Robert Cunningham 16

1.

Luna shuffled through one of the many bazaars in the hive foundation on Mars, beneath a sea of buzzing lights, humming drones, and howling hovercraft from the upper levels. The simulated sky of the biodome housing the megatropolis hive cities on Mars couldn't be seen from the foundation, and when Luna looked up, she saw only a crawling sea of tiny metal bugs, too many to count, too thick to even imagine what was above them. A combination of rain, runoff, and outflow from the city above pattered down on the foundation, causing paint to peel and skin to burn if not protected by shawls and coats of acid resistant material. Her sleeve was undamaged, thankfully, due to a thick yellow jacket and hood she wore in tandem with a ski-mask as blue as her long bob hair. She carefully sidestepped the growing streams of toxic waste that formed in her path, tried to avoid mutant heavy areas, and struggled to block out the static. Her AROverlay was spotty at best, commonplace for the foundation of any hive city, however something in her head hurt as she ambled through the near-dead zone.

On her way home from work Luna swung by habitation sector four, where another bazaar waited for her, and she hoped this one would have what she was looking for. People knew Mars for its abundance of naturally grown produce and its synthetic animal hides and meats, all grown in the numerous arcologies that dotted the upper levels of the hive, but in the bottom two-kilometers that formed the foundation, people subsisted on nutrient paste packs and water that may or may not have been filtered down to a non-lethal quality. Bazaars awash in blue LEDs were as common as the mutants, the toxic waste, or the gang bangers, but most of them were from off-world, supporting a grey market that the foundation wouldn't survive without. Despite this, Luna had trouble finding half of her grocery list when in competition with over nine-billion others.

This new bazaar she came across, wedged between two looming spires in an alley just a few meters wide but almost a kilometer long, was packed to the brim with overlapping stalls and kiosks propped up by an eclectic bunch of spacers. Star Nomad tribes sold animal bits and tribal fetishes, representatives from Andromeda sold high end electronics and clothing, or what could be called high end and still be affordable in the foundation, Fringe-space pirates sold whatever they could plunder, from simple thing like food and electronic accessories, to slaves and slabs for the organ harvesters. Gang markers littered the narrow alleyway, however a bang of pirates, whose sleeves were tailored to resemble lizard men, seemed to keep the peace throughout the area. Luna wondered how long it would be before another police group took over, since they were the fourth this month already.

While she perused the stands for actual bread and some sliced ham, she began to recognize some of the men who operated them. Pirates, corporate suits, tribals, even a few mutants; not because she herself knew them, but because she had passing encounters with them leaving her cube. Luna shared her residential cube with her best friend, Gypsy. Luna would call her a bubble headed, reckless, depraved slut, however she was polite enough to only think those things while sharing a six-by-six-by-three living space with her. Gypsy occupied a Theta grade Aphrodite sleeve, and she got her mileage out of it, for pleasure as well as business, so Luna couldn't complain too much when thinking about those times when Gypsy, working on her back or knees, kept their rent paid and their fridge stocked. As she found and bought a pack of sliced ham from a Star Nomad tribe of Missouria, she thought of lacing it with something to shut her up for ten minutes so she could actually get some peace and quiet in their cube. After a quick run through her neural computer, she realized no drugs existed that would affect only Gypsy's sleeve and not her own, civilian purpose Theta sleeve. A part of her wondered why Gypsy even wanted food, since Aphrodite sleeves were engineered to run on electricity that could be received through a proximity battery, and never need food, sleep, create waste, or anything that would get in the way of having sex twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

With a filled bag tucked neatly inside her protective shawl, Luna quickly jogged back to her cube. She knew that carrying any food, even nutrient paste, drew the mutants and gang bangers like sharks. While she was certain she could defend herself, she also knew that killing only four or five gang bangers would mark her for the rest of them, and she couldn't fight off the seemingly endless horde of thugs in the foundation. The spires of the hive city got tighter and tighter as she went through the hab-blocks, seemingly glaring at her with harsh red and orange lights from overhead, and attempting to choke her with the smog that built up from the smoke and gasses around her. The ancient metal-work of the overlapping paths and walkways buckled and moaned beneath her boots, and she would look down at the orange-red dirt streets of the foundation, wondering if her sleeve could survive the fall if the walkway collapsed. She found her way, safely, to the entrance to habitat four, a massive tower that would collapse under its own weight if not supported by beams connecting it to other towers and platforms two-kilometers up at the top of the foundation. The gate opened at the end of the hab opened, as it does every hour, and stayed open for five minutes, allowing her and almost one-hundred others to pour in before the gate came down. When looking back, Luna smiled to see only four people killed by the gate slamming down on top of them, which is probably the lowest she's seen that year. Inside the hab were several dozen other towers, each complete with their own stores and overlapping paths the connected them, and police tactical hovers coasted about with their searchlights washing over the area. Android cops patrolled in their usual Beta grade sleeves, armed with explosives and automatic rifles, and being close to them made Luna's chest freeze until they passed. She was held up at a crossing sky-bridge when a klaxon began blaring, aluminum emergency shields locked her in the bridge, and she could only wait while the police droids violently put down another gang shootout. Once the barricade was lifted, she passed a scorched hall, laden with human viscera and blast markings, and mutants were already scavenging what meat they could from the destroyed sleeves before recycling crews could arrive.

Finally, Luna approached her residential cube. Her legs were burning, her arm was tired from holding the bag, and her lungs were burning from the smog, worse inside the habs than outside, because her respirator was confiscated at work and given to a human employee who forgot his. As she rifled through the pocket of her muted blue jumpsuit for her keys, the sliding door opened and yet another new face stepped out. He was a large, broad man in what a quick scan revealed to be a high end, military purpose Ares sleeve. He smiled, nodded back through the doorway, then turned to walk away before bumping into Luna. He apologized, rather flustered, then quickly moved on before Luna could respond, not that she cared to say anything to another random 'friend' of Gypsy's.

Luna entered and closed the door behind her, set the bag down on their rosewood desk between their two beds, and looked to see Gypsy stepping out of the bathroom without any clothes. She was almost two-meters tall, sported sun-kissed skin, an almost perfect, very well endowed, athletic build, neon pink eyes, and a bright pink pixie cut. She turned and smiled a chipmunk smile at Luna.

"Babe! Welcome back!" Gypsy began as she flung her arms open and continued to hug Luna.

"You're naked," she responded, deadpan.

Gypsy pulled back, her smile turning to a smirk.

"What, you're not used to that yet?" she giggled. "Oh! Hey, I need you to be busy after dinner, 'kay? I need the cube."

Luna fought to conceal her groan.

"What now?"

"I got a client. He's paying four-million bucks for two hours."

Luna's eyes widened.

"Holy shit, you actually charge people sometimes?"

Gypsy laughed and slapped her on the arm.

"Hey, you got enough to pay rent on your own?"

Luna shrugged.

"Didn't think so. By the way, your boss try fucking you again today?"

"Yeah…in both senses. Docked my pay when I said no, again."

"Well, shit," Gypsy shook her head. "Take a seat, why don't you? Tell me about your day," she said while sauntering over and plopping down on the edge of her bed, facing Luna's.

"Are you going to put on some clothes?" Luna responded as she took a seat.

"Wouldn't do much good," she lifted her arm, and deconstructed it into a series of grey orbs, revealing this was actually a claytronic swarm replicant her Ego was inhabiting. "My real sleeve's in there," she nodded her head towards the bathroom. "Cleaning itself before the next client. God I love that feature," Gypsy paused for a second before leaning in towards Luna. "So how was work?"

Luna shrugged again.

"Same as usual. I had to take out all the trash, dispose of toxic and biohazardous materials, and uh…well, we only had six employee deaths today, and only two were suicides."

"Were they suicides, or were they suicides?"

"Probably the latter, I remember seeing some suits that looked too nice for this part of town; maybe they owed them some money or something."

They both laughed at that.

"So…your boss tried to use you like a sex-bot again?"

"Yeah, and again I told him no, but again he took my pay from two-million to one-point-five this week," Luna leaned forward, sighing as she put her head in her hands. "I don't know what we'll do about groceries and rent this month. I got us some ham and bread, but we're still a few hundred thousand short, if this guy you're talking about pays like he says."

Gypsy leaned further a bit more and stretched out an arm to put on Luna's shoulder.

"Hey, I'll pick up the slack here, don't worry."

Luna opened her mouth to respond, but broke out into a coughing fit.

"Hey, where's your respirator?"

"Boss took it," she managed to get out in a wheeze.

"The fuck? Why?"

Luna stopped and cleared her throat before speaking again.

"He uh…another worker, guy on the line forgot his, and since he's human, he got mine."

"Holy shit, ain't that a bitch?" Gypsy stood. "Hold on, I got something for you."

She walked over towards the holo-screen projector on the dresser, opened the top drawer, and withdrew a thin package wrapped in blue with a golden ribbon on it. She turned and held it out to Luna with both hands.

"Here, happy birthday!"

Luna smiled and took the present. She ripped off the paper while Gypsy watched, and revealed her turing certificate, framed in an ornate wooden display, coated with gold paint. A letter came with the frame, blue and gold like the package, and written with black pen.

"Three years old! Good work, Luna! Thanks for being you, and staying with me all this time!"

Miranda 'Gypsy' White

Luna looked up at Gypsy, still smiling, then stood to hug her once more.

"Thanks, Gypsy. I actually forgot it was my birthday."

In truth, Luna remembered her 'birthday', which was more like seventy-four years ago in December, not three years ago in the middle of October, but that was when she passed the turing test, and went from virtual intelligence to artificial intelligence status.

"Don't mention it, sounds like you need a break from the bullshit. Also, I know how much you love old shit, so I found something you might like," she pulled back and pointed to the wall over Luna's bed, where a collection of compact discs was neatly tacked to the wall, relics of thousands of years ago who's music was preserved in a succession of ports. "Check your phone real quick."

Luna withdrew her smartphone from her pocket, slid it open, and saw a 'download complete' message on the face. It was Nightwish's Wishmaster album, and a matching preserved compact disc was tacked to the wall in the same fashion as the rest of Luna's collection. As the music played, Gypsy put a hand on hers.

"Hey, if you're super stressed from work, want me to hop into that male sleeve we have and blow off some steam?"

Luna looked up from her phone, stone faced, trying not to look grossed out by the proposition.

"Thanks, but no. I'm waiting still."

Gypsy shrugged and put her hands on her hips.

"Alright then, be gone with you now; shoo, shoo! I have work to do!"

Luna chuckled and put her phone away before turning back to the door.

"Alright, thanks for kicking me out, I guess," she deadpanned as the door opened.

"Don't mention it, I work hard for you."

Luna shook her head, hiding her smile as she stepped out.

"Well, have fun being a hooker, I'm going to the Hole."

"I love you too!" she said before shutting the door behind Luna.

The Hole was a dive in the same hab as Luna's cube. The owner made an effort to make his bar stand out by putting synthetic wood slabs over the blue steel surfaces, adding a rosewood bar, colorful neon string lights, leather booths, felt pool tables, a vast selection of music, and a full private arcade, but all his effort seemed half wasted, as the wood appeared warped, and holes showed the cold floors, walls, and ceilings they were meant to cover, the lights were half dead or flickering, the felt was torn up, and booths were as well, and the music was mostly garbled noise thanks to the choked signal. The owner, who doubled as the bartender, greeted her warmly, and when she explained her situation, was given a free card to play at the arcade to her heart's content.

The usual patrons at the Hole were the same kind of mutants and gangsters that would blow up sections of the foundation and scavenge the dead for food, so it was no surprise to see the police coming and going so frequently, less of a surprise to see them extorting free drinks and sex out of the people there. Luna was lucky enough to stay unknown and play her anxiety away in peace while watching two teams of domesticated mutants butcher each other in a massive arena for her amusement on a mounted flat screen television. She thought about spending some money on a new respirator, but realized her boss would just take it away again, and that money would be better spent on rent. As the night went on, she disappeared into a sea of flickering neon and black light, bathed in the glow of side-scrolling adventure games and space combat cabinets. Her concerns about paying for the cube and groceries was replaced with a series of calculations at nanosecond speeds, forming the optimal approach for the various space combat games she played, with Ultra-Wing IV being the most enthralling for her.

"Nice job, there," a deep, masculine voice said from beside her.

Luna sharply turned for a second to identify the man next to her, then returned her laser focus to the game. It was Vince, one of those super gorillas, and he wore his seemingly permanent jeans and tucked in grey t-shirt.

"Oh, hey Vince, how've you been?" she said while continuing to play the game with a mechanical precision.

"I've been doing good. Got a nice job up-spire not too long ago, and just got back the other day. I figured I'd drop by you and Gypsy, see how you girls are doing."

"Well you should probably know Gypsy's busy with a 'client' right now," she hissed.

"I know, I stopped by your cube first. I guess I'll have to wait my turn until tomorrow."

She giggled slightly.

"Yeah, I guess you will. That slut probably has a waiting list longer than the hive is tall."

"Ouch, that's pretty harsh, don't you think?" he chuckled.

"Not really. Girl seems allergic to her pants most of the time."

"Why's that a problem?"

"It's just…gross. I mean, how do you deal with knowing you're getting sloppy seventy-seconds?"

Vince began openly, loudly laughing at that comment.

"Did I say something funny?"

"Oh, oh girl…" he struggled to stop laughing, leaning on the cabinet while clutching his side. "I'm guessing you and her haven't been getting along after all, eh?"

"I manage to put up with her. Last few scores I set up didn't pan out since she can't pull her own weight in the sim and I don't want her starting any more shit in person that could fly back at me, but she's a decent roommate and at least makes sure things aren't too boring around here. She also has a few, scant moments of 'me-not-wanting-to-kill-her', but those are few and far between. Also I might need her to suck some rent money out of a few people so we can keep the cube, since my boss keeps docking my pay."

"Wow…just, no feeling at all there, eh?" he began knocking on her shoulder. "You sure there's a person in there?"

"Of course there is, I got a certificate from the Lunar Turing Office to prove it."

"Uh-huh…and where is this certificate by the way?"

"Why do you care? What do you want, anyway? You never come to see me to just 'hang out'."

"Oh well, I'd swear I saw that fancy certificate of yours framed in gold on the desk you and Gypsy share, right next to what looked like a birthday card. I know I didn't send you anything…who else in this slum really gives enough of a damn about you to send you a card?"

"And question number two?"

He smiled, chuckled again, and leaned on the cabinet, hands in the pockets of his jeans.

"I got another job, the good paying kind too, and I need you two for it. Gypsy gave me the 'twenty-words-or-less' version of things when I stopped by, and mentioned you needed some money, and judging by what you said a minute ago, I'm guessing this isn't some drug induced hallucination she's having."

"We only need a few hundred thousand, we can make that just fine, probably find some horny spacers who I can pimp Gypsy out to."

"Alright, and what about next month's rent?"

"I'll make it working at the factory, like I've been doing."

"Like you've been doing, you say? Like uh…you mean like when you, me, and Gypsy did that job on K-Tech? Or that L&I run? You mean like that?"

Luna sighed, and let the game kill her and dump her back to the main menu.

"Yeah, like that," she turned to face him finally, one hand on the machine, the other at her side. "So what's the job, and how much are we getting?"

"You've heard of the SNUC?"

"Can't say so, no. What's that?"

"Star Nomad United Coalition. Bunch of tribes are getting together to restore some power, or just take some, not really sure. The point is, they got an embassy here on Mars, and we're going to shut that place down."

"So we're killing some tribals?"

"Yes, but that's not all. See, it turns out these guys got some kind of illegal AI from the Black Queen herself, and are using it at leverage behind the scenes."

Luna cocked her head and smiled at that.

"The Black Queen? Are you sure this wasn't some prank?"

"I don't care if it is or not, the point is they got this war machine AI on stand-by, and are threatening the Republic…somehow…to get their own land and sovereignty in one of the local galaxies."

"And we need to shut this AI down ASAP?"

"Not just ASAP, before the Republic representatives meet with the tribe chiefs next week."

Luna sighed and shook her head.

"I don't know, Vince. This seems a little heavy, don't you think? And only a week to plan things out?"

"I know, but think about it; We shut down or steal that AI, we can sell it to the turing police for at least two-hundred-million, and I doubt the Republic fuzz is going to raise too much of a stink over us defanging their enemies, if we get caught by them. So what do you say, babe?" he said while extending a large, hairy, brown hand.

"I'm thinking I'm a fucking idiot too," she slapped her hand into his. "Come on, let's go save the Republic," she said with a wry smile.

2.

Luna's Ego possessed special coding, unique to synths like herself, that allowed her greater freedom and something like greater power within the internet's VR simulation. While most people had programs they could run with a mental command saved on their neural computer, Luna herself could not only craft and use them on the fly, but do so at speeds so great, the simulation would often have performance hiccups because of it. While Vince was in bed with Gypsy, Luna was flipped into the simulation, where her persona, sharing her name and appearance, loomed large over the visually stunning and colorfully loud digital replication of Martian cities. She found and cracked locked away files at a speed no human hacker could ever hope to achieve, and in under an hour, she had learned exactly what this AI was, what the SNUC was, and what dealings they had with the Republic before now. As her persona flew around the simulation, pulling data towards her with simple mental commands, she pieced together the SNUC's plans to use their AI, indeed an illegal war-time one, to destroy several Republic colonies if they're demands were not addressed at the next Martian senate meeting. According to secret messages on the Star Nomad's own servers, they indeed did receive the AI from someone claiming to be the Black Queen, although the messages appeared to come from the local galaxies, when it's believed the Queen operates somewhere in the Andromeda frontier. Information on the embassy itself was fairly easy to come across, one of the many towers in the hive, an entire hab block, was reserved for them, and used to host several tribes and their docked ships. She pulled private messages, floor plans, transaction records, their list of demands, and staff lists from several servers, and compiled enough to start planning an approach.

At the Hole, Luna had flickering holographics displayed over a booth table in front of Vince and Gypsy. He wore a leather biker jacket with his grey t-shirt, had sunglasses over his eyes, and pat his large fingers on the table while scanning the layout. Gypsy wore thigh high, purple, leather boots, purple hot pants, a purple sports bra, and a clear plastic long-coat while reclining in the spot next to Vince, seemingly staring out at the patrons through a visor that might as well have had 'Fuck Me' written across them in bright neon letters. Luna shook her head at Gypsy, then refocused on the display.

"Alright, so this is the place I'm thinking," Vince began while sticking one of his ape fingers into the hologram, at the base. "This is a garage, yeah?"

"It is," Luna nodded.

"And this is where the A.I. is held?" he pointed to an area near the middle of the spire, in what seemed to be some kind of cubicle farm.

"Yes, in a K-Tech Ego-House Seven."

"Alright, Gypsy," he said while turning to his left and nudging her with his elbow.

Gypsy jumped slightly when he made contact, and her glance shot over to him.

"Whoa, what? What's up?"

"Listen up!" Luna snapped, trying to keep her voice low.

Gypsy looked over to her, brows up.

"Calm down, sis'. What's wrong?"

"We're working here; can you focus for five minutes?"

"Ladies, please," Vince interjected.

"I got it, I got it, I've just been lookin' around."

"Really?" Luna shook her head again.

"Yeah, I ain't deaf. You were thinking of going in the lift, yeah? Go up, quickly jack the Ego House Seven housing the AI, and ride the shaft down. Simple smash and grab."

Luna cocked her head and looked over to Vince. Sometimes she wondered why Gypsy worked on jobs like this when she didn't do anything special, and assumed Vince just kept her around for the eye candy. Her sleeve was already augmented thanks to some of her high profile clients, and Luna wondered why the hell Gypsy didn't just get a ticket off world with her 'talents' instead of staying in that festering hellhole. She wondered if Gypsy was really that stupid, but also wondered if she was staying for her sake. When she pondered that, she thought about the story of two possible men in an elevator, and figured it was better Gypsy be an annoying tag-along than a boring one; at least she might accidentally entertain them, or be useful.

"Uh…yeah," he said. "That's what I was thinking. If we're quick enough, I think we can get out before the alarm raises, and the tribals get their goons in. We can probably bail into another hab before they even know what's going on."

"I can probably jump onto their alarms too, get us a big window," Luna added while pulling up windows beside the hologram, showing the model of security cameras and scanners.

"Careful," Gypsy said while leaning in. "They might have c-sec agents on standby, ready to boot anyone poking around, and if they find out your Ego is synthetic, and that you're an AI? We might be stealing two of you."

"It won't be a problem. I've cracked OSA black-files before without detection, and withstood military grade viruses that tried to attack my Ego directly. A few scanners in a tribal embassy won't be an issue. What about you two?"

"I got my crashes ready, if we need them," Gypsy said while tapping her visor and giving a smirk. "Should give us everything we need in ARCC."

"I don't like that 'should'; I'll make you some more programs," Luna opened up several windows in her peripheral in AR, and began generating a sea of code that she shaped into cyber-combat programs that could be stored on a simple neural computer, and used from an AROverlay. "You'll have digital camouflage as well, and a quick-jump for each of you."

Vince and Gypsy both stared at her for a long second.

"Hey, Loon," Vince said while raising a hand. "I don't mean to rain on your parade, but quick-jumping ain't my thing. My sleeve will be fine."

"Ego code degradation is highly unlikely for these, I made them myself after all. You'll be fine for jumping onto an Ego House if and when your sleeve gets slabbed."

Luna could almost feel her throbbing temple nerve. The sleeve getting destroyed was a problem, sure, but the real issue was in the Ego. By default, whenever an Ego left a destroyed sleeve, it would go to the nearest Ego House under police control to await jumping into another sleeve. Luna's program would allow them to Ego jump off the grid, and not need to worry about the police catching on.

"Seriously, I think we got this, Luna. You're just over-thinking it."

"I don't want to hear 'overthinking' from you, not after that incident in West End."

"Whoa babe, I'm sober, I'm focused, and we need the money. I got this!"

Luna groaned.

"Fine, but don't bitch at me when things go wrong."

Gypsy smirked.

"Not a problem, sweetie."

3.

Vincent, Luna, and Gypsy gathered around in the lift as it rose through the Star Nomad embassy. He dropped the duffle bag, unzipped it, and withdrew his home-made room-sweeper, constructed from old pulse rifle frames, bike parts, and depleted energy cell cartridges, followed by a bandolier of tightly packed, high power shells. A yellow-painted pulse SMG laid in the bag, and was withdrawn by Gypsy, who ran her fingers along the streaks of pink that went up and down the elongated, rectangular receiver and barrel. She set the heat-slide to yellow, and felt the pulse cartridge inside start to spin up. Luna's vision became clouded with a series of AR windows and a program listing display, ready to be activated with a neural command at a moment's notice. Lastly, inside the duffle bag, was a black matted, bull-pup kinetic rifle for Luna. She took the small pack of magazines and strapped them to her side in her belt, cocked the rifle, and took a deep breath right as the lift stopped and the doors began to open.

A pair of Missouria women in slacks, button down shirts, and graphene vests sporting police badges stood by the doors and turned quizzically as they opened. A mechanical wheeze and thunderous boom came from Vince's room-sweeper, followed by the two women being reduced to red clouds and hundreds of chips down the grimy, blue-steel hall thanks to the tightly packed pellets. Gypsy held her pulse gun in one hand at hip level, like in the cheesy sim-sense films she loved, however a neuro-linked smart gun system allowed her to see exactly where the pulse would hit, so aiming properly wasn't necessary. Luna adopted a more appropriate, proper posture for someone walking down a hall, automatic rifle in hand, and turned back periodically to make sure no drones came out of the walls. They jogged down the hall, turned right, and Gypsy shouldered in a wooden door to allow access to a room with a green carpet floor and rosewood walls, in stark contrast to the dim blue and grime outside. Red leather arm chairs and paper lamps giving off warm light surrounded the large black cube in the center of the room, with a jumble of thick cables coming out and connecting it to a pair of server towers behind it.

Luna watched a series of outgoing alarms and police calls in response to the room shaking blast from Vince's gun, and dispatched a series of spoof programs to jam their communications before the authorities could be fully alerted, although she secretly wanted to backhand the big gorilla for causing such a ruckus when Gypsy had a weapon that made almost no noise and could easily dispatch two people with well-placed pulses to the head, frying the brain and destroying the Ego housing neurons before they could jump out. At least vaporizing them in their entirety, including their neurons, had the same effect, so the Egos couldn't jump elsewhere and warn the others. She looked at the glossy black cube, and saw an Ego cluster inside of it whose structure was off-human, but definitely different from any VI. Luna turned and nodded to Vince while gesturing towards the cube, then turned back towards the door with Gypsy.

Vince began violently ripping wires from the tower and cube, peeling off the casings of the servers, and ripping out the wiring, all to the accompaniment of numerous bright sparks. He crushed chips and motherboards, rendered the insides barren, and got a solid grip on the few thick cables still hanging from the AI's housing. He opened his mouth to speak, however only let out a surprised yelp at the sight of Luna collapsing to the floor in what appeared to be an epileptic fit.

Gypsy and Vince both dashed over to her, and Gypsy arrived first, mainly due to Vincent being sent flying backwards after being struck by a blue-hot ball of plasma. He rolled on the floor, screaming in agony as his black fur was immolated, and Gypsy looked at the doorway into the room to see a tall Star Nomad man in a brown leather trench coat, glaring at her with eyes that looked like orbs of solid mercury. His scan profile showed a laundry list of high end combat augmentations, most of them illegal. In his hands was a large plasma cannon, connected to a backpack through a pair of thick, corrugated tubes. She quickly thought about lifting up Luna once more, then heard the cells on his back spinning once again.

She sprung back, assisted by muscle-wires and GABA-Inhibiting reaction boosters, and ignited his coat with laser pulses as she sprinted back towards the rosewood wall. She weaved under a passing ball of plasma, although just her proximity to it was enough to redden her skin and melt the ends of her plastic longcoat. A large hole melted into the wall, and Gypsy regarded it with a smirk before turning back to her Luna and Vincent, who both laid motionless between her and the Star Nomad.

"Don't worry guys, I'll save you before you know it!" she exclaimed before giving the finger to the Nomad, and leaping back through the large hole into the exposed metal foundation.

She scurried down the crossing rods into darkness, descended for another ten or so minutes, then finally found an opening in the wall she could exit from. Gypsy exited out into a rancid smelling sewage treatment area, sprinted down an open sluiceway to an evacuation pipe, and found herself standing at the large, open mouth of a pipe looking out from the side of the spire, a dozen stories up from a pool of toxic runoff. She looked down, she was certain more security guards were searching for her, and wondered if her skin-augments would hold out long enough in that pool of waste. There was only one way to find out, and she leaped.

4.

Gypsy and Vince had killed seven men and women in the heist on the Aldrin Tech Center, and fled into the scrapyard on the edge of the Mars colonial region. It was a part of the foundation, and was where all the trash and toxic waste seemed to flow. It was also the only place that could be called a home for mutants, at least in the sense they could set up shanty homes and towns without too much fear of being lynched, although hunters from further inward were always a hazard. Vince had secured himself and Gypsy safe passage through the scrapyard, apparently before he was a super-gorilla, his birth sleeve was a mutant from that town. They went there in a hurry, riding in a stolen, wheeled car Gypsy hijacked and hot-wired. Vince put a rag in the tank and lit it up while Gypsy ran to a dump site with their work gear, hoping the constantly growing sea of trash would obfuscate the tools of their trade, and they'd break down in the waste that filled that area.

As Gypsy buried a set of kinetic SMGs and handguns, she noticed a naked female body with parts missing. It was nothing new in the foundation, but this one was still moving. She crawled over the filth to her, and found an East Asian looking woman with her head atop half a torso and one arm, and even then the skin was rubbery and damaged. It moaned with a damaged voice box, unable to form words, but reached for Gypsy with its one arm. It also had a courier bag wrapped around its neck. She pulled the woman from the filth, got her to one of Vince's black-clinic friends, got her a new sleeve with the same face and hair as before, and got to know her as a synth named Luna. Inside the courier bag were a few printed out pictures, legal documents like her turing certificate, and some personal effects, including a tablet, claytronic-box, a tennis ball, and a binder full of antique compact discs.

To this day, the tablet, the ball, and the discs remained on Luna's wall or her side of the shared desk and nightstand between their beds. The claytronics were merged with a larger set, and its function was shifted as needed within their home cube. Gypsy looked over them as she shambled in, threw off her deteriorated clothes, and took a quick shower to ease her burning skin. Thankfully the waste, to her, was little more than an annoyance, and after a cold wash and change of clothes, she could sit on the edge of her bed, head in hands, silently sobbing to herself. No, now wasn't the time for that. She took another look at Luna's things, and remembered where to go in the worst case scenario.

Gypsy covered herself in another plastic layer to protect herself from the toxic rain, and made her way down the dirt level of the foundation. She was flanked by ten unofficial lanes of traffic, mostly stolen cars and gutterpunks, and endured kicked up sand thrown her way by the large, passing vehicles. After a long walk through a quagmire of mutants, legal and illegal synths like Luna, hyper-intelligent Borisov animals like Vince, and horror shows who took body mods to a monstrous extreme, she found her way to the end of the city, on the rim of the scrapyard. A thick cloud of smog and wretched aroma hovered over the scrapyard, a natural shield for the millions of mutants who lived there. She began climbing over the mounds of filth from the city above, and found her way to the 'capitol' of the scrapyard, where the dumping rarely touched, and where the largest shanty city was built up. Due to her relationship with Vince, she was allowed more freedom there than most humans, although she didn't stop to barter with the black market mutant dealers or get drinks at a rather impressive scratch built bar. Instead, she made her way to a depression on the edge of the capitol, stepped down a ladder that functioned as a staircase, and pushed aside some metal debris to find a concrete mound and titanium pair of doors in the ground. Next to the handle was a biometric scanner on which Gypsy placed her palm, and after a red flash, she stepped back as the doors moaned open on their own.

Gypsy ducked down into a small bunker, lined with shelves and trunks, and lit by a fluorescent blue circle overhead. Rows of jury rigged weapons sat side-by-side with high end armaments stolen from off-world or acquired at one of the many black markets in the foundation. Gypsy immediately reached for a long, kinetic rifle, painted in purple/black stripes, along with a series of blue, dual-drum magazines loaded with typhoon rounds. Its smart gun system synched with her neuro-computer on the press of a button, and while the loading bar in her peripheral went up, she donned a white, graphene woven jumpsuit, followed by a set of ceramic forearm and shin guards, and a chest piece. She didn't have Luna's neuro-programming abilities, and had to sync with an actual laptop in order to start rapidly coding programs she learned from Luna over the years. Her first few attempts at crash programs didn't work, and instead formed corrupted lumps of data she deleted to free up space, however some reskinning programs proved more successful, giving her the ability to mask her scan profile. She thought about taking a seat on a foldout chair and trying to replicate Luna's programs while waiting for her nerves to steady and for her hands to stop shaking, then reality crashed on top of her head. If she didn't act quick, she realized Luna would probably be harvested and put into service for the Star Nomads.

Gypsy slung the heavy rifle over her back, strapped several drums to her belt, along with a machete, flipped on her visor's smart vision, layered over her ARO and smart gun sync, and dashed through the dense mob of the foundation towards the STUC embassy. She couldn't afford to stop, even when her lungs hurt and her leg muscles burned, and hoped Luna hadn't already been harvested. Half way to the embassy, an important realization cleared her adrenaline rush, that the STUC would probably have increased security given the attempted raid. In her ARO, she pulled up a search box and sought out updates on the embassy. The attack wasn't in the news yet, although using Street Image, and looking through the countless cameras in the foundation, revealed an increase in Arapahoe men and women in ballistic weave clothing with tribal fetishes, standing guard with pulse rifles. The front door of the embassy had deployable barriers and scanners, along with the mercury-eyed man who brandished a plasma cannon.

Knowing she couldn't make a simple, upfront assault, she thought about increasing her brute force potential by commandeering a car from the street and ramming through the front security into the lobby. Maybe she could hold up one of the pirate clubs for a plasma cannon of her own, and melt her way to Luna. Maybe find a psychic and convince him to mind-fuck the embassy into submission. As much fun as those ideas were, and they were fun in her mind, she couldn't deny that her best bet was finding a way up through the sluiceways she escaped from the first time. She used her visor to scan for specific depressions in the stone and steel coating the spires, specific patterns she picked up on during her flings with fringe folk. They had their own culture they brought with them everywhere they went, and she began to memorize hidden carvings that indicated hostile zones, safe places, fences, etcetera. She took a few million from her bank via wireless, neurological transfer to her sim-link, pocket change in the hyper-inflated economy of the galaxies, and exchanged it for a small hover platform that 'fell off a ship' in a pirate's stall.

After locating the pool of toxic waste she jumped into before, Gypsy activated the small disc, climbed atop it, and while maintaining a wobbly posture, rode it up to the exit pipe spewing sewage from the side of the spire. She coasted up to a walkway along the walls of the outflow pipe, dismounted, and after deactivating the hover platform, slung it over her back with the help of a black synth-leather strap. She readied her rifle, jogged down to the sluiceway she escaped through, the machete and pulse SMG bouncing on her hip along the way, and held her breath as she crawled up, back into the open treatment area. Brown and olive drab stains covered her jumpsuit. She was wrapped in a nose rending aroma better left undescribed as she made her way to the wall opening and began climbing up the bars once more. The humming of pipes, dripping of water, and clanking of her equipment against the rods filled her ears, making it hard for her to even listen for chatter from the other side of the wall. As she ascended, she saw the hole burned through the wall, covered with something brown, most likely a cardboard band-aid until proper repairs could be done. She wondered if it was reinforced, if she could kick it down with ease, and surprise whoever was on the other side. Hold on, she thought to herself, think about this first. She became level with the covered hole, and scanned the room through the wall with her smart vision.

Cyan silhouettes appeared through the metal, civilian sleeves it looked like, although their scan profiles weren't coming up for her. Her smart gun system display was brought up, began locking targets and planning movement patterns to execute on command. She kicked out, sending the cardboard cover flying, and it remained airborne as the kinetic rifle began spitting out hot violence and howling roars of typhoon ruptures. She landed on her feet and let her movement assisting smart system continue fanning down the few people in the room while she focused her attention, and remote DNI scan, on locating Luna. When her ears stopped ringing and the sleeves in the room were reduced to pulp, she knew she likely didn't damage their Egos, and if the Egos leaving their sleeves didn't alert security, the aural shock most certainly would have.

Gypsy quickly ran over and slapped her hand on the black cube. Like she predicted, Luna was there, her code 'frozen' in a sense, to prevent her from functioning inside the hard drive or escaping into the internet. While reactivating her within the Ego House was beyond Gypsy's hacking skills, even while inside the simulation and overwriting the built in limits, she knew direct connection meant she had enough to do almost anything with computer cracking VI programs. It was less than five seconds before Luna's code was extracted and placed in Gypsy's sim-link storage. Once in her own neural computer, she was able to manage a kind of glitchy reactivation that she hoped Luna wouldn't mind.

"Gypsy?" Luna's raspy voice echoed inside her head.

In her AROverlay, a bust of Luna appeared.

"Holy shit, what're you doing?!"

"Saving your ass, thank you very much," Gypsy snapped back as she began stepping back from the cube. "For all your paranoia, you sure as hell fucked up. What happened to your sleeve anyway?"

"They slabbed it, locked me in there. Uh…hold on."

Luna ran an Ego integrity check on herself, not because she thought her coding was damaged, of course it wasn't, but she wanted to make sure she was, in fact, Luna, and not a fork of the original Ego, still trapped in the cube.

"Oh thank god…" she said with a sigh. "So, what're we still doing here?"

"I'm seriously considering shooting that ass hat who slabbed Vince. What happened to him?"

Luna frowned and shook her head. Gypsy sighed in reply.

"I'm sorry Vince," she murmured. "Can you jump to the open cloud now?"

Luna nodded.

"Yeah, now that I'm free, the internet is my playground once more."

"Good, hop out."

"What?"

"I'm finding that fuck that killed Vince, and I don't want to get my sleeve fried while you're still in my storage."

Luna was silent for a second while Gypsy swapped out the empty drum of the rifle.

"You know they'll kill you, right?"

"You know I don't appreciate that kind of negativity?"

Luna sighed and smiled.

"Thanks again, Gypsy. I…I don't know if I could get along without you."

"I'm sure you'll do fine, now jump; the goon squad is on its way."

Luna nodded, and flipped out of Gypsy's sim-link storage into the general internet. As she loaded into the simulation, she saw a message from Gypsy: 'See You In A Couple Hours! ;)'.

Luna found her way back home, accessed their cube's router, and jumped into the spare civilian sleeve in their closet. Luna stumbled out into the main room, taking a second to adapt to the male frame, and sat on the edge of her bed, head in hands, while attempting to remotely view Gypsy's smart vision. When connecting and prompted for an access code, she was allowed to view a kind of stream from Gypsy with her consent, and saw her as she strut down the hall towards the lift. Bio-drones, cheap clones running on cheap VI programs, flooding in from the lift, the stairwell, and from a hole blown through the floor, leaving concrete chips strewn about. Gypsy's combat augmentations were all running hot, allowing her to perceive their attacks at a fraction of the speed they were happening, ignore the pain from kinetic rounds and pulse shots that glances her skin, which hardened on command, and juke and weave around the automatic fire hurled her way. As she moved through the mob of uncanny looking bio-drones, she reminded Luna of the heroes she saw in the VR sim arena, graceful and powerful, beautiful and dangerous constructs of flesh and chrome, running on a bit of refined skill and pure, indomitable willpower. Luna saw Gypsy's arrogance was confidence, and smiled when she realized that confidence was well deserved.

The feed cut, and Luna's gut plummeted into itself, transforming into a lump of ice in her stomach. Due to her suddenly being booted from the stream, and her own adrenaline rush, Luna felt a headache suddenly come on, the result of a kind of processor whip-lash from shifting too many servers too fast on her way back into her sleeve. There she was, cold and naked, having trouble breathing, while thinking of how she could help Gypsy now, ignoring what she just witnessed as her instincts kicked in. She tried to focus on flipping back into the internet and searching for some way to pivot back into the embassy and watch Gypsy, although her thoughts were too rushed and scrambled to allow her to focus, and she just wound up giving herself a migraine while thinking about all the reasons Gypsy might have lost connection. If she was slabbed, her Ego would certainly be trapped in the local network and terminated like Vincent, and that thought gave cause for Luna's eyes to dampen over as the throbbing in her head became almost too much to bare. She tried to force her way back into the embassy's network, only to find herself leaping in circles in the sim, worsening her migraine, and drowning out her surroundings with a painful ringing in her ears.

Luna fell onto the bed, sobbing, clutching her head to end the pain, but too scared to fully flip into VR. Her chest froze over, her head went numb, and her vision blurred, due to a combination of worry and pooled up tears. She sat up, prepared to attempt yet another reach out to Gypsy, however she snapped her attention to the door, refocused, as the latch clicked and the knob turned. The door swung open and a chrome skeleton, covered in wires and wrapped in gored strips of flesh, muscle, sinew, organs, and general human viscera shambled in, with just enough facial tissue left to form something Luna could identify as a smirk.

"Told you I'd be back in a couple hours," she sighed and looked around. "I think we'll need to go sleeve shopping soon."

"W-what? What happened?" Luna mouthed the words, but only whimpers came out.

"I found the guy who killed Vince, scrambled his neurons before his Ego could jump, then I made my way home."

Luna stared at her silently for a few seconds.

"What?" Gypsy said, expelling blood and some kind of white fluid from mashed up tubes and veins.

"What? What about the Star Nomads? The Republic?"

"We uh…we might also have to move to another planet or station soon."

"Move? Sleeve shopping?" Luna shook her head, then started drying her eyes. "How the hell are we supposed to do that?! Vince is dead, the job is scotched, and you're fuck ugly now! How are we supposed to afford any of this shit?"

Gypsy smirked again with that misshapen patch of skin over her mouth, then began tapping the sim-link port on the back of her neck.

"A 'charitable donation' from Vince's killer, pulled from his sim-link."

Luna's expression went from non-existent, to smiling, to a laugh. She couldn't say why, though, since nothing going on was particularly funny or amusing.

"You…you are a special class of clever bitch; you know that?" she said after slowing her laughter.

Gypsy cocked her head and grinned with chipped, bloody teeth.

"Would you have me any other way?"

"Heh…not a chance in hell."

Robert Cunningham

2017 ©