AAPA Drafts

AD ASTRA PER ASPERA


Title: Above New Seoul

rating: +1+x

The cable car crawls along the nanofiber rope that links the New Seoul cityscape to the Yeong-Hwan Memorial Tower. The building hangs from the ceiling of the lunar lava tube the city is built in, an upside-down dagger of a skyscraper, the LED panels across its sides jumping through advertisement after advertisement with the occasional interruption of government broadcasts. It is certainly not the most impressive spectacle in the city, or the rest of the Luna Korea for that matter, but as a workplace Avery Fujioka quite likes it.

Avery twiddles with a hypercube he nabbed from an anart convention. The upwards crawl to the tower is as slow and steady as ever, and the tingling of ones fingers running through higher spatial dimensions is always enough to alleviate the dullness. Gleaming city lights only stay interesting for so long. It isn't enough to distract from the man sitting across from him, though.

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

Clunk, click, clunk, click, clunk…

The sounds of the car and the pen stitch into each other. Avery mentally switches on the audio functions of his neural implants, trying to drown out the click click click with the brass horns of an old jazz tune. The clicking still bleeds through. Avery hopes this Man wasn't a new hire at his department, because if so these daily commutes would 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.

He pulls his fingers out of the hypercube's folds. "Who the fuck are you and what did you just do?"

"We need to have a meeting."

Avery tries to get up but his seat grows arms. They tug him back down. He yelps.

"Again, we need to have a meeting."

"Seriously, what did you just—"

A gun focuses on his forehead. One slight 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 his life is now on the line. He slips the hypercube into a coat pocket.

"Do? Well, let's see. That pen I had was a compressible golem trained to meld into lifeless matter, like parts of this car and your seat. Claytronics are wormed into both doors…"

Two clanks from the car doors in confirmation.

"…demon 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 his head against the glass.

"…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 his hand up to his head, feeling for the metal implants in his ear.

"Car's EM shielded too. Subdermal comlinks won't do you any good."

He sighs. "Demon?"

"Demon."

Avery slinks his hand down from his head. "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. He starts reaching through all of his pockets, trying to find anything that could break him out — 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 Sales Representative and Acquisitions Operative Takara NNSaitou. 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 Europan Subsurface Station Sagan-Nu under the guise of a marine exobiologist. There you boarded a crewed submersible to retrieve the 'Metaphysical Blink Worm' research crews there had observed before, and, as planned, performed the retrieval operation normally. Once the submersible returned to Sagan-Nu you hexed the researchers, stole the conceptually-shielded storage unit the worm was in and then with the help of our other agents…"

No gun, no knife, no nothing. Switch to improvised. Avery keeps searching.

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

A realization: the Unknown Man never locked down on the use of thaumaturgy in the cable car, or any other esoteric practice. As far as Avery knew, at least. There was a shot.

"And 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, Takara."

Avery relaxes his hands. The seat tugs. He's ready.

"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."

"You're not."

"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, then we'll throw it from this car. Consider yourself fired—"

Avery's head spasms back and his pupils contract. An astral projection launches from his body and phases through Unknown in a streak of invisible light, flipping around behind the Man and spinning an arm into a makeshift psychic drill. The Man's Swiss Army knife!arm cracks its elbow joint and bends backwards to stab the knife directly into the projection. Two bursts of thaumic energy 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 his seat and decks the Man in the face with the force of several thrust spells he shouts out. If he still had actual bones left his hand would have collapsed. Gun!arm fires. Bullet misses. The Man launches into a window and drags the knife out of the projection. The projection jumps back into astral form, Avery's body dropping limp as his consciousness switches to directing it. Every arm from the seat replicates through the floor and rises into a tidal wave of limbs that sweeps over Avery. The psychic drill reactivates, thrusting 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. Gun!arm breaks its joints and swivels like an autoturret to spray bullets while he scrambles across the floor towards the nearest doors.

Switch consciousness to body. Remembering a pact he made on a mission years back, he blurts out a mishmash of latin and binary. Clouds assemble in front of him, heavenly rays shooting out and swirling into a biomechanical spirit's bird-like form.

"Greetings—"

The spirit is shredded by Unknown's bullets. All lose enough momentum to bounce from Avery, now drenched in yellow spirit 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. He slams his fist on the intercom next to them.

Shadows flood the cable car. From the intercom emerges the demon, a cross between a crab and a 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 he's inches away from exsanguination. An inch away. Less than an inch. Tendrils bear their jaws.

Switch. Jump up. Dash around the hissing tendrils and fall into spirit viscera. Avery rolls his whole body through the yellow puddle, rubbing the corpse on himself for good measure as he prays to every available deity that this will be worth it. The demon's mouths lick his sides and the tendrils sweep away in a wild flailing that slams against the walls and joins a wild screeching for blood.

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. He's an eidolon.

"You're an idiot, you know that?" the LUNA/AGx090-L Eidolonic Collective — or rather the remote handler speaking through this extension of the Collective hivemind — says.

Projections can't respond.

"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. He wipes viscera from his eyelids and watches the internal structure of the projection react to physical existence, oscillating, jerking, spasming while its particles desperately attempt to align with the laws of physics. It falters. It detonates.

Demon guts and steel framework 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, pained moans echoing from around — the last cries of the golem that's just been 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 rock to the kilometers-long plunge into the skyscrapers that jut towards Avery like a pit of knives.

Inch by inch Avery stumbles to the shattered window nearest to him. He breathes onto his hands and whispers an incantation that lances the air with frost, freezing gloves of ice around his hands.

He jumps out the window.

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

Taking deep breaths, slinks his hand up to his head. Click. No more EM shielding. Emergency beacon goes online.

One last problem to deal with: the explosives the Eidolon's remote handler spoke of.

He can see them from here, the tumorous hemispheres striped with WARNING; they latch onto the car arm and threaten to tear its grip from the cables the moment the go-ahead signal is sent. Avery has no tools on him to surgically tear them off — his gloves will have to do. Reaching the nearest of the bombs, his 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. The arm bends, swinging upwards and catapulting the Eidolon — limbs shrunk with their mass transferred into this single monster of an arm — 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 ahold of Avery's shoulders. The Eidolon THUDS against the roof, swiveling its head up to stare. The right hand shifts back into Swiss Army mode.

In the distance directly behind is the roaring of a nearing Yeong-Hwan VTOL, closing in on his beacon but too far off to help. His eyelids force themselves open, mind too exhausted to try reentering astral form. Nothing can save him. Nothing…

He reaches into his pockets. His fingers tingle. He gulps.

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 were remotely operating from that they should try investing in higher dimensional storage, that it could be more than an anart street trick, that he hadn't completely destroyed the hauler he escaped Europa with… It doesn't matter what he says in the end, does it?

"Go fuck yourself," he replies.

His hand exits his pocket and the last thrust spells he can muster shoot the hypercube from his 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 Type-O Hauler Rocket Engine barreling straight into reality. It hits 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.

From behind, the detonator in the sole non-fake 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 him outwards, feet touching the air.

Avery falls.

* * *

Scrubber drones whirr their sud-soaked arms across the viscera splatter that mars the side of 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 the buckled engine pylons, still spurting fluids in a rhythmic, heartbeat pulse. Repairs will be cheap, but it is a sight no OSAM office workers will want to witness.

The wreckage and the off-yellow stain fade to a spec in Avery's view. He sways below the Yeong-Hwan VTOL, torso warmed from the grip of the experimental Ectoplasm Manipulator Arm that stretches from its underside and had 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 hasn't though to actually marvel at the sights, but by the time the thought crosses his mind the hangar floor has swept over the skyline. Movement stops, the VTOL now locked into place on the hanger ceiling. With Avery making his last sway the Manipulator unceremoniously drops him.

Kneeling on the floor, panting, he spots Chairwoman Seong 12Song. 12Song 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 him 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 fulling 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, one thing I should let you know about: the government is granting us funding for researching the worm now."

"…They're doing what?"

"They're interested in using this for a security project of their's, SEGYEUI-NUN, the documents call it."

"Security against MC&—"

"No. The Foundation."

Avery freezes. His mouth is agape. "They're actually…"

"Going to do something about the Foundation undercover operations, actually enforce the damn anti-Foundation laws? Yes, yes they are. They think that if we can figure out how this worm ticks it will make a useful asset in combating them. And guess what, if this goes well SEGYEUI-NUN can be turned against MC&D, too."

"That doesn't guarantee MC&D can't—"

"They can't bypass this. I've seen the plans. Nobody is getting past this intact."

Chairwoman 12Song steps into the elevator and spins to face him. "Ready to get researching?"


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