Acrophobia
rating: +16+x

The lunar lava tube is alight with urban neons. Avery Lee peers past the windows of zir cable car, glancing at New Seoul as its buildings drop from view and the cityscape is phased out by the vast cavern walls encompassing it. Gray, gray, and more gray. Moon rock as far as the eye can see.

Sapphire glass cuts the tedium. The Yeong-Hwan Memorial Tower juts from the lava tube ceiling like a dagger, stabbing downwards at a height of two kilometers over the city proper — a corporate stalactite. Halos of LED screens ring its sides and jump through advertisement after advertisement. Swarms of VTOL aircraft flank its sides, armed for any threat that may attempt to bring the structure down. Warning lights on the tower's edges blink in sync. Along the building's walls a mosaic of office lights glows.

Avery turns away, yawning. Not the most interesting place ze's worked in.

Ze twiddles with a hypercube, an old grab from an anart convention. The crawl to the tower is as slow and steady as ever, and the tingling of one's fingers running through higher spatial dimensions is just enough to distract from the dullness. It isn't enough to distract from the man sitting at the opposite side of the car.

The Unknown Man is blanketed in gray attire, his skin dead pale, more a 1920s film still than a person. He holds an intent focus on something just past the car window Avery leans against, clicking a pen against his chair with rhythmic intensity. The sounds of the car and the pen stitch together.

Clunk, click, clunk, click, clunk…

Avery throws a set of headphones on, trying to drown out the click click click with the brass horns of an old jazz tune.

Click, clunk, click…

The clicking still bleeds through. Hopefully this man isn't a new hire, because if so these daily commutes will turn a lot more infuriating.

Clunk, click, clunk, click, clunk…

Still crawling, still moving. Probably only another few minutes to reach work—

Click.

CLUNK.

The cable car sways for a moment, jittering. It stops.

The Unknown Man's pen freezes, spinning in his fingers, and with a quick thrust he sinks it directly into his seat like it were liquid. The seat ripples, then the floor, then the car. The Man's gaze jumps to Avery.

Ze pulls zir fingers out of the hypercube's folds and tugs the headphones off. "Who are you and what did you do?"

"We need to have a meeting."

Avery gets up. In an instant the seat plastic warps, flowing into the shape of three arms stretching far through the air, hands wide open. They tug zir back down. Avery yelps.

"Again, we need to have a meeting."

"Seriously, what did you just—"

A gun focuses on Avery's forehead. One sleight of hand was all it took for the Man to pull a pistol out of thin air, and he keeps it pointed dead ahead with complete stillness. Shutting up, Avery realizes that zir life is on the line. Ze slips the hypercube into a coat pocket.

"Do? Well, let's see. That pen was a golem, trained to meld into the lifeless matter comprising this streetcar, now holding you down. When I entered I summoned a demon that's set to exsanguinate you in a heartbeat if you try to use the intercom, windows…"

Reaching into his coat pocket, he gingerly retrieves the severed finger of some unfortunate person from a previous 'meeting.' He flicks it into the window behind Avery and it sinks in, fizzling into luminescent ash. Avery has second thoughts about leaning zir head against the glass.

"…I sufficiently hexed, and the equipment keeping this cable car stuck to its cables is rigged with a detonator tied to my brain activity. If I die, you go down too."

Eyes staring down the gun barrel, Avery slinks a hand up to zir ear, feeling for the transmitter implanted into it.

"Car's radio shielded too. Calling for help won't do you any good."

Avery slinks zir hand down. "I don't know what you're trying to pull, but this better not be some MC&D shit—"

"This is some MC&D shit."

"…"

"Stay still." Unknown steps backwards and sits down on the seats behind him, one leg over the other, gun resting on his knee and still trained on Avery with the same precision as before. "Now, ready to have this meeting?"

The seat's arms lightly brush Avery, poking and prodding. Ze reaches through all of zir pockets, trying to find anything that could serve for escape — aside from the hypercube. Too risky.

"No reply?"

Avery expects a smirk to be on Unknown's face by now, but there isn't one. His facial features have remained the same the entire time, like his voice is independent of the body that speaks it.

"Well, I'm assuming you already know what this meeting will be about then, former Acquisitions Operative Ji-Su NNChoe. Let's see what we have…"

His palm folds open and a sheet of paper as long as his torso shoots up. It bends like a snake, orienting so its text faces him. He reads.

"You were sent on acquisitions dispatch to Europa under the guise of a marine xenobiologist. There you boarded a crewed submersible to retrieve a conceptuvorous Europan worm, hijacked it, took the worm's container…"

No gun, no knife, no nothing. Avery keeps searching.

"…once the Foundation team was dealt with you boarded the designated hauler ship we allotted for you and exited Europan orbit. You had orders to head for Saturn, where the worm would be taken for sales…"

Pulses resound through Avery's mind. Deep inside is an orb, a pink ball of psychic potential, radiating through the darkness of thought. Ze hasn't used it in years. In most cases it would either lead to days of migraines or enough mental pain that even the worst psionics could take notice.

It's the best shot ze has.

"…Then you cut off all contact with us. Completely. Not a word. Few days later, as you were exiting Jovian space, we caught a heat signature of your ship docking with another hauler, then detaching, then detonating. It was hard tracking what followed once the other hauler arrived at Mars, but we have eyes, Ji-Su."

Avery relaxes zir hands. The seat tugs.

"We found out the name change, we found out the physical changes, we found out who you defected to. We found out that you gave the worm to Yeong-Hwan Corp. And if I were to take a guess the past several days you've been coming up here to aid in finding uses for the worm." The Man's eyes shift back to Avery while the paper recoils and packs itself back into an origami core at the center of his hand. "Correct me if I'm wrong."

"…"

"Silence isn't making our meeting go—"

"You're not." Deep inside the pulses intensify. Avery's skin crawls.

"Mhm. Good." He stands and his arm swivels to keep focus on Avery's head. The now paperless hand liquifies and reshapes into a Swiss Army knife of drills and scalpels and wires, more than Avery has ever felt comfortable seeing from an MC&D operative. "We'll need your brain now to figure out where you brought the worm to in the tower. The more you can hold still from here on out the better for both of us. Consider yourself fired—"

Avery's head spasms back and zir pupils contract. The mental pulses burst. Zir mind launches out as an astral projection, phasing through Unknown in a streak of invisible pink light, flipping around behind the Man and readying a psychic drill to plunge straight into his brain.

The Man's Swiss Army knife arm cracks its elbow joint and bends backwards to stab the knife directly into the projection. Two spell utterances lock the projection into physicality as a pale metal humanoid shell of an entity. Avery's mind recoils. The seat behind grows an array of arms and traps the projection in a chokehold.

This was accounted for. Golem distracted, Avery lunges from zir seat and decks the Man in the face with the force of several thrust spells ze shouts out. If ze still had actual bones left zir hand would've blown itself apart. The man's gun arm fires. Bullet misses. He launches into a window and drags the knife out of the projection, letting it jump back into astral form as Avery's body drops limp — consciousness needs to be in the projection for control.

The golem takes notice. Every arm from the seat shifts through the cable car's structure, entering the floor and replicating through it, rising its metal up into a surge of arms, a tidal wave of limbs that sweeps to the ceiling and crashes down towards Avery's body with fists clenched. Mind panics. The projection revs the drill and ze thrusts it into Unknown's skull.

Mental links to the golem collapse. The arms freeze, twitch, spasm and retract into the car seat and floor. No commander, no action. But Unknown's mind isn't fazed. The gun arm breaks its joints and swivels to spray bullets while he scrambles across the floor towards the nearest doors.

Switch consciousness to body. Remembering a pact made on a mission years back, Avery blurts out a mishmash of latin and binary. Clouds assemble in front of Avery, heavenly rays shooting out and swirling into a cybernetic bird, wreathed in robes as luminescent as sunlight.

"GREETINGS—"

Bullets shred the spirit. All lose enough momentum to bounce from Avery, now drenched in slick yellow blood.

Switch. The projection forces against the boundary between astral and physical forms and pushes into the space in front of the Man, sparks screaming off, Avery's mind pounded against by a mental jackhammer. Its silver hand sweeps down for a punch but the Man launches over with a thrust spell of his own. He reaches the doors. His fist slams against on the intercom next to them.

Shadows flood the cable car. From the intercom emerges the demon, half crab half squid with mouths along every tendril clicking their teeth. It bites Unknown, realizes he has no blood, and swarms its tendrils across the floor in search for blood. It chews the spirit corpse but ignores it — the taste isn't good enough.

As the projection raises its fist to break the intercom, Avery realizes that ze is inches away from exsanguination. An inch away. Less than an inch. Tendrils bear their jaws.

Switch. Jump up. Lunge away from the tendrils face-first into the spirit viscera. Avery rolls zir whole body through the yellow puddle, rubbing the corpse on zirself for good measure as ze prays to every available deity that this will be worth it. The demon's mouths lick Avery's sides. It spits, recoiling. The tendrils sweep away in a wild flailing and slam against the walls as screeches for food cry out.

Switch. Unknown bends his arm down to reload his gun but the projection grabs his hand, squeezes down and crunches. Broken metal fragments lacerate broken fingers and the cuts spurt off-yellow foam. It pops with the thickness of pus, the skin around it inflating, deflating to maintain an internal pressure.

It's not human. The outside "skin" is a layer over a soupy, sapient interior. It doesn't talk — a speaker glimmering within the mouth does the talking for it. It isn't alone — Avery has met dozens like it, all one of the same hivemind, all marching to the tune of MC&D's collective wills. It's not human. It's a cog for the group's operations. It's an Eidolon.

"You're an idiot, you know that?" the Eidolon's remote handler says through the speaker.

Projections can't vocalize.

"Knife still works."

The knife drives into the projection and, as it drops into reality, the blade tears through to its other side. Recoil hits Avery's mind like a train.

Switch.

Ze wipes viscera from zir eyelids and watches as the structure of the projection oscillates, jerks, spasms while its particles desperately attempt to align with the laws of physics. Astral projections are meant for the world of the mind, not the world of the physical. It shouldn't exist here. Soon it won't exist at all.

Avery closes zir eyes. Ze braces.

The projection falters.

BOOM.

Demon guts and steel frames and the Collective body rocket into the opposite side of the cable car while an astral fireball explodes half the car into shrapnel. Hexed glass bursts outwards and the golem screeches as it's torn apart. The Eidolon struggles to move but it's pinned, a full wedge of blasted door weighing down on its legs. The car sways, the hole where half the car once was tipping up and down, flicking from bare lava tube ceiling to the kilometers-long plunge into the city. The skyscrapers jut towards Avery like a pit of knives.

Inch by inch Avery stumbles to the shattered window nearest to zir. Ze breathes on zir hands and whispers an incantation that lances the air with frost, freezing gloves of ice into place.

Avery jumps out the window.

Zir hands slam into the top edge of the window frame, body dangling over empty space. Hexed glass crunches in zir grip, unable to lacerate the gloves and vaporize any flesh. Avery tugs zirself over the edge and onto the car roof, hoisting to drag zir whole weight from over the void and onto solid terrain.

Taking deep breaths, ze slinks a hand up to zir ear. Click. No more radio shielding. Transmitter and its emergency beacon go online. One last problem to deal with: the detonators the Eidolon's remote handler spoke of.

Avery can see them from here. Sets of tumorous hemispheres striped with "WARNING" latch onto the car arm, threatening to tear its grip from the cables the moment the go-ahead signal is sent. No tools on-hand to surgically tear them off — the gloves will have to do. Reaching the nearest of the bombs, zir fingers run along the edges, prying under, entering a completely hollow inside and accidentally poking a hole through the front.

Peeling it off, Avery realizes that the handler lied. The bombs were fake.

BANG.

The pale hand of a distended arm crashes into the roof. It bends, swinging upwards. The Eidolon — limbs shrunk with their mass transferred into this single monster of an arm — catapults through the air. Off-yellow foam streaks along the roof and the arm halves itself to double the other stump of an arm. Both latch onto Avery's shoulders. The Eidolon THUDS against the roof, swiveling its head up to stare. The right hand switches back to Swiss Army mode.

In the distance directly behind is the roaring of a nearing Yeong-Hwan VTOL, closing in on the emergency beacon but too far off to help. Zir eyelids close and force open, mind too exhausted to try reentering astral form. No escaping. No…

Avery reaches into zir pockets. Zir fingers tingle.

There's only a single option for escape left.

"Meeting's over, Takara," the Handler says.

Avery tries to think of a response, a way to tell the handler and whatever MC&D base they're remotely operating from that they should try investing in higher dimensional storage, that it can be more than an anart street trick, that ze hadn't completely destroyed the hauler ze escaped Europa with… It doesn't matter what's said in the end, does it?

"Go fuck yourself."

Zir hand exits zir pocket and the last thrust spells ze can muster shoots the hypercube from zir grip and into the Eidolon's head.

It shatters.

First comes a spark. Drifts of cold wind, undecipherable whispers of the atmosphere twisting under spatial ripples. Then come fireworks of light and a shower of wrenches, screwdrivers, and plasma welders, all dropping as the storage space of the tesseract folds into 3D space. Then the popping of ears. Then quiet.

Then the full mass of a 20 meter-wide Phan-Nguyen Hauler Rocket Engine barreling straight into reality. It slams the roof and crushes the Eidolon before a reaction plan can be formulated, tearing through the car as though it were tissue paper and spewing wreckage into freefall over New Seoul.

Behind, the detonator in the sole real explosive the Eidolon had strapped to the car arm registers the loss of vital signs.

BOOM.

The fireball shreds the arm into heated slag. The roof drops out from below. Shockwaves eject zir outwards.

Feet touching the air, Avery falls.

* * *

Drones whirr sud-soaked arms across the viscera marring the OSAM Office Tower. The scene is a grisly display: chunks of streetcar and rocket engine shorn into the tower's roof, the body of something that may have been human twisted around buckled engines, still spurting fluids in a rhythmic, heartbeat pulse. Repairs will be cheap, but it is a sight no office workers will want to witness.

The wreckage and the off-yellow stain fade to a spec in Avery's view. Ze sways below the Yeong-Hwan VTOL, torso chilled from the grip of the mechanical arm on its underside, having averted Avery's near straight plunge into a communications tower. Rumbles from the engines lessen as it docks against the side of the Memorial Tower, mechanical arms clasping on and pulling it in to an orange-lit hangar. The engines cut off.

« Enjoying the sights down there? » the pilot asks over the VTOL's outside speakers. Avery's been too focused on the headache that's begun to build, but by the time the idea of sightseeing can cross zir mind the hangar floor has swept over the skyline. Movement stops, the VTOL now locked into place on the hanger ceiling. With Avery making a last sway the Manipulator unceremoniously drops zir.

Kneeling on the floor, panting, ze spots Chairwoman Seong 12Song. She approaches from the rear entrance, dressed in suit and tie and flanked on either side by security androids. Her cybernetic third eye directs its azure glow at Avery. It and the main two glare.

"What happened out there?"

"Eidolon attacked. MC&D figured out my identity and tried to figure out where we're keeping the worm."

She lends a hand, pulling zir upright. "Hmph. Think we need to get you another identity change?"

"I don't know. There's a chance they think I'm dead from the cable car's destruction, but I won't rely on it." They walk to the entrance. The hangar doors clunk shut behind them. "Best I can suggest is fully transferring me to live here, so I don't need to risk commutes and public sightings."

"That can be arranged." Orange lights switch to whites as they cross the entrance threshold, approaching an elevator that opens at its end. "However, I doubt you'll need to."

Avery raises an eyebrow. "Why?"

"We'll be getting protection. The government is granting us funding for researching the worm now."

"…They're doing what?"

"I am not at liberty to give full details, but I can say this much: Luna Korea needs security. Security for New Seoul, for the orbital outposts, for every inch of the nation. They need us to figure out how this worm ticks." She looks behind her. "They won't let MC&D get to it."

"What, so this is all to stop MC&D?"

"No."

"Then who?"

"The Foundation."

Avery blanks. Ze attempts to process the information but every time it stalls, falling short of a meaningful conclusion. Then the weight of it hits. Before a response can be formulated Chairwoman 12Song has stepped into the elevator.

"Wait!" Only one reply comes to mind. "So what does this mean for me?"

"It means you need to get researching."

The elevator doors shut.


|| To be continued. »

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