Every breath he took was an atrocity against nature.
Smoke rolled from the giant tube stacks that protruded from his back, swelling the atmosphere of the small room with a thick black haze. Ash was beginning to cover the shelf space, blanketing even the shoulders and hairpieces of the men during their meeting.
Each breath was like a steam whistle going off.
The large man - though he’d long ago came to the conclusion that “man” was not an apt description for him anymore - watched through tiny eyes as the men argued amongst themselves. He was there to keep the peace between the negotiators, making sure no one attempted a coup while in attendance. It was a moot point, he knew, because none of them would be stupid enough to try with him sitting only a few feet away.
“No, look, we are so shocking not going to split this four ways,” the man in the brightly translucent business suit said as he slapped an open palm against the table, knocking ash into the air. That was Sundowner, who had taken his name from an archaic disease that had been eradicated before he was born simply because he thought it made him sound dangerous. He was a small, squirrelly man that liked to think he was smarter than everyone else. The large man, the smog breather, had immediately taken a dislike to him.
“I fail to see how that arrangement would be anything but fair,” the second of the four men interjected, rubbing his thin moustache between his fingers as he spoke. “The Fall has provided us all with ample opportunity to share, so share we shall.” Jun-Gow was the name he had taken, but the smog breather couldn’t speak Japanese, so he had no idea what it meant. He did know that Jun-Gow had previously worked for Stark/Fujikawa on black book scenarios. Tech nightmares that made mothers weep for their children when the news reports were leaked years ago. Jun-Gow had gone independent, and his sinister moustache-twirling made the large man cock a curious eyebrow. Mysteries were no good.
“Sundowner’s biz was the first on the scene after the Fall,” the third man spoke up, “so maybe he should be entitled to a finder’s fee of sorts?” Like the smog breather, Cypress Elbow was more machine than man. Addicted to synth enhancements, he’d watched his testicles turn into rabid virus producers overnight. Apparently, it had damaged his mind...and rumor had it that his biggest turn-on was sticking his penis in the dataports of living Info-Carriers and infecting them. The smog breather had seen one of Elbow’s victims once upon a time, and the liquid code medium leaking from the man’s ears, nose, and mouth had been enough to signify just how sick in the head Cypress had truly become.
“So, okay, we give him an extra five percent,” the fourth man said, his deep baritone voice silencing the others, even the very vocal Sundowner, “and we divvy up the rest between us. Sound fair?” The large man knew next to nothing about the gentleman, save for his name. They called him the ORB in hushed whispers, his true name either unknown or left unsaid amongst their circle. He was dangerous, though when looking at the thin bald man in the t-shirt and stone-cut rock jeans the smog breather couldn’t fathom why people were scared of him. But it was in the ORB’s eyes, a cold calculating pulse of red fiber optics. The man knew secrets.
All four men then raised their wine glasses, each running a finger over the rim of the glasses to remove the film of ash. “Then it’s settled,” Jun-Gow announced, “all that belonged to D/Monix is now for the taking. For our taking. The only obstacle in our endeavor is the self-appointed “guardian” of Transverse City...”
“No obstacle at all,” Cypress Elbow answered, giving a two-fingered point toward the large machine man in the back of the room, “not when we have this big son of a glitch going in ahead of us.”
“Indeed,” the ORB said, raising his wine glass in the large man’s direction, “gentleman, our toast: to the Iron Lung.”
The smog breather smirked, lurched over in his chair while the smoke-belching combustible engine bonded to his back revved up in speed.
“May all fall beneath his boot heels...”
Jimmy Alhazared was in fear that he could possibly be sweating to death. He was haunted by information, by the fact that he’d unintentionally allowed a dangerous entity out onto the Internet. The entity was a copy program of Zero Cochrane, the meatware grey matter that occupied the body of the Ghost Rider. Now the Zero copy was loose on the slipstream, and the self-named “Dr. Neon” shuddered at the thought of what the being he’d attempted to imprison could be doing with such uninhibited freedom.
Even worse, what would the real Zero - the current Ghost Rider - have to say about his inferior digital clone being free? Yes, nervously sweating to death seemed about as good an escape as Alhazared could conceive.
Rounding an alley nestled between buildings, he hoped the go-nowhere middle ground of Transverse Level Five would provide him with sanctuary. Levels One and Ten were the trouble zones, the most likely places for the Ghost Rider to be spotted. So, logically, Level Five was the safe zone, the Switzerland of the city. Nothing on Five but clock punchers and nobodies. Jimmy was safe, he had to be.
“Heya, Jimmy,” a voice said from the darkness of the alley, “how’s it hangin’?”
Neon spun on his heels, his eyes focusing on the shadowed figure that had spoken to him. The long brown hair, hanging limply to one side; the black leather that covered every inch of his body; the smirk blazed on his face...Zero Cochrane.
“Oh wreck me,” Neon muttered, back peddling as clumsily as he could. Zero held out an open palm, a curious yet bemused look betraying his confusion.
“It’s a solidogram,” Cochrane said, hoping to ease Alhazared’s tension, “I can’t go around as the Ghost Rider all the time, y’know.”
“Oh, so you’re...” Jimmy replied with an uneasy chuckle, “Okay, sorry, jagged.”
“Took me shockin’ forever to find you, man,” Zero said, wrapping an arm around Neon’s shoulder as he led him out into the lit street, “you gone underground or something?”
“Nah, nothing like that, of course not, what makes you say that?” Jimmy stammered out, prompting another strange expression from his former partner. “Uh, you haven’t spoken to Kylie in the last week or so, have you?”
Cochrane made a pssht sound in reply. “Ain’t seen her for quite a while, not since I toppled D/Monix. Why, she got something for me?”
“No, nothing at all!” Neon answered immediately, pushing himself free from Zero’s grasp. “Say, uh, you need something or something, man?”
“Actually,” Zero responded, his voice lowered and hushed, “I was just wanting to check in and make sure that shockin’ copy of me is still on ice. The drop dead last thing I need is for his pusbag face to start showing up again, know what I mean?”
“Oh, he’s still encrypted as shit, man,” Dr. Neon said, shaking his head in a negative motion, “no worries there. Nope, none at all.”
“Good,” Zero said as he turned to walk away, back toward the bike he’d stashed at the back of the alley. “Make sure it stays that way. Vid?”
Neon waited until Cochrane was out of sight before nearly collapsing to his knees, hyperventilating onto the grimy concrete below him. “Shock me,” he whispered, “I am so dead.”
[Like shockin’ salmon, everybody goes one way on the streets of Level Five. Best way to lose someone in a hot chase - speaking from personal experience on this one - go up to Levels Four through Six. Dead end bumper grind, far as the eye can see.]
While the drivers on the street pointed east, heading home from their factory jobs in Detroit, Zero Cochrane throttled the accelerator on his bike and hunkered down with his nose pointed west. Had he truly wanted to carve a Red Sea through the dense traffic, he’d have turned on his wailer, the blazing digi-flame of the Ghost Rider. When motorists see a cybernetic vengeful spirit, they tend to get out of the way.
[White noise been wreckin’ up my peripheral ever since D/Monix fell. Why the shock couldn’t I have just left this god forsaken scorched earth when I had the chance? Ghetto lifestyle must be burned onto my ROM, s’all I can figure. I fought my way free from the Ghostworks, left my copy hardlined in a piece of bad file...what’s left to do?]
He hit (No) Exit Ramp 11 at better than 120 MPH, the skid marks in the asphalt better than a signature. Cochrane hadn’t been much for riding when he’d been alive, hadn’t considered it anything more than just transportation. Point A to Point B, here there and back again. But since taking over the Ghost Rider body, Zero had found a new appreciation for the life of the nuevobiker. Wasn’t the same thrill as punching deck, but it damn sure felt good.
[Some jagged shit went down while I was iced up by the Ghostworks, according to the body’s history archives. The Martyrs were all greased, but I pretty much knew that one for fact ‘fore I came home. Pak and Fresno Bob hadn’t come out much better, sliced up by some sick joystickers with personal warwolves. At least the copy took care of those twisted fucks, saves me the trouble. Has everyone I ever known turned into a slab jockey? Only one left’s Kylie...]
He knuckled down on the brakes, screaming to a spark-flying stop on the side of the empty street nestled snug between Franticia’s Nerve Salon and The Black & Blues Explosion Café.
[...yeah, wreck that bitch. I should still say something to her, though. Maybe an e-mail with a big fat “fuck you” in the body. There is someone else I can go see, a little tangible lifeline from the meatware days. Wonder if ol’ Serabella would still be up for a shag now that I’ve gone all chrome engine...?]
Nestled snugly on Level 2 was the Bar Code, a home for the select downramper society that enjoyed drowning their cares in synthetic alcohol brews and biting social commentary by up-and-coming net wizards and tech junkies. No cover charge, no drink minimum (or maximum), and an aesthetic to die for...the Bar Code was the place where those in the know congregated for news.
Watching her patrons from a myriad collection of security cameras, Anesthesia Jones bit down hard on her cigar. The woman’s eyes narrowed as she peered through the thick haze of smoke, her gaze focused on a young woman sitting alone at the bar. Kylie Gagarin was a regular at the Code, though over the past year her circle of friends had diminished to zero. She’d been a regular hanger-on of the Hotwire Martyrs, a clique of anarchist hackers, before they were wiped out by a gang of neofetishist tribals. Her ex-boyfriend, on the other hand, had become the Ghost Rider, a war machine with a bad attitude and a major hate for anyone that looked at him funny.
So there Kylie sat, alone and drunk, just like she’d been every night for the past several weeks. Jones couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the girl, though it wasn’t like she hadn’t attempted to reach out to her in the recent past. The girl’s emotions were laid up like a brick wall, and it was going to take a wrecking ball the size of Neo-Chicago to break through.
Turning her attention away from Kylie, Anesthesia’s eyes fluttered across the other patrons of the bar. She skipped over the stranger on her first pass, but found herself drawn back to his gaze. The thin man in the ragged t-shirt was staring directly into the securicam, a wide grin revealing jagged yellowed teeth. She stared at the curious individual for several long moments, uneasy at the presence of a stranger in her establishment. Slowly, the man’s eyes began to pulse with a throbbing red light, a hypnotic ebb that burrowed deep into the black woman’s brain through the video monitor.
“The shock...” she muttered, rubbing her eyes with thumb and forefinger, as if to extinguish a fire behind them. Slowly, she looked back at the monitor. The usual riff-raff and ratbiters milled about at the bar, and for the life of her she couldn’t remember what about the scene had made her so curious.
From Electioneering in the 21st Century, Alanis Wayne, ©2079 Mainline Media
Politics in America is like a cornered, wounded animal. You can shoot it, you can scare it, you can hunt it to the ends of the earth...but when it comes down to the end, it’ll fight you with everything it can muster. Different from the privatization of US government policy brought on by the Megacorps (for a shining example, see the chapter on “Alchemax and the Buy-Out of New York”), the early half of the 21st century introduced something unheard of in political circles: a third major party in a two party system. The Neon Rifles, less commonly known by their true party name, the NeoRevolutionites, came onto the scene with a gusto unhindered by the squabbling that had made Democrats and Republicans into ineffectual dinosaurs. Though they have yet to win any presidential election, the Neon Rifles are as influential as any other corpoltical entity.
If anything, the NeoRevolutionites exemplified the nascent concept of “guerilla electioneering”. With a Minister of Policy genegineered to look like a clone of Che Guevara, the party was seen at the beginning as a violent new hope for the disenfranchised hipsters of the 2050s. This writer still half expects to wake up one morning and find the Party in Government shot in the face on the White House lawn by Neon insurrectionists.
Whether that scenario would be good or bad remains to be seen.
“I heard you were dead.”
Zero smirked at the young girl’s statement as she peaked out from the crack in the slightly open door. “The rumors of my demise are greatly shockin’ retarded.”
Laughing despite herself, Serabella Longfellow opened the door to her office, beckoning the young man inside. Cochrane stared at her as he followed her inside, her pink hair hanging in cascading plumes, framing the gentle features of her face. She turned from him, walking toward her desk, and Zero allowed his head to loll to the side as he stared at her ass.
“Never would’a pegged you for a Neon, Sera,” he commented while flopping down in the ratty leather chair in front of the girl’s desk, “let alone the head of the Transverse chapter. You ain’t gone biz on me, have you?”
“In your dreams, retread,” she answered with a smirk of her own, “and after the time spent “finding myself”, I realized that I was a NeoRevolutionite at heart. Beats raging against a machine that self-lubricates itself, don’t you think?”
“Anarchy won’t ever go outta style, babe,” Zero replied, his eyes passing over the framed Neon Rifle newsletters that hung on the office walls, “and I remember a time when you would’ve agreed with me. You and me in a graveyard for toxic celebrities, snorting the angel dust that Johnny Rotten’s body had decomposed into.”
“That was VR, Zero,” Serabella countered, “having trouble distinguishing between realities?”
Cochrane simply nodded his head and smiled.
“Look, not that it’s not great to see you,” she began, standing from her desk as she spoke, “and really, it is good to see you again - but I’ve got a meeting in an hour with someone important to the cause.”
“Wanna meet up after?” Zero asked optimistically. Serabella smiled.
“I’ll get in touch with you,” she said, motioning for him to leave, “you intriguing little shit.”
Zero walked out into the night, his motorcycle remote-starting at the side of the street. Before mounting his steed, he allowed a look back at the broken down building that crouched in the middle of Level Three. Even through the solidogram that covered his body, his thoughts were evident on his face.
[Shockin’ Neon Rifles. Christ, Sera...what have you gotten yourself into? The last friend I have in the world, and she’s a radical guerilla. Not that I don’t understand why, but I’ll be damned if I let her get killed in some corp coup.]
“It’s the one that says Bad Mother Hacker.”
The digital bouncer of the Undernet Café domain cocked a curious eyebrow at the online avatar of Zero Cochrane, his user help file “held” in his hand. This, of course, wasn’t the real Kenshiro at all, but a copy created and modified by the Ghostworks that had created the Ghost Rider entity. But the bouncer didn’t need to know that, and with a wary glance over to the lone table in the café he waved the digital being inside.
Zero nodded to the bouncer as he entered the meeting space, marveling at just how accommodating the owners were being to him. He’d been surfing along, looking for a little fun, when the message hit him full tilt against the tide of data. A member of the fabled Undernet – uberhackers extraordinaire – had requested a meeting with him. That, honestly, wasn’t something that happened every day.
“Mr. Cochrane,” the lone patron of the modified chatroom greeted as Zero pulled up a chair of binary, “you’re nothing if not punctual, I must say.” The humanoid lizard puffed on his hookah and smiled a row of razor teeth. “My name is Reptilicus. Please, sit.”
“Jagged avatar, man,” Zero complimented as he sat, “very post-Darwinian, if you’re into that sort of thing. So, not that I’m not flattered by the spam mail you sent my way, I’m really only here out of curiosity. You got anything skeltered on the schedule, you might as well chuck those plans out the shockin’ window.”
“I am a member of the Undernet,” Reptilicus stated, “and you have nothing to fear from us. If anything, you could be considered a very advantageous addition to our collective.”
“Yeah, right,” Zero said with a laugh, “wasn’t a pusbag by the handle of Kabal a member of your little club? He came real close to wreckin’ me up sideways with his paranoia spew.”
“Kabal has severed his ties with us,” Reptilicus answered, “but even had he not, I am the only one aware that this conversation is taking place. All spyware has been quarantined and no presence on the Net can slice through the ICE I’ve put in place.”
“So what kinda biz you lookin’ to do?” Zero asked.
“I know you are a simple beta copy of your progenitor, Mr. Cochrane,” Reptilicus continued, “and I know that your source code is now in possession of the Ghost Rider body. Tell me…are you happy in your current situation?”
“I’m happy as a shockin’ kid in VR Disneyland,” Zero 2.0 replied, “but it bites serious rats that there’s someone out there pretending to me.”
“I concur,” the lizard agreed, a puff of translucent smoke bubbling from his pipe, “but I know at least one of our number that does not. Anesthesia Jones would certainly object to our discussion, youngling. In fact, it was her sloppy security measures that allowed your “copy” to gain such an edge against you. But I see the diamond in the rough, as it were, in working with you – not against you.”
“The point. Get to it.” Zero advised.
“The Ghostworks,” Reptilicus immediately responded. “I wish to have an audience with them. Can you arrange this?”
Cochrane laughed loud and hard. “Oh, man, that’s rich. I locked those pusbags up in an archive of bad file not too long ago. You want ‘em, they’re yours.”
Reptilicus smiled and nodded. “Name your price.”
Serabella Longfellow sighed and stretched her arms high above her head, each aching muscle screaming at her for the endless hours of work that she’d put upon them. Recruitment had been low for the past several sectors, and now the Executioner College was on her back to raise the numbers. A political party, especially one with a “power to the people” message, lived and died by its membership statistics. For the Neon Rifles, there was definitely strength in numbers.
A knock at the office door interrupted the yawn escaping her lips. “Come on in,” she invited the visitor.
“Ms. Longfellow, I presume?” the Asian man asked with a courteous bow after he entered the room. “My name is Jun-Gow. I hope I’m not too presumptuous by arriving early for our meeting?”
“Not at all,” Sera answered with a smile, her hand extending an invitation for the man to sit. “Is the big guy behind you going to come in?”
“No, no,” Jun-Gow answered, “he is merely here for security purposes. This city has become a bit of a jungle lately, you understand.”
“So what can the NeoRevolutionites do you for, Mr. Gow?” Sera asked. She found herself uncomfortable in the Asian man’s presence, and was unnerved. She was used to dealing with all sorts of nationalists and electioneers, and had never once blinked in the face of the atrocities some of them had suggested to her in hopes of furthering their careers. There was something about this man…something she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“After the fall of D/Monix,” Jun-Gow began, “Transverse City has become an open, festering wound on the political body of America. If something isn’t done quickly, we may find ourselves ostracized beyond all hope of recovery. I am here as a representative of a group of nascent Corporations; a group that believes an affiliation with the NeoRevolutionite party could give us the strength needed to lead this city into a new golden dawn of prosperity.”
“So you’re stripminers,” Serabella countered, “looking to turn this “open wound” into a get-rich-quick scheme.”
“You cut me to the quick, Ms. Longfellow,” Jun-Gow replied with a stroke of his thin mustache, “but I would be remiss to suggest that such an accusation is less than truthful. We are entrepreneurs, my dear, and we want nothing more than to save this pathetic excuse for a city from itself.”
In the hallway adjacent to Sera’s office, the Iron Lung breathed heavily. The large coat covering his body – wrapped around the life-sustaining engine across his back – was uncomfortable at best, but a necessary precaution for his job. He was the muscle behind the emerging coup, and while he cared little for the political ramifications of the meeting occurring only a few feet away he most certainly cared about the large amount of money being paraded in his face for essentially being a leg-breaker. Even if the assignment was proving to be more boring than he had been led to believe.
Something curious happened to the smog-breather then, his on-board sonar picking up movement in the empty hallway. “Too big for a rat,” he thought, “big enough to be a man.”
And oblivious to being detected, the Ghost Rider walked past the smog-breather and rolled his eyes. Wrapped in stealth-field technology, the compacted warbot moved closer to the door, squeezing his way through the ajar opening to the room.
[Sera would shockin’ kill me if she knew I was spying on her. Good thing she’ll never know I’m here unless things crater on her.]
Unexpectedly, Jun-Gow lifted his head and cocked it toward the door. “I’m sorry, Ms. Longfellow,” he said while standing from his chair, “but we appear to have an unwanted guest. Please uncloak yourself, my friend…Jun-Gow would see the face of one who so flagrantly listens in on his business.”
“Your biz, huh?” Zero answered as he appeared before them, his stealth-field disengaging in a shimmer of ghostly light. “That include fucking over the poor downramper scum that you Corp pusbags just LOVE to crush under your shockin’ boot heels?”
“Jammit, Zero!” Serabella exclaimed, her eyes wide at the unexpected intrusion made by her friend. “What the shock are you doing here? You’re committing a felony by snooping here!”
“Aw, Sera,” Zero said with an incredulous look toward his former love, “don’t tell me you’re actually falling for what this bit-head’s selling you. Look at the smug son of a glitch and tell me he don’t make the hair stand up on the back of your shockin’ neck! All biz is BAD biz, you ask me.”
“We didn’t ask you, my young friend,” Jun-Gow replied, “and I will see you removed from these premises.” The Asian man then clapped his hands once.
Before Zero could return with another accusatory remark, the wall of the office exploded inward, knocking both him and Sera backward. Only Jun-Gow remained standing – smiling wickedly – as the massive form of the Iron Lung lunged through the opening, his steel fingers grasping viciously around Cochrane’s neck.
“Nothing personal,” the smog-breather stated as he pulled Zero through the now demolished wall, “but not killing you right now in the most terrible way possible would look really bad on my resume.”
“Don’t worry about it, retread,” Zero replied with a smirk, his eyes flashing with a deep crimson light, “I’ll e-mail the employment offices ASAP. Put in a good word for you.”
The laser fiber optics in the Ghost Rider’s eyes shot forward, striking the Iron Lung directly in the shoulder. He dropped Zero immediately, and in his pain and confusion nearly missed the transformation taking place in front of him. The solidogram camouflage was no longer necessary, and where Zero Cochrane once stood now towered the Ghost Rider, upgraded to combat configuration. “Vid this, big boy,” the Rider said as his hand flexed, steel fingers snapping into monomolecular blades, “you picked the wrong man on the wrong shockin’ day.”
With a swipe of his wired arm, the Ghost Rider raked his nanomer claws across his enemy’s body, ripping away the large coat that covered his features. The Iron Lung gave his reply to the attack with a backhand strike of his fist, connecting hard against the Ghost Rider’s skull. The force of the blow sent the robot through the closest wall, depositing him roughly on the concrete street.
“Wreck me,” the Ghost Rider commented as he rolled over onto his back, facing the building he’d been forcibly ejected from. The Iron Lung stood in the gaping hole inserted into the building’s structure, a grin affixed to his scarred face. The engine protruding from his back revved furiously, matching the adrenaline pumping through his veins.
“The Ghost Rider, huh?” the engine of destruction said before leaping into the air – into battle. “Big shockin’ deal…”