A Neon Skyline -- A Very Short PROJECT Story

Electricity was in his veins. It coursed from capacitor to capacitor and bathed his retinas with orange light from his visor. He was a singular entity, a constructed whole of interweaving circuitry and resistance, bones of metal and an Ohmic pulse that crackled like static in his cochlear implants until subroutines filtered out the white noise and replaced it with the clean, crisp sound of rain. The walkway was crowded with shoppers leaving for the night. It was halfway up the tallest highrise in the city, and so looked out on a wash of orange and pink lights. Flecks of green and blue dotted the neon sea and drew the eye through the drizzle as they refracted on falling drops. His glove was bonded leather and waterproofed; the drops gathered in creases and made rivulets across the surface. They dripped from his fingertips and fell like tears of rain, until winds dashed them against windows. “We do not have time to stand around.” Her voice was refined by the speaker that had replaced her vocal cords. He didn’t move until she put a hand on his shoulder. Softer now: “We don’t, Yasuo.” “Alright.” His voice wasn’t refined. It passed through modulation, but his throat was still the real thing. So was his right arm, and he reminded himself by thrusting it out past the railing, away from the protection of the overhang to feel the water smack against the inside of his elbow. The leather glove didn’t go that high; water seeped between skin and glove, oozed its way deeper until it was stretched too thin and could go no further. He pulled back from the railing and turned to her. Fiora, like him, had white hair. She, like him, wore gray polymer armor with bright highlights. His were orange and hers were pink. They seamed their bodies with cracks of light. She was a sleeker, newer model, one with curves and lithe grace that, he knew, she would have had before the operations, too. His pieces were older though they worked just as well. His legs moved without complaint when she set the pace. Trickling crowds parted around their passing. Some were as human as the day they were born, while others had manufacturing seams and blocky joints that bulged around the crude mechanics underneath. Upgrade was not uncommon, but it cost the price of the limb it replaced. Most couldn’t pay for the advanced machines, but an arm and a leg for a new one of both, even unsightly, wouldn’t stop the population from making the change and running wires through their brain. They didn’t consider what else could sneak in through a wire. The public wore computers as part of their bodies and it was as natural as breathing. Yasuo and his companion were not so natural. They with their white hair and bright lights, they with their sheathes and blades, they with their visors and hardlight displays, they with their barcodes and scratched-off logos, they with their faces hidden from scanners and fingerprints covered or buffed off artificial hands—the Company always wanted new ways to track their money, and they had once been assets—they with their faces half-metal and bodies more than that; they stuck out. They drew eyes. They made a space in the homeward tide, her leading the way with enviable certainty and _click-clicking_ steps. He swept along in her wake, hair bobbing in the breeze. Their destination was a garden balcony. Creeper vines spilled over the building’s edge and plied themselves along the joints between windows. Red blossoms edged with purple and speckled with white collected water in their petals, bowed under the water weight, and spilled cupfulls into their planter pots to trickle down their leaves and stems. A branch had been blown down in the storm; it lay across the walkway, already being mulched by tiny cleaning automatons that scattered the chips across nearby flower beds. They stepped over it and the caution lights that scrolled across their holographic screens. Rain made the footing slick. It also reflected the city’s neon in bright, blurred shapes. He stepped through puddles. Her longer legs let her stride over them. Some part of him was still human if he could appreciate that. It was a shame what would happen here, in the most likely scenario. He drew a geometric map of the floor in his visor, mapping out the bumps and lifted tiles, where the pottery lay and that fallen branch. Everything was traced with orange networks; he might have been walking in a simulated room, if it weren’t for the breeze. He could always tell when that was real. In the cul-de-sac ending of the garden path was a man with a diamond head. It had a flat top and smooth sides, the top was light grey and the bottom was darker, and where there should have been the start of a forehead was a bright red triangle of light pointing forward. There were no slots for eyes. The neck that connected to that head was made of cables and wires. There was no way to know if a man was inside that metal diamond or not. His name was Zed. Yasuo and Fiora came to a stop at the end of the pathway. He wasn’t sure why she had agreed to accompany him, but he was grateful she had. If he’d asked Ashe, this meeting would have been repurposed into a trap or an entreaty. She was a smart woman, but her goals weren’t his. Not exactly. The diamond-headed man turned to face them. His voice was so heavily processed it might have been synthesized: “You were supposed to come alone.” Yasuo stepped forward. “You were supposed to bring my brother. Is he even still alive?” “He is. Tucked away, waiting for your surrender.” “I’ll see him first.” Yasuo glanced at Fiora. She didn’t move. He hadn’t told her about this part, but perhaps she had guessed. “No, you won’t.” There were blades on Zed’s arms, and now they shone with current as electricity set them vibrating. They would leave nasty gouges in anything they touched. Yasuo thought he felt his shielding shudder at the silent hum of those blades. Fiora stepped up to his side. Her blade was already out, and it seemed to ripple with its own current. It wouldn’t truly come alive until contact. Yasuo drew his own and felt its old heat. It wanted to slice the air around its edge. It was only metal, but it had been forged well and at great expense. He did not doubt it would keep up if he could, and he did not doubt that he could, either. “It is a shame,” Fiora said, her hair matted by the rain. “I had hoped you would keep your end of the bargain, Zed, so I might test myself against you after.” “You are insane,” Yasuo said. “Perhaps. If it went as well as last time, perhaps not. It would have been…” She savored the word on the tip of her tongue, eyes never leaving Zed, “Fun.” Then she lunged. He followed. They fought as smears of light, thin beams in the darkness of that garden. They sent blossoms fluttering in the wind and creepers streaming over the railing. The branch cracked as someone kicked it out of their way. Mulch chips sprayed into the air. Electric snakes tongued the edges of their weapons. Their blades danced with the raindrops. It was over when Zed was gone. His blood made dark circles on the garden paths that distorted reflected light. It might have been oil, they couldn’t tell. Fiora had a mark on her jaw that sparked when she touched it. Her mouth didn’t move—it made his spine crawl—when her speaker said, “We should find your brother, if he was telling the truth.” “He wasn’t.” Certainty or resignation, Yasuo didn’t know himself which it was. “He lied.” Wrist flick, twist, a fan of the blade to shed the wetness from it, and it slid home in its sheath. Fiora did the same, but she added a flourish. Her lights were dim in the night, so he opened his visor to see without interference. The rain hit his face. It was cold, and wet, and trickled down the side of his nose. He closed his eyes and turned his head to the ever-clouded sky until the rain washed away the shadow of the night. When he opened them, Fiora was gone. She was good about that, or she didn’t know what to say, but in the end it was the same thing. Alone in a ruined garden, Yasuo turned to look out at the city, and he saw neon. --- Edited, full-length
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