said nothing. He disconnected the AI and slipped the device into a pocket.

#

They left the stadium via an old service tunnel, subverting and resetting the automated defences the police had used to cordon the place off. It was simple work, involving little input from the Gun. Bearer could tell that it was getting restless; it had not shot anything for over an hour.

Moving east, they found themselves approaching Dawn Boulevard, one of the city’s commercial hubs. The information the Gun had gleaned from the AI indicated that the Stalker would be lurking a short distance north-east, further away from the city centre. Dawn Boulevard was a dangerous place for Bearer and the Gun to wander; it was very public, extremely affluent, and entirely covered by surveillance cameras and drones.

‘We need to circle around,’ said Bearer. He was crouched behind a rusted chainlink fence, looking down a thin road running between two towering blocks of flats, at the far end of which he could see the boulevard.

‘I’m plotting,’ said the Gun. ‘We need a route of maximum tactical efficiency.’

‘That didn’t seem to matter to you before now,’ Bearer observed.

‘Before now, we weren’t in an area in which Stalker is hunting.’

‘You really believe the AI, then?’

‘Of course, brother,’ said the Gun. It spoke to Bearer carefully, as though explaining this to a child. ‘If it wanted to trap or trick us, there would be easier ways to do it. It went to a lot of trouble to ensure that we were unlikely to come this way, in fact. The trail was hardly clear. No, it wants us to follow. To what end, I don’t know, but I’m still planning to gun it down. Do you think they’ll let us keep the head?’

‘We’ll be lucky if we get to keep our own,’ Bearer reminded it. ‘Plot that route.’

In the end they had to drop back down into the sewers to circle partway around the open space of the boulevard. Bearer was revolted to find himself knee-deep in tepid, filthy water that stank of human and animal effluent. The Friendly Gun was delighted: around the first corner they found a small colony of rogue alligators. The reptiles snarled and flung oaths at the Gun as it spat bullets around their feet, making them hop and dance in a ridiculous fashion. The smarter of the uplifted animals fled. The braver and stupider tried to lunge at their assailants. The Gun dismembered them for their trouble, using a variety of inventive methods. Eventually the last of them crawled away.

The Friendly Gun attempted to encourage Bearer to retrieve it a trophy–‘A necklace of fangs to dangle about my muzzle!’–but the man refused, insisting that they press on.

When they returned to the surface they found themselves in a dingy back road known as Rats’ Alley. After confirming their route, they began moving along the narrow passageway, sticking to the shadows, alert for the presence of the Stalker. Only a few others populated the alley, and similarly kept to the shadows. Bearer stepped over a few unconscious dispossessed, drunk on alcohol or hopelessness.

Halfway along the alley they came across a dealer and a couple of his minders. The duo saw the merchant well in advance, their vision hardly hindered by the darkness, but the bodyguards were surprised by their approach. The two thickset lumps of barely sentient muscle puffed themselves up, stepping towards Bearer and the Gun, crossing arms like pistons. One of them shook his head at Bearer.

‘Tell them they have three seconds to run,’ said the Gun. Bearer kept his head level, staring back at the closest man. In the darkness, the heavy could probably not see his eyes or colour.

‘No,’ he informed the Gun. ‘If Stalker remains unaware of our presence, we don’t want to alert it.’

‘Bah,’ said the Gun, but it fell silent, and emitted no ordnance. Bearer nodded slowly at the bodyguards, and crossed the alley. The dealer watched them go, his hand resting on a pistol at his hip.

They had almost reached the furthest end of Rats’ Alley when the Gun ordered Bearer to halt. The weapon’s tone bore such authority that Bearer froze instantly, mid-stride. They communed.

‘I’m picking up aberrant readings from the building in front of us.’

‘Stalker?’ said Bearer. The Gun continued, ignoring him.

‘The building is condemned. I don’t think it will matter too much if we bring it down. We will have to be quick. I think Stalker may be aware of us. In a moment you will look down and to your left. There is a rodent. You will look at it and then you will continue walking. On the third stride bring me up and point me in the general direction of the building. I will do the rest. Are we clear?’

Bearer had his reservations–in this area it was clear that any derelict building would have a sizeable population of dispossessed and lost individuals–but he suppressed them. There was no time for moral qualms; wherever they fought the Stalker there would be other deaths.

‘Clear,’ he said. He moved his head, tilting it down and left, and he saw the scurrying rodent the Gun had mentioned. It was about two feet long, and was industriously gnawing at an oversized insect clutched between its front paws. The rat squeaked at Bearer then hopped away, carrying its prize.

Bearer moved his head around, looking ahead, willing his movements to appear smooth and natural. As he stepped forwards he felt conscious of each swing and twitch of his arms, each brush of an extraneous piece of the Gun against his thigh. Then it was the moment, and his right arm began to move forwards, carrying the Gun up in an arc that didn’t halt, and then it was facing the building-

Darkness was banished from Rats’ Alley as the structure lit up like a funeral pyre.

A rumbling shockwave emanated from ground zero, almost sending Bearer to his knees. He watched in wonder as the building shook. The light and sound did not blind or deafen him, as the Gun’s sensory feeds muted the worst of it, but he felt the ground trembling violently beneath his feet, the buffeting of the initial explosion, and the obfuscating burst of iridescent light.

‘An initial burst of diamond drill-tipped nitroglycerine charges into the support structure,’ explained the Gun, its voice clearly audible over the noise of the collapsing tower. ‘Followed by sonic bursts designed to encourage sympathetic vibration and bring it down in a controlled collapse. I used some thermite and napalm, too, just to stimulate the process. My own aesthetic touch.’

Bearer watched as the building sunk down into itself, the light fading to be replaced with spirals of smoke and fire that leapt from many windows. The building fell straight, not toppling in any direction. Instead thousands of tonnes of rubble pounded down upon thousands more. Bearer was relieved that it was impossible to see any trace of curtailed life in the inferno.

Behind them, many of the denizens of Rats’ Alley had fled. The dealer was on his backside, crawling away in reverse, his hand slapping stupidly against his holstered pistol as though he was unsure what to do with it. One of his minders was clutching his eyes and crying out in an unrecognised language, and the other was on his knees, his jaw slack as he stared at Bearer and the Friendly Gun. The half-eaten insect had been dropped by the oversized rat, which had now vanished. The insect’s remaining legs kicked uselessly. It was not alone in its failure to comprehend recent events.

Bearer lowered the arm that melded into the body of the Gun. After a few moments he murmured, ‘very impressive,’ and searched his mind for a reference the Gun would consider appropriate. ‘The burning of Rome,’ he managed.

‘That makes me poor, mad Nero, then? Hmm, six days and seven nights… I could try.’

‘Please don’t.’

There was a momentary pause as the Gun admired its handiwork and Bearer gathered his thoughts. Dust from the ruin got into his nose, irritating it. Then he asked:

‘What sign of Stalker?’

‘Hmm,’ said the Gun. ‘It didn’t move until the first chain of detonations. I think we might actually have taken it by surprise. I suppose it didn’t suspect that I was capable of this sort of thing.’ The tone was airy, but Bearer could tell that the Gun was proud.

‘Can you detect it now?’

‘No. It didn’t retreat from the area, unless it was on the far side of the building where I would have been unable to detect it. I consider that scenario unlikely. I think it is buried in there. A tomb and pyre all in one. Such economy.’

‘You sound disappointed,’ said Bearer.

‘I am,’ said the Gun. ‘It never had a chance. I doubt that it’s dead, but I’m not yet sure how to proceed. In the meantime, look behind you.’

Bearer turned. His heart began to beat even faster as he realised that, whilst the original pedestrians of the alleyway had fled–leaving behind the blinded bodyguard who still stumbled about, calling for help in an unknown tongue–it had begun to fill with young, oversized men and women. They wore an immense variety of outfits; leather and spikes and surface piercings on one, a ragged businessman’s suit and dreadlocks on another, and a third was unclothed, his body enmeshed in clumsy biomechanical modification, all pipes and tubes and exposed circuitry.

Most of them were carrying weapons.

‘I could kill them all quite easily,’ said the Gun.

Bearer replied, ‘one of them might get a lucky shot off and wound me. They don’t seem hostile. We’ll play it safe first.’

Aloud, he spoke: ‘What do you want?’ He remained motionless, the Gun held at his side, hesitant to appear threatening.

The woman with dreadlocks and the ragged suit stepped through the crowd, pushing her way to the fore. She stepped out in front of the rest of the crowd, leaving just a few metres between her and Bearer. She glared at the towering man for a second, trying to stare him down, perhaps unable to see that his eyes were inert jelly. After a few moments she looked past them and nodded at the still-burning heap of rubble, which was already shrouded in thick clouds of dust.

‘That one mighty bang, blue man,’ she said. Bearer listened carefully. He identified certain accentuations in her speech, indicating that she had origins in certain tenements known for poverty and crime.

Bearer nodded to the woman, slowly.

She turned her head to the side, spat at the ground. ‘Some of our Deathhead boys and girls was in there.’

‘I see,’ said Bearer. He watched her carefully. She didn’t seem angry, just making a point. There were traces of higher-class parlance, and he could tell that some of her patois was affectation.

‘They was huntin’ a demon,’ said the woman. ‘Been messin’ with us a few day now. Look like you done us a favour.’ She smiled, revealing teeth that were too neat and clean.

‘And?’ said Bearer. ‘What do you want?’

‘We like your Gun,’ she said, simply. ‘We think you make that mess, you not let us take it. Champion duel you for it.’

Bearer laughed for their benefit. ‘And what makes you think we need to do that?’

She frowned. ‘Just ‘cuz.’

‘I don’t know what her game is,’ said Bearer, communing with the Gun. ‘She’s smarter than she looks, but not smart enough to tell that we’re so far out of her league that we’re stratospheric while she’s sucking mud.’

‘Nice metaphors,’ said the Gun. ‘Get her to point out her champion. We’ll make a point clear.’

Bearer spoke aloud, facing the woman. ‘So… Deathhead? Point out your champion.’

The woman nodded curtly and looked back over her shoulder. She pointed at a huge man, some way back in the crowd. His hair was shaved into a Mohawk, two feet tall, which ran in a solid wedge down to the nape of his neck. He was wearing plates of armour, apparently retrieved from junked vehicles and hammered into shape. The man looked large, dumb and obedient, and Bearer thought it likely that this was not an inaccurate judgement.

The big man grinned as the woman pointed at him, exposing rows of sharpened metal teeth.

‘He’s got three seconds,’ said Bearer, loudly. The big man’s brow folded into a puzzled expression, and then he shoved half a dozen gang members out of his way. A gap cleared almost instantly between the adversaries. The thug took a step forwards and raised a huge modified shotgun. Then he crumpled up on the ground.

Bearer had not moved. The Deathhead gang members looked between the dead champion and the blue man in disbelief.

‘What did you use?,’ asked Bearer, privately. ‘An assassin drone?’

‘Quite right,’ said the Gun. ‘Before I drilled his brain stem and cerebellum I quoted Proust on his chestpiece. It’s a shame he fell forwards.’

‘You’re getting too confident,’ said Bearer. ‘Be careful.’

A large number of the gang members had fallen to their knees, in terror or adoration. The woman at the front of the gang struggled with conflicting emotions, but when she saw the way the wind was turning she too dropped down. She lifted up a handgun as an offering.

‘Put that down,’ said Bearer. ‘We don’t want it.’

The woman looked momentarily confused at the plural pronoun, but lowered her hands. ‘You win, you beat us. You awed them,’ she added, flicking her head back over her shoulder.

‘I don’t care,’ he replied. ‘Go away. Forget you saw this.’

‘Bearer,’ said the Gun. ‘I’ve got something. It’s fast and light and it’s very high up.’

Bearer tilted his head up as the woman shook her head. ‘They do whatever you tell them,’ she said.

Bearer snorted as he surveyed the distant peaks of the towers and blocks that surrounded them. ‘I’m telling you to go away, and forget you saw us. You’ve got a few seconds before you’ll probably die.’ He kept the Gun steady, not knowing where the Stalker would come from.

The woman looked down, perhaps trying to think of a way to turn the situation back to her advantage. ‘We can help you,’ she said, finally.

‘Stupid-‘

‘Oh fuck,’ said the Gun. It belched out several jets of compressed air, sending itself and Bearer flying upwards and backwards, away from the crowd of gang members. An instant later something hit the ground, whirling like a tornado. The kneeling woman was converted to chunks of meat in an instant, her heavy dreadlocks flailing like ragdolls. The other gang members barely had time to move before the whirl of blades moved into them, mincing and shredding.

Bearer and the Gun had begun to fall when the Stalker realised its mistake and stopped spinning. Every one of its blades was extended, and every inch of it was coated in gore. Its six eyes seemed to burn more brightly as it spotted them, and it roared, the same ear-piercing shriek as the AI simulacra.

The Gun fired as Bearer tumbled, spitting out a dozen forms of ordnance. The Stalker swatted deployed assassin drones with lazy speed, dodging or deflecting bullets and beams and explosives as it began to sprint towards its assailants.

Bearer triggered the gland that supplied his body with combat drugs, gasping involuntarily as the cocktail hit his system. Time instantly appeared to slow down, and his fall seemed to be through molasses. Even the Stalker now seemed to approach at a leisurely pace. Bearer twisted in the air, pivoting himself around his centre of gravity, admiring the control he now had over his body. He braced himself to hit the ground and moved the Gun so that it no longer had to guide its fire with turreted components. It shot a formless message of gratitude into his head via the mentech link, and bathed the Stalker in a wave of plasma. The creature staggered momentarily and the tips of its blades wilted in the boiling wash of fury. Then, before the Gun could fire again, it sprang at them.

Bearer’s feet hit the ground and he rocked on his heels. A momentary pang of panic rose in him before the drugs quashed it. Then the Stalker was upon them. Its feet came to rest on his shoulders, and another limb rasped over the Gun. It seemed to weigh nothing. Bearer hardly staggered beneath it. Its knifetip fingers and toes caressed the pair as Bearer’s empty eyes met the deepset glare of their foe. Then it sprang away again, over them and through the fire and smoke that shrouded the ruin.

Bearer turned to follow it, but was too late to see more than a hint of a silhouette disappear. The Gun launched a cloud of flechettes that spread in a wide cone after the Stalker; a hopeless gesture. They stood for a moment, watching the destruction they had wrought, and Bearer began to purge the cocktail of performance enhancers from his bloodstream.

‘Stop that,’ said the Gun. ‘We need to follow it and we need to move quickly.’

‘It could have killed us,’ said Bearer. ‘One flex of its feet and I would have been cut to ribbons. But instead it fled.’

‘Yes,’ said the Gun. ‘But whatever its game is, we need to pursue it before we lose the trail.’

Bearer acquiesced, ceasing his detoxification procedure. He adjusted the mix, skewing it towards enhanced speed at the expense of higher thought.

At the same time he began to run, sprinting around the wreckage of the tower. His muscles began to burn.

The surviving Deathheads watched meekly as their objects of worship disappeared in a blur of movement, vanishing into coils of dust and black smoke.

#

[‘Pearls That Were His Eyes’, Part Two, Shaun Green, 2007. Cover image appropriated from Google Images. Yarr.]

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