Future Zero: The Posthuman Chronicles

By Jave Harron

Shattered Memories

Iktomi sat in the chair with his legs up on the table. Mausoleum observed the holographic display of their next destination. She ran her hand through her brown hair. The others sat around silently. A tall, silent dark skin man observed passively. A short Asian woman sat, gritting her teeth. A stocky milky-skinned man wrinkled his nose. The Solarian had taken the form of an old man, and was preparing to brief them in a vocal manner.

The Von Braun system was a fairly odd system to observe. The primary star had a debris field around it, surrounded by what had presumably been the remnants of an ancient Daedalan Dyson sphere. There were two barren rockballs in the system, both unfit for terraforming. The first world, Lem, was a small Mercury world too hot for any worthwhile settlement. The second world, a Mars-type world named Tsiolkovsky, had a grim history to it.

"Who here has heard of the Konstantin Massacre?" Iktomi asked. "Don't bother info-linking it if you don't know."

A voice in the corner of Mausoleum's mind screamed. She lowered her head and began to sob quietly. "Yes," she sopped. "I was there, a decade ago."

"Atrocity never balances or rectifies the past," Iktomi sat back in his chair. "Atrocity merely arms the future for more."

"I think I read about it a while back," the stocky pale terraformer, Dr. Eric Zann, began talking. "It was a report that the fucking pathetic world was only suitable for geoforming, so the only settlement was going to be an arcology. They weren't even going to add an alife ecosystem! No von Neumann bots, aside from some robominers. This world's possibilities were as dead as it."

"From experiences provide probability, but from truth comes only from facts," Iktomi explained. "Survivors gave contradictory accounts, and no one's wanted to investigate the damn thing. A few Centauri salvage teams vanished inside, and they gave up soon afterwards. Though, one of you has already been there. It will be a fun trip down memory lane." He began to snicker to himself.

Mausoleum would have broke down crying if she was a baseline. One of her past lives began screaming inside. There was gunfire, screaming, and dead bodies everywhere. Flashes of death, destruction, and violence filled her mind. Her senses, one by one, became overloaded by those ancient memories. She barely expressed anything, although she would not be surprised if Iktomi knew exactly what was going on with her.

"The Combine had ordered that world quarantined," Agent Zhu added. "Official story was nanoplague infection, but privately, they didn't know what was going on there. Not the kind of place I'd like to go. I like fighting people more than horrid diseases."

"I know exactly what happened. It's a delightful instance of transhumanity at its worst," Iktomi grinned. "But, I'm going to let you find out for yourselves. There is no teacher like experience, and there is no experience like the unknown. There is some dangerous nanotech, but nothing on the scale of a nanoplague."

"What opportunity would be worth investigating such a dangerous world?" Larry added. "There are no economic factors, no significant finds of artifacts, no notably brilliant researchers or cultural figures, no unique sociological structures, and not even mineral resources that would make a voyage there even remotely profitable!"

"As I'm sure you realize, Woods, there is more to business than just profit," the Solarian took the form of an old man and spoke sarcastically. "Oh, for those days them men falling upon their swords was the end of their troubles!"

Larry moved his head back. Iktomi knew his sensitive point.

"As I was saying, you may see the shattered Daedalan Dyson sphere in the hologram, but almost all artifacts of note were removed long ago," Iktomi continued, and then grinned wickedly. "Except a few in the central control part of the Konstantin Arcology. The uploaded minds of some of the victims, including artifact salvagers, are also stored on a secure server there."

"Grave robbing," Agent Zhu muttered. "You want us to stoop to grave robbing of a dead arcology? Killing people is one thing, but robbing from the dead? Do you have no respect for those who no longer exist?!"

"Oh, Konstantin isn't quite dead, and yes, Agent Zhu, I may respect the dead far more than you," Iktomi grinned and released a demented laugh. "But the dead can be restless. I'm advising you to take some close combat weapons, armor, motion sensors, and don't plug yourself into any nodes you don't have to."

Suddenly, Mausoleum stood up, and put her hands over her eyes.

"They're crawling out of the walls!" Mausoleum screamed. "And the floor! They're eating them! Mom! Dad!"

Mausoleum could no longer hold it in. She began screaming and crying. Tears began to follow as the personality overtook her. She sat sobbing in the chair while an awkward silence filled the room.

"That, friends, is why you should enter the arcology and remain in sealed envirosuits at all times," Iktomi said in a deadpan voice. "So, gather or nanofab some supplies, and get ready for a trip to one of transhumanity's greatest tragedies!"

"That's it?" Zann complained. "No fucking schematics? No access codes? No additional warnings?"

"Patience, young whippersnappers," Iktomi wagged his finger. "I'll download them once you prepare yourselves. My dropship is waiting for you."

The Solarian turn to the sobbing girl. His voice tone of voice suddenly became louder. "Be this the whetstone of your sword! Let grief convert to anger! Blunt not the heart, enrage it!"

"Why are you quoting MacBeth?" Zann turned his head to the side. "Or do I want to know?"

"In context, it always makes more sense," Iktomi replied with a grin. "Old Anglic is a very interesting language. Sadly, you missed most of my other references. But, I digress. Your chariot awaits, my employees. Don't forget to make a backup!"

The members of the group each headed back to their rooms, unsure of what to do. Iktomi was sending them into what was probably a dangerous area, so they prepared accordingly. Eric Zann, as a former terraformer, was used to wearing his stealth envirosuit. The loose, poncho-like suit itself covered the person's entire body, and had a light gray color by default. Unlike common sorts of thermoptic camo, it repelled far more than just the visible and infrared spectrums of light. It was made of metamaterials with a negative refractive index, and repelled everything in between gamma waves to microwaves. While it could be found by x-rays and radar, it could help scatter them. The suit's outside layer could allow a small "opening" to appear, which allowed the person inside to see the outside world. It also could alter itself slightly to mimic a variety of textures. It also acted as a filter to remove any toxins or nanobots from the air, or a seal if confronted with hard vacuum.

The terraformer had used the military-grade stealth camo during his terraforming runs. In order to ensure that ecosystems (often full of dangerous organic, synth, cybiota, and nanolife) didn't get him, he had to remain near motionless under his cloak. But it was all to ensure his precious ecologies were growing properly. While he only had rudimentary military or combat training, he certainly knew how to hide and observe an environment without being detected. He fabricated a composite weapon in his room, a fractal shotgun with a Magshocker-type electrolaser, and some gyrok grenade rounds under and over the barrel. The weapon had no stock, and held a conventional 'pump' grip (more for the psychological comfort). He put a sling on it, and covered it with the same material as the cloak. He'd be nigh-invisible under there for sure. In case he needed to cut through something, he brought his hacking tool and mini-viblade. This was in addition to the u-fog he normally had ready. It was better to be over prepared than under when faced with the unknown.

In a nearby room, an operative suited herself up in gear she had not worn in a long time. Agent Kai Zhu, formally of the Shenzhou Combine Security Bureau, wrapped herself in a metamaterial garment that was fairly snug to whatever was under it. Unlike the "catsuits" of popular netcasts and online virts, she wore a layer of armor underneath. She would appear as a gender neutral entity under the suit. The technology was similar to Zann's camouflage covering, but was far more protective of her physically. She had her trusty AFPDW, a compact machine pistol that could rip through most types of body armor and flesh. Due to potentially having to enter melee combat, she began to fabricate a pair of viblades and stinger knives. The stingers released pressurized liquid nitrogen into the target's vital organs, flash-freezing them. It was also effective against several machines. Each of her blades had enough for several stabs. With her hacking interface and stealth mask also ready, she could interact with any environment, from hard vacuum to poisoned gas corridors. Unlike Zann, she was far more mobile and lethal. Her own training was killing as many hostiles as possible in close quarters while moving. While she had enough experience, both real and in virts, an unknown environment was always a trying experience.

In his own room, Larry Woods prepared for battle. He sat in a position he was used to, in 'seiza.' The ancient Japanese used it to build focus. He did it more out of habit. He drew his sword out from the special vault it was placed in. The blade itself resembled an ancient katana, albeit with a more straightened blade. That was due to the miniaturized weapon within the blade. The tip of the blade held a narrow nozzle to release a laser from. While laser rifles were often the size of conventional firearms, thanks to technology rumored to be Solarian in origin, a powerful laser was located right inside the blade itself. The blade itself was nigh-indestructible, and would have made any ancient swordsman drool. He had personally used it to cut through metal body-shells.

He put on his exomesh suit and a stock nanofabbed armored helmet. It was the strongest and most flexible armor he could nanofab now, and would have to suffice. It would work as a vacuum suit if necessary, but Larry valued speed and agility. While not the fastest person compared to an agent like Zhu, his background required him to think fast much of the time. While he was employed at Dual Star Heavy Industries, one's ability to due business often literally depended upon reputation. Due to the post-scarcity economic structure, conventional manufacturing and recycling were no longer profitable. DSHI was once the last of the megacorps, but was quickly transitioning into a hypercorp. The board of directors and CEO were selected by a weighted majority election. Not all votes were equal. Those who held more stock in the company, those who had more credentials, those who were more productive, and those with a good 'track record' of deals effectively had their votes multiplied. Even the elite of the company had to keep producing or having successful deals, as the company's ranking system became a combination of credit, personality, and productivity.

While hypercorps were nothing new to the smaller states and more advanced economies of the Earth-settled galaxy, having a corporatist system-wide government make the transition was no small event. Due to the capacities of modern medicine and mental backups, dueling had recently re-emerged as a legitimate way to settle disputes. It was not unheard of for two parties to set up a 'reputation' wager agreed upon by both parties prior to entering a duel. Swords were the most common weapons, but single shot pistols, knives, and more exotic weapons were sometimes used. Due to even AI-legal issues taking a comparatively long time, the upper rungs of the corporate culture had began turning dueling from a fringe extreme sport to an increasingly popular way to settle disputes. While the laser rifle was a component that was not allowed, the blade was the same he had used to settle many disputes of his. Now that he was fired, exiled from the company, Larry had a single ancient Japanese word to describe his position: ronin. His master and employer had abandoned him. But for now, he had a profession he would be useful in. He attached the suit, sheathed his blade, and reported to the docking bay. This task would be a matter of honor to him now.

In the last room, Mausoleum sobbed as she prepared herself. She dressed herself in a green shirt and black pants, just the personality had worn during her traumatic escape. She put on a nanofabbed armored space suit. It was a gunmetal gray, and covered with exomesh and armored ceramics. She had a simple nanohacking tool, and some special systems inside. Some motion-enhancers in the legs and arms would allow her to move faster. Electrified claws would allow her to smash them. She produced a "Reason" series RFG. The rotary flechette guns were normally only used by point defense systems. But the pistol sized one fired fractal shredder projectiles. The weapon itself used electromagnetics to fire small millimeter sized flechettes. Each 'round' was actually a burst of the flechettes. When accelerated to enough velocity, they would literally rip apart whatever they were fired at. The ammo for the weapon was a simple block of ammo attached to a special battery nanofabbed together. It resembled a pepperbox pistol with much smaller barrels, and a sleek shape. They would not make her internal personality scream and cry this time. Instead, it would be time to take revenge. She began to channel the personalities inside her that held the most experience with violence. Her sadness turned into anger, and then into a cool, calculated hatred of them. They would be removed, and the objective would be completed. She existed for them. As their client and likely sole source of comfort, it was her job to put them at ease.

They did not have the specialist gear that Iktomi had produced for them during the last mission. This time, he seemed to want them to take gear similar to what they would have had available in other ways. The group assembled in the airlock, near the dropship. The craft was identical to the one from before. It was a sleek green and gray shape flechette cannons mounted on it as point-defense systems. It still had Iktomi's symbol on it, a black circle with eight lines of equal length protruding from it.

"So, who gets to lead this fucking mission?" Zann asked, while muttering under his breath. "I don't care who, as long as we leave this soulless world faster. Only some rudimentary earthworks and geoforming, and the only alife 'ecosystem' is a series of obsolete robominers. This place is a fucking travesty to my senses. I'm running two damn virt worlds, and I just finally got some fucking interesting simulated alife!"

"We're bound by contract and being offered a substantial payment for assisting," Larry added. "I would like to lead, and ensure all of you of our shared objectives."

"No offense, Larry, but you don't have much combat experience," Zhu said. "From what Mausoleum said, there may be hostiles of some sort inside the arcology. Given her fragile emotional state and our prior experience on Alecto, I believe I should be in command. This isn't a boardroom meeting or duel with rules, Mister Woods."

"Agent Zhu," came a calm and collected voice from a woman in a gray armored suit. Two metal claws protruded from her wrists. An RFG was placed in a holster. "I know I am the most qualified one. As you all saw, one of my clients possesses intimate and traumatic memories of the Konstantin Massacre."

The others stood in silence, unsure how the Symbiont who was crying her eyes out was now so calm and collected.

"Once a significant number of my personalities have been motivated, they will remain that way until the completion of the goal," Mausoleum spoke to the others. "But now, I have used my memories and skills to find a simple and logical plan. I am aware of the layout of this arcology, and what dwells withing it. You will follow my orders, and you will be more likely to survive. Now, board the dropship, and we shall commence the operation."

Eric Zann shrugged and bordered the dropship. He sat in one of the seats, tightened his helmet and cloak, and put his restraints on. Zhu and Larry shot surprised glances at each other, and then at Mausoleum. The Symbiont woman only pointed towards the transport in response. Seeing as their protest was futile and they had no alternative, the two boarded the transport and sat down in silence. Silently observing the entire exchange was Iktomi. He wanted to ensure his employees could operate without his directing of their every movement. He focused on everything that occurred between them as the dropship took off and left the Zeroth Trump.

Inside the dropship, everyone was sitting down, placed in their restraints. They had put their helmets on, and observed the planet getting bigger beneath them.

Mausoleum, can you tell us what may obstruct the completion our contractual assignment? Larry transmitted across the group's aux-communicator channel. Given your prior experience with this location, I would greatly appreciate if you shared them. While one of your personalities might have endured this tragedy, sharing those experiences will greatly help us.

Why is everyone so fucking formal all of a sudden? Zann complained over the aux and tilted his head back.

Mausoleum ignored Zann before continuing. The entirety of what happened here was something my personality had forced herself to forget. But I remember enough of what happened to get a general idea. People went mad, and began attacking each other.

Sounds like a berserker hack or aggression-causing nanoplague, Zhu added. The effects of either aren't pretty.

What happened here wasn't that simple, Mausoleum explained. My personality, let's just call her E. G., was in her early twenties when it started. Giving you the full XP would be too long, so I'll summarize. Due to fears of possible nanoplague, the arcology quarantined itself at the behest of a visiting Centauri doctor. He claimed he had traced an outbreak to our arcology, and showed us some impressive credentials. We checked, and we found he seemed real enough. So, the mayor followed his recommendations.

False credentials used easy enough to acquire in Centauri, Woods sighed. And isolation is all too often an excellent way to destroy a society from within.

First, there was hysteria in the colony. People began attacking outsiders, who they believed were carrying the plague, Mausoleum explained. Others tried to escape past the quarantine, but few made it.

The eclipse phase of any cell is the most interesting time to observe it, Zann added. The moment before the old system is swept away by what was covertly growing inside of it.

This is around when the Konstantin Massacre had originally began, Mausoleum continued. The mayor began to issue stronger guidelines against foreigners and anyone else showing what they considered plague signs. It was around then we lost access to public nanofabbers and backups, and martial law was declared. They had to reprogram the repair nanoswarms to eat dead organic matter, because they were so many rotting corpses inside.

If her face was not covered, the group would have seen it flinch. People began to riot. They tried to get out and survive by any means necessary. They began using private nanofabbers to produce enhancements, drugs, and weapons. Some armed themselves and tried forcing their way out. Others began to prey on each other. A lucky handful did manage to make it out. Many of the automated systems killed them, and many of them had started behaving like animals.

Is this when E. G. escaped? Zhu asked.

Yes, and she was the last. She managed to make it to an automated mining outpost, and auxed her uploaded mind off-world. As it turns out, there never was a doctor like the one who first advised them nor any nanoplague, Mausoleum continued. She sought vengeance, and became one of the clients sharing my mind. Now, I will give her closure.

Do you really think that anyone is still alive in there? Larry asked.

That fucking arcology's one of the Cosmodrome-series ones, so I wouldn't be fucking surprised if all the systems are still working, Eric muttered over the channel. It has multiple redundancies, so if some fucking catastrophe happened, it could continue to function and self repair. As for people inside, if the life support was never shut down, then some people may still be alive. Come to think of it, the urban ecology of such a fucking isolated system would be rather interesting. This job just got much more fucking interesting!

We're not going into a lab, Doctor, Mausoleum replied gruffly. We're going into a tomb. Show some respect. If anything or anyone is still alive in there, I doubt they'd be very friendly.

I do hope they understand the value of mutual, voluntary exchange, Larry added. Or at least the value of their own lives if we must use force.

They observed the planet and arcology growing bigger beneath them. Red dust and geological formations covered the surface, and the arcology stuck out like a metal phallus. The structure itself had a tall, ovoid form surrounded by a complex of metal passages built partially underground. The structure itself was designed to withstand impacts from several types of kinetic impactors and orbital debris, and was radiation hardened to prevent nasty cosmic rays from entering. A few red and white lights covered the outside of the structure. A hydraulic set of doors located away from the primary facility marked the underground port for short range shuttle-craft and dropships. Broadcasting the entry codes provided by Iktomi, Mausoleum was able to enter. The rusted, dust covered doors opened, and the craft descended.

Inside the dock was almost pitch black, save the glow of dim lights. The door above them sealed, and atmospheric pressure began to equalize. The room was smaller than it might have seemed on the outside, and the walls, floor, and ceiling were all covered with a fine layer of dust. Dim white lights were placed every few meters on the roof. The roof was only about a dozen meters in height, and the room held only a few landing pads for shuttles and dropships. There were other docking areas, but this was the closest one to the objective. It had also been the location of the mayor's private escape craft. The docking harness where E. G.'s memories had placed it was empty, the mayor of the arcology having long since vanished. The group readied their weapons and exited into the airlock.

Everyone, stay in your helmets, Mausoleum ordered. There's standard atmospheric conditions, but I sense there's something odd here. I detect those flesh-eating nanoswarms, but they won't bother us with our suits on. No other nanobots or strange chemicals, but I'm leery.

I'm putting my damn cloak on, Zann said as he vanished from view. Maybe I'll find something interesting scouting ahead. I think I detect something moving down the hall.

I'll cover that moron and ensure he doesn't get himself killed, Zhu auxed as she deployed her cloak. On the augmented reality overlay HUDs in the helmets, Larry and Mausoleum could see projected outlines of their two cloaked comrades. Zann waited with his fractal shotgun, and Zhu had her AFPDW out and ready. Larry lifted his blade over his head in a defensive posture. Mausoleum ensured her memories as E. G. were overlaid on top of the schematics Iktomi provided them.

Everyone, follow me, she auxed. The area we're interested in is straight down a tunnel from here, and up a few flights of stairs. Shoot anything that moves.

With that, she readied her RFG and headed for a hydraulic bulkhead. Each of them scanned a different area as they moved. Off in the distance, mechanical sounds were heard. Unsure of the mechanisms, or even if anyone was still alive, they kept moving. Mausoleum hacked the control panel, and the door opened. Beyond it was a dim corridor about three meters in height. Mechanical grinding was heard, and a rattling sound came from the ceiling. The group trained their guns above them.

It was then a turret emerged from the ceiling. Mausoleum and Larry dashed back towards the door as it opened fire. Using his larger body, Larry positioned himself between Mausoleum and the automated turret. Several rounds hit Larry in the back, but his armor was able to absorb it. From above the cloaked Eric Zann, a gray fog began to materialize, entering a hole in the ceiling before vanishing again. Suddenly, the firing stopped. The turret beeped, signifying it now found new 'friends,' in the form of the intruders.

Managed to hack the fucking thing with my u-fog, Zann muttered over the aux. Fucking piece of obsolete junk.

Mausoleum and Larry came out from behind cover. Zhu waved them on. More rattling was coming from the ceiling.

More fucking turrets? Zann muttered. Wait, the sound's a bit different than before.

Everybody, run! They're back! was the last thing Mausoleum managed to aux before she broke out into a full sprint. Suddenly, grates along the walls and ceiling became dented. Moaning and shouting was heard from inside the walls. Mausoleum fired her gun at the walls, blasting holes and driving back whatever was inside. The rest of the group followed her lead, running and shooting at the exact same time. None of them, however, got a clear view of what they were shooting at.

They ran down the straight, dirty hallway, until they reached a nexus of three other passageways. A turret dangled from the ceiling above the center of the hallway. It tracked them, but did not fire. A number of rag-covered skeletons underneath the turret, and bullet holes riddling the floor showed that it had likely exhausted its ammunition supply. Evidently, this portion of the complex had not been repaired recently. Mausoleum looked down at the corpses for a split second, but recalled where they came from instantly. They were a woman and two children, as well as a pursuer, all gunned down by the same turret. E. G. had been down the hallway when it happened, and the turret continued firing until its ammunition had been depleted. Now, the corpses were just skeletons. The bio-filtration nanobots had been programmed to eat any exposed organic material during the quarantine, to prevent the non-existent disease from spreading.

A shower of profanity on the aux brought her back to reality.

What the fuck are these sons of bitches? Zann muttered as his cloaked form blasted more of their pursuers with his shotgun. This fucking arcology has suddenly become much more interesting! What pressures would force people to adopt a fucking shape as weird as that?

Zann could see them, in horrid clarity, once they stepped into the hallway. They were obviously human in origin, but only barely recognizably so. Their figures (mostly) had two arms and two legs, and their entire bodies were covered with some sort of gray, latex-like material. They had no faces, only smoothed textures. The only portions of their body he could see were small ovoid sensors protruding from different points along their bodies. Their hands had ended in claws, and their feet had undergone similar changes. Some of them crawled along the walls and ceilings. It was like no synthmorph, organic body, or cyborg drone he had ever seen. The creatures closed in on them on all sides.

Everyone focus on one corridor! Mausoleum ordered. Hold them off until I say, then dash north!

Zann took up near the eastern passageway. While he was cloaked, he knew it would be only a matter of time before they found him. So, he began to sprint back and forth in the passage, firing his weapon at the horde rushing towards him. The fractal shotgun discharged violently, spraying ultra-lethal fractal buckshot at the creatures, shredding them at a molecular level and creating a deep wound on the visible level. He shifted between targets with a dispassionate focus. As much as he would love to study the creatures, their ecology, and what made them tick, he would have to be content with ripping holes in their anatomy for now.

More creatures began charging down the carnage-filled tunnel, and he fired a gyrok round with an fragmentation charge inside it. The propellant on the back of the round ignited, giving it even more velocity. It exploded, painting the walls with a variety of colors. Suddenly, a burst of pain fulled his leg. He instinctively stabbed downwards with his viblade, driving it through the neck of an attacking creature. He had his u-fog currently inside the vents, scouting ahead of the group. They weren't going to sneak up on him. So far, it seemed most of them were coming through the halls. Cursing to himself, he began to focus on the rest of the attacking creatures. They weren't going to kill themselves. He could always retrieve some corpses later.

In the corridor to the south, Kai Zhu focused on killing the creatures. While her outline was probably something they perceived, she tried to use her agility to her advantage. She had chameleon fibers on her suit that allowed her to climb on walls and ceilings just as well as they did. She kicked off a wall, then climbed up it. She aimed with her AFPDW and fired a burst at the closest creature. She climbed up to the ceiling and hung their, setting up her own bottleneck for the creatures below her. Some of them were crawling along the walls and ceiling towards her. She leaned forward, jamming one of her stinger knives into the nearest creature. It emitted a high pitched sound as its insides were flash frozen to a few degrees above absolute zero. It fell dead to the floor, and the creatures fell back, unsure of how to react. Zhu took advantage of the chaos to spray the remaining ones with her AFPDW.

Slamming a new magazine inside, she continued to mow down as many of them as she could before dropping back to the floor. This was the EASE method, and something she had trained extensively for. It was originally intended for using the environment to fight multiple conventional attackers, but it could be adapted for situations like this. Still, it was strange why they didn't just retreat into a hallway where they could muster more firepower and cut down the number of possible directions to two. There had to be some odd reason Mausoleum didn't just set up a two-way bottleneck against foes that depended on melee combat. Her suggestions were not being considered, so she went back to killing them.

To the west, a swordsman stood against a horde. Larry Woods' sword was coated in strange fluids. The substances coating his blade resembled a cross between blood, coolant, and lubricant. He brought the weapon over his head, and slashed a creature through its head. Quickly, he fired the secondary trigger, activating the concealed laser. The invisible beam burned straight through the fluids covering the tip of the blade, and the chest of another creature directly behind it, and the lead of a creature behind that. The tip of the blade traveled downwards, slicing directly into the wounded creature's head. Larry twisted the blade, and withdrew it. A creature charged at him from an angle, trying to flank him. He felt a set of claws slice through the exomesh near his armpit.

However, there were still multiple layers to go. The blade was quick to respond, taking the back of the creature's head back off. Two other creatures attacked him from behind, pressing his back to a wall. Claws began to tear at the back of his suit. Quickly, he forced his shoulder back, and allowed his suit to drive a hydraulic pistol concealed inside and slash upwards and across the two creatures that had pinned them. The two mortally wounded creatures fell dead. But more remained, barreling and charging down the hall. Larry knew he could not face them all in melee combat. So, he used the laser rifle inside the blade to put holes in several of the charging creatures at once. By the time they had reached melee range, their ranks had been thinned considerably. The heat generated from the laser was dissipated onto the blade, allowing a warm, sharp object to greet the survivors.

There's demand for a blade or laser beam in these creatures' heads, he auxed as he shot and slashed. And here's the supply!

While Woods held the line to the west, Mausoleum held the northern front. The RFG in her hands ripped the creatures into a pieces of carnage. Inside her mind, her personality E. G. laughed sadistically. These creatures had wiped out her colony, killed her family and friends, and almost killed her. Now, she was slaughtering them like the vile animals they were. The weapon's barrels rotated, spewing their deadly projectiles. The effects were similar to the fractal shotgun, only with a much, much greater rate of fire. The recoil was adjusted and compensated for greatly, so she could have used the weapon one-handedly if she had to. Mausoleum ripped them apart with Reason. One of the creatures on the floor was still twitching. She slammed her wrist mounted blade down through the creature's head, and used her other hand to hold the RFG steady as she mowed down the reinforcements. Every bit of their "blood" was a combination of blood, coolant, and lubricant. They were the remnants of the inhabitants of the colony, having long since reverted to a bestial mentality. They had evolved in her absence, probably to feast upon each other when there were no outsiders. Obviously, a few turrets remained, so it was likely that they didn't go to every part of the arcology. Hopefully, they had not compromised the control room. Looking forward, she saw only a few more of the creatures in the northern hallway.

Listen to Reason, she auxed as she sprayed. Everyone, follow me! Now!

She ran forward, not caring for precision as she pointed and shot at anything that still moved. The others covered the rear, mowing down the torrent of feral cyborg creatures behind them. Ahead of them was a thick bulkhead with a faded sign reading "Authorized Personnel Only Beyond This Point." A small node nearby awaited connection. Instead of interfacing directly with it, Mausoleum connected to the wireless network and transmitted the code given to her by Iktomi. The door began to open, but only partially. It had been jammed, and was stuck half opened. Mausoleum ducked and slid through, while Zhu rolled through. Larry performed a similar roll under the door, while Eric Zann simply turned around, blasted the creatures with his shotgun, and then backed under the door in a crouched position. He launched another gyrok grenade down the corridor to mop up anyone left.

I'm closing the door! Mausoleum auxed as she sent another command through the wireless network. The jammed door closed, sealing them inside the control room. Quickly, Mausoleum absorbed the details of the room. It was a cross between a bunker, office, and observational post. Banks of computers sat in a corner of the room. A holoprojector was positioned next to it. Some lower tech monitors and sensors were mounted on another wall. A nanoreplicator and tank of feedstock was also nearby. A skeletal corpse in a red silk robe sat in a swivel chair. A small bathroom, set of drawers, cot, and console were located off to the side. It was obvious someone could live in this room for a while. Suddenly, a gray fog began to appear from a hole in the ceiling.

Don't worry, Zann auxed. Just my u-fog. This room should be secure from them.

Hey, I know those robes! Mausoleum auxed. That corpse is the mayor!

The mayor doesn't seem to have decayed as much as the others, Zhu noted. Doctor Zann, do you detect any nanobots in the room, other than your own?

Only that nanofabber in the corner, he pointed. Perhaps there were no bio-filtration nanomachines here?

That's likely, given how hard it was for my u-fog to get in here, Zann added. Thankfully, the fucking seals on this room were old and easy for my nano-swarm to eat through. Guess the fucking self repair isn't working as well as advertised.

My personality's memories don't make sense here, Mausoleum surmised. The mayor's escape pod was missing, but he's dead obvious he didn't escape.

Larry slapped the visor covering his face. Remember your story from before? This seems obvious. The fake doctor gaining the trust of the mayor, isolating the arcology, the faked plague, the increasing violence, and then the mayor's private escape pod vanishes.

Underneath her helmet, rage appeared on Mausoleum's face. Whoever had done this had turned a small community to self-destruction for reason. Inside her head, the coalition of personalities flooded her to rage and anger. She began seeing red as she grit her teeth.

I'll scan the console here for any notes about the doctor, Zhu opened her hacking tool and interfaced with the computers wirelessly. Everyone, I found something interesting!

The group turned their attention towards the Agent. I've found an archive of backed up personalities of the dead, a security sensor network feed, and an abnormal final entry in the system. I'm putting up the last one on screen. It's playing both on aux and audio and visual feedback.

A face appeared on the holo-projector. Behind him was a chair with a recently-dead mayor placed in it, holding his red robe. He had a shaved head, blue eyes, and tanned skin. He wore a white coat with a badge underneath it. He held a pistol in his hand.

"As you can see, the mayor's dead," the main in the hologram said. "My diagnosis: Case of lead poisoning."

He flashed a pistol and grinned. "Hopefully, most of the people in this chickenshit arcology are dead by the time you're seeing this," he put the pistol down. "You might wonder who I am and why I did this. I'm the Iconoclast, and this is my specialty. To turn families, friends, and neighbors against each other in an orgy of blood and destruction doesn't require nanotech, or neural modifications, or anything of the sort."

He spun the mayor's corpse around in the chair before continuing. "Transhumanity likes to think it's far removed from all the violence, irrationality, and pettiness of the baseline humans. But the truth is, it's all there. You can drive out human nature with a pitchfork or nanochip, but it can always come roaring back again. All you need are the right ideas, the right manipulations of trust, and the right perception of others."

"Underneath our posthuman skin is the heart of a beast. It's my life's work to unleash it," He lifted his coat up. "Like playing doctor, and faking the nanoplague. I just convinced the mayor to implement quarantine and natural law, and let society due the rest! You'll all turn on each other when you have to. The mayor's desire for this arcology's welfare was easy to turn into paranoia. All memes can be used and exploited to destroy that which separates even a posthuman from a raving animal."

The Iconoclast looked at the monitors on the wall. "I guess the animals are starting to get restless. You know, it's interesting. A lot of the remaining posthumans are modifying themselves even more. Some are trying to transfer their minds into new, customized bodies," he interfaced with a computer. "There, fixed that problem. Those backups won't ever reach those bodies. Now, some self-adapting freaks will greet anyone who tries to enter. I'm sure you've met some of them on the way in. I'm not sure how long it's been since I left, but I'm sure if you give them time, they'll evolve into something more feral and predatory! Evolution becomes much faster with the optimized reproduction and the mind of a beast."

He held the pistol towards the camera's position. "Since this place is going to be overrun with these delightful freaks soon, I'll be leaving. Don't bother following me. I've got a million identities, backups, and uploads across countless worlds and habitats. This was just a test, and proof of my theory. The veneer of civilization shall be ripped from transhumanity's face, and what's left will evolve as they should. I bid you farewell, and wish you luck in the brave new galaxy I'll be unleashing soon!"

It was there the recording ended. Inside, the rage inside Mausoleum was barely able to contain itself. She riddled the hologram projector with fractal flechettes while screaming. With a determined look on her face, she interfaced with the personality back up system. She did not have enough mental bandwidth to store the personalities of all the colonists, but she knew someone who did. E. G. wanted her to at least give the maniac's victims a second chance. She connected with Iktomi's auxlink, and uploaded the minds of the dead. Inside her, E. G. felt a new sense of justice. The Iconoclast had to be stopped before she could rest.

Everyone, let's get what we came for and leave. There are only the walking dead here, Mausoleumremarked. Let's get the artifacts and flee before we become stuck here.

Near the back of the room was a vault. It resembled a classic metal vault, and was about a cubic meter in volume. Recalling the briefing file, the artifacts they desired would be inside. Zhu stuck a probe from her hacking tool into a small port near the bottom of the vault. A few milliseconds later, the probe found the correct encryption, and the door opened. Zhu stuck her hands in, and withdrew two thick lead-shielded carrying cases. Thankfully, the Iconoclast did not seem to have much interest in Daedalan artifacts. Larry hung one from the back of his spacesuit, and Zhu picked up the other. Mausoleum tried to see where Zann was. The mad terraforming engineer turned his head from a row of monitors.

Oh, sorry, I was only half listening, he apologized. I was just observing the marvelous ecosystem of this arcology! Amazing to think these interesting creatures emerged from such a social experiment!

Zann was observing the creatures on the display screens. They showed sensor feeds in different hallways, but Zann was focused on the hallway they had entered from. The surviving creatures hovered over their dead compatriots, sticking out a cluster of tentacle-like appendages from their jaws. What they were doing was obvious enough. They were consuming their comrades, and seemed to be probing the wounds that killed them.

This is quite interesting! Zann auxed. It appears they're consuming their fallen comrades. Fairly common behavior in the animal kingdom, but new to posthumanity. Hmm, some of them seem to be changing their bodies a bit. Much like organic and synth life, they're modifying themselves to better hunt their prey!

On the screen, the creatures that had indulged in necrophagy began to transform. Some of their bodies became covered by tumorous growths. Others had shiny, metallic patches emerging from their torso and body parts. Some others began to grow rigid carapaces as they ate.

Ah, quite a clever adaptation! They find what killed their comrades, and then try to gain resistance to it! Zann auxed. They probably adapted those body-coverings to prevent the bio-clearing nanomachines from trying to break them down. Their blood transformed to a sort that the nanomachines wouldn't find offensive as well. Quite an interesting transformation!

Doctor, stop admiring them and start thinking of ways to kill them more efficiently, Zhu chided. And Mausoleum, can we do a more efficient movement instead of each standing our ground at that four way hall?

Well, our normal weapons will work, but they'll just take more shots to drop the fuckers, Eric Zann explained. Sadly, their body covering rules out poison gas or nanoswarm attacks on them. But I do have an idea!

All ears, Doc, Zhu replied.

See their sensors? Those small transparent orbs over their damn bodies? I hypothesize those are their replacements for mere optics, he explained. Since parts of this fucked up arcology are dark and others are well lit, they must be able to see in low and high light conditions. They may have radar, sonar, or other methods of navigation as well. Instead of just two eyes, it covers their entire body, Zann explained with a grin under his cloak.

So any way of jamming that? Zhu asked.

Yes. Loud sounds, flashing lights, and screwy radio interference should do the fucking job. If you give me a minute, I can nanofab a few flashbangs, noise makers, and radio jammers. We scatter those liberally, and we should be able to run by the confused bastards! Zann turned his head up proudly.

Zann went to work on the nanofabber. The tanks pumped feedstock into a primary unit, and parts began to assemble as they were passed through layers of nano-assemblers. He watched while his devices assemble, while Mausoleum replied to the Agent. I remembered a bit about their tactics. When they're stalking a group, they'll drag away anyone they don't perceive as a threat. Instead, they try rushing threats with superior numbers, she explained. When we all killed them in that hallway, that was to make them think of us as a threat.

Given their adaptability, wouldn't they also try out different tactics? Zhu added.

Mausoleum shrugged. My personality's memories had them not changing tactics because they didn't have to. Everyone was dead before then. But this time, let's stick close and make a break for the exit.

Zann soon finished making some distractions. He loaded new gyrok rounds into his weapon. Someone open the fucking door! Once it opens a bit, start shooting anything that moves on the other side!

The hydraulic door began to open up, and the group opened fire at the creatures that tried to force their way inside. Zann fired one of the distraction devices from they gyrok launcher. It bounced down the corridor, flashed brightly, and began emitting a loud siren sound.

Follow me! Mausoleum shouted. Keep those decoys coming, Doctor!

The creatures shrieked, and began to flail wildly. The group darted under the half-opened door, and sprinted down the hallway. The creatures had been in the middle of their meals and were disoriented for a few seconds. A few began to recover, but Mausoleum riddled them full of flechettes. The creatures seemed much less affected, and dashed at the woman. One of them fell dead, but the other lunged for her throat. It was only a well-placed slash to its neck that killed it. The corpse dripped its strange lifeblood down the hallway. She flashed back to one of E. G.'s memories for an instant, before flashing back to the reality of the fight.

The others were having a lack of luck as well. Larry noticed some of the ones attacking him seemed to be thicker, so he could not burn through as many with his laser. He tried hacking one, but their bodies were not reinforced by fleshy tumor-armor. So, he thrust instead. Zhu had less luck, with the creatures immune to both of her weapons. She found herself trying to dodge their claws as they continually closed the distance.

Zann noticed that the creatures seemed to target which of them they had developed countermeasures against. It would really be quite interesting to study. That was why he had a laser with him. As a blast of fractal flechettes did nothing, he fired his Magshocker at some of the creatures rushing him. It dropped one, causing it to fry on the floor. A quick shot paralyzed another as it snapped at the doctor from the side. It was too they were getting too close for comfort. Zann fired a stun grenade down the hallway, and another one back towards the office. Both detonated, hopefully disorienting the creatures for a few more seconds.

The group approached the intersection they had come across before, but did not stop. Instead, they sprinted as fast as they could ran past the stunned creatures, and then towards the door to the dock. Zann put another round behind them, to prevent the creatures from pouring out of all three passages at once. They approached the hacked turret, when Zann suddenly stopped. The creatures had no recovered, and were charging for them. However, the hacked turret opened fire, spraying the creatures, driving them back for a few key seconds. He threw one of the dead creatures over his shoulder, keeping his weapon pointed behind them.

I am not leaving without one of these interesting specimens! he auxed.

The group did not have time for questions and odd stares. The turret began clicking, as it was now out of ammo. The creatures would start chasing them again soon. They darted back into the hanger bay, and sealed the door behind them. Zhu opened the door to the dropship, and climbed in first. Larry and Mausoleum went in next. Zann threw his specimen in and entered last. Mausoleum broadcast the access codes, and the door to the outside opened. Their craft lifted off, and headed back to the Zeroth Trump.

Once the group climbed out of the dropship, Iktomi was there to greet them. "Welcome back! Glad to see that arcology didn't claim any more souls," he nodded.

Mausoleum was about to speak, but Iktomi cut her off. "Oh, I received those uploaded personalities," he replied. "I've placed them in a virt world based on their memories for the mean time. It really is tragic that I'm one of the few entities here who cares enough to give the dead an afterlife they'd prefer to be in. Unlike that person who left them to rot in the first place."

"Do you know anything about the Iconoclast?" Mausoleum replied. "Please, Iktomi! E. G. wants justice!"

"I sent you to that place for three reasons," he addressed the group. "One, to ensure you could work together without my prompting. Two, to ensure you acquired the samples of Daedalan microscale artifacts. And three, to ensure you became familiar with the Iconoclast and his handiwork."

"What happened to that bastard, anyway?" Zann muttered, putting the dead specimen down on the floor. "Is he still out there?"

"Oh, yes," Iktomi replied. "In fact, we'll probably run across him at some point. The Reubenists have hired him. I wanted you to get to know your enemy, for that which is not known cannot be fought. They're planning to use him to try to destabilize their rivals. The Combine, the Centauri Republic, the Symbiotry, and anyone else. But once you do find him, you'll know how to treat him. Hang 'em high, as they said on the American frontier."

Mausoleum nodded. At some point in the future, she and E. G. would get their chance for revenge. The personality took solace in that fact. The rest of the group eventually went back to their rooms. Zhu worked out some new portable distraction and decoy devices based on Zann's design. Doctor Zann began dissecting his new specimen, running virt simulations based on the arcology's 'ecology.' Woods cleaned his sword and readied it for another day. Iktomi went through his artifacts, realizing he was a step closer to the goal. Far below them, the handiwork of the Iconoclast remained, a testament to his beliefs about reverting transhumans back to beasts.