Kether snarled at the kid who tried to sit next to her at the lunch aisle. He hurried away.
It was a large schola, so she wasn’t exactly shocked that there were people who hadn’t heard of her-
Or at least heard of the scandal that had destroyed her life and made every friend she’d ever made avoid her at all costs. This second bit bothered Kether very little, she’d really not been the friendliest person to start with.
The kid who’d sat down next to her must have been thick- her right eye had been fogged with Cortis media, which was just as obvious a sign to leave someone alone as those pretentious pricks wearing the outer ear ‘sound cancelling’ throwback headphones.
Kether hated nostalgia trends. Mass produced gimmicks to remind people of a simpler time. They inspired people to do stupid things like buy landline telephones and chunky stylised Walkman’s. And it also possessed people to do other terrible things, like wear crop tops and parachute pants. Kether was self-righteously disgusted by the whole thing.
She stood from the lunch aisle, and prepared herself for the next three hours of class. School was organized this way, not out of any necessity, but rather because it always had been.
The Cortis could fairly well manage education on its own, but school still existed because this was the way that things had always been done since the industrial revolution, and habits that old were a hard thing to break. That and it was easier than thinking up a new place to put people while they were still messy and hormonal.
She walked down the lunch aisle, and cut through the room to head towards the closest exit she saw. She could almost hear the whispers of electronic energy, people talking about her in perfect silence as she passed. Her coat flapped behind her as she walked, her face set in stony disdain didn’t waver a millimetre from where it was pointed in her desired destination. She would not look weak again.
Kether felt herself relax as the school day came to a close. She left the facility as quickly as she could without actively looking as if she were trying to flee. The transport took her home, which she was pleased to find empty. Kether had moved around with her parents to three different cells in her life. This one was her favourite. It had an elegant sort of space efficiency that you didn’t often find in the more expensive cells, whose owners liked to show off that they had space to waste.
She heard the front door open, and then she heard her mother’s voice. Kether ignored her in lieu of watching the asthmatic grey sunset light the smogged sky red.
“Did you finish packing?” She heard the depth of her father’s hushed voice. An angry whisper answered it.
Kether ignored her parents, they knew exactly what she was going through, and they hadn’t tried to help. One weak and muddled attempt to take her to therapy did not count. Giving up the first time she refused them was almost the same as neglect. If they weren’t willing to put in the effort to help her, she wasn’t willing to waste time on them. “Kether,” Her father called gently.
She ignored him.
“Kether,” called her mother a little more loudly. Her mother had always had the more backbone of the pair. She sighed and pulled herself up to stand. “What?” she asked as unkindly as she could manage, stepping back through the threshold to the small, neatly styled cell.
And then she saw them. Her parents, stood side by side by the door. Next to one small, neat, suitcase.
Her parents were older than everyone else's. By quite a bit. They didn’t look anything other than the average young adult, but after you spent some time around them, you could just tell. It showed in their posture, their expressions- their mannerisms.
“We’re going to need you to get in the car, Kether.” For one thing, they still called the transport ‘cars’.
“Where are we going?” She asked flatly.
“Not we.” Said her mother. “Just you.”
Her parents watched her carefully, gauging a reaction in the long moment that she said nothing inside of.
“Where am I going?” She corrected snidely.
“We’ve organized for you to stay with your uncle Rembert for the remainder of your school career.” Her mother told her in a smooth sort of no nonsense voice.
“No.” Said Kether, not in any sort of denial or rejection. It was just the tone of a girl simply making them aware that this was not going to happen.
“Yes.” Kether’s mother countered with rather soundly.
“We’re aware of what you’ve gone through this past year, and you’ve rejected all of our attempts to help you. We think some separation from the issue will do you good.”
“Or at the very least, keep you from acting out,” her father said tactlessly. Her mother glared at him, and from the brief glow in her right eye followed by the same in his- she had just sent him a private, scathing message.
“Don’t try to fight us on this, Kether. We’re only trying to do what’s best for you.”
“Why are you the ones who get to decide what I want without a word of my input?”
“Because you’re seventeen and we’re your legal guardians.”
Got me there, Kether thought bitterly. She decided not to waste any more time arguing for the sake of argument, and picked up her bag to head for the transport. Her parents would win out in the end, and she wasn’t bored enough to want to fight a losing battle- if her parents wanted her to live with her cat obsessed uncle, then their decision had very little to do with whether she agreed or no.
It wouldn’t make any difference where she lived her life anyway. A new cell, a new schola- It was just a different collection of people to ignore.
She waited for the transport to arrive.
It was fast and clean, one of the newer models. She sat, and she sank deeper into the shell of the vehicle.
What had happened to her was not going to happen again. She would not let it; and if that meant that she had to withdraw from society completely, then she would.
The transport was faster than she’d expected. The large cell blocks and all of the other civilized markers of society faded fast into the background, and the hydroponics blocks and cell cultivation farms grew thicker by the trackside.
Kether turned in her seat to watch out the window.
What she saw was both shocking and appalling.
It was a single house with a white picket fence.
Her face pulled downwards in disgust- and then the transport took her past another house just like it. Kether had no idea that so many single family households on the ground existed this close to the city.
The transport continued past the hollow grey, uninhabitable wastes, their horrors concealed with a thick layer of smog.
Council fill signs were pinned to the poles that powered the fence, alerting any passers-by that this was a 2860 zone- an area too toxic to approach for another two hundred years. A thick, mountainous shape seemed to shift through the smog – a hulking mass lifting itself from the ground and toward the gentle blue thrumming of the fence.
But then Kether blinked and the transport passed, back to the industrial blocks of farm-land.
The longer that Kether stayed in the transport the more green she started to see.
She saw so much green that she had to close the window and focus on the slick, steady lines of the transport to feel clean.
And then it drew to a stop.
The compression lock released and the door opened. Kether fumbled through her hairline to find the little coffee bean of the Cortis switch embedded in the skin behind her ear. She was assuming that it was going to need a manual restart with the sea change. When she stood out of the transport, she suspected that she may need a manual restart of her own. She looked at her uncle Rembert’s house and felt her chin draw back into her neck.
In addition to it being on the ground, it was a house.
It was ancient, and it was buried in very aggressive looking plant life.
She turned around to make a desperate leap for the cab that couldn’t take her back home, but turned just in time to see its doors close.
She wedged her fingernails into what was left of the opening before it smoothed over.
The transport spat out her bag dispassionately and then with no regard for her, departed.
Leaving her behind.
In what was apparently hell.
Kether felt her nostrils flare. She took a deep breath and then choked, the air here was hot and thick with water. There was a great, twisted iron fence that separated Kether from the disaster that her uncle lived inside of. The gate was tall and it was intimidating- and hoisted up at the very peak of the thing was an old wooden sign that advertised the sale of books inside. Only it was faded and falling apart, so it read ‘BO Ks’ in dull red letters.
“Fuck.” Said Kether, feeling the sentiment of the word more deeply than she ever had before in her life.
She lifted her bag, and with a ginger hand, she pushed the gate. It groaned with an unearthly depth as it swung inwards. A greasy grey residue came off on her hand, and Kether made a sound in the back of her mouth.
With twitchy caution, she walked down the overgrown drive, jumping as a bit of rogue plant-life thwapped her on the shoulder. After a long minute of slow, well placed steps, she could see the actual house itself through the overgrown thicket of shrubbery.
The building was made up of old, smooth concrete, the edges being sharp in the aged style of modernism. Concrete cancer had made some of the walls bubble and peel, great chunks of the stuff falling crushed to the ground. Other parts of the smooth exterior had started to grow a thick layer of moss. Kether had to grudgingly admit to herself that the place was almost beautiful in a derelict sort of way.
It was the kind of place that she’d like to draw- but the exploded mess of unkempt plant life was putting her on edge. She took another step and fell into dark shadow.
There was a gentle sucking sound, followed by some sinister clicking. It was the kind of sound one might suspect a praying mantis of making if it were six foot tall.
And then a loud, unearthly and incredibly long yowl stopped her in her tracks and almost gave her a mild heart attack.
She turned to protect herself from the savage predator that had made such a sound, but instead found only an angry cat that looked as if it wanted her to leave.
Kether took a step toward it and lowered her hand to pet it- or at least have it be examined.
The creature automatically withdrew with an offended sort of disdain.
“I don’t want to be here either.” Said Kether, taking her hand back. It was probably for the best anyway, the cat had long white hair, and Kether had a penchant for only ever wearing black.
“Curie,” called the peculiarly gravelly voice of Uncle Rembert.
Uncle Rembert was the oldest man that Kether had ever known. He hobbled out of the front door of his house and toward Kether. He wore nothing but tweeds, and he had a head like a great boiled ham, which he kept under a hideous, flappy hat.
“Shut up.” He told the cat, who immediately silenced. Kether blinked at the old man.
“Hello,” he said with a false grin that didn’t even make it half way to his eyes. The smile was wide though, and bared teeth that were each a different shade of yellow- and all arranged at odd angles, the corners pointed downward. Like they hadn’t been designed for chewing, but for tearing.
Kether had met Rembert only once. It had been when she was a child, and she had remembered only one thing about him.
It was that he was a shyster.
“Come inside, I cleared the attic out for you,” he said in that odd gravelly voice of his. She let him lead her inside.
“My god you’ve grown. You look like your mother.”
The moment she took her first step inside, she realized the scope of the mistake she’d made by not fighting this whole thing tooth and claw.
Aged, mildewy books were stacked in wobbling, precariously balanced towers, dust and grime lay thick over every surface, sinking in to meld with the upholstery of what she quickly counted to be six ancient arm chairs scattered about the parlour.
Cats lounged about the place, moving about with such light feet that they didn’t so much as disturb the heavy dust motes in the air.
"It’s probably best that you don’t touch any of the cats. Or really even look at any of the cats if you can help it. Planck and Clark-Maxwell throw tantrums when people they don't like make eye contact. Also don't touch any of the books, any tables that look like they're made of wood or the walls."
"What about the floor?" Kether asked, her expression flat and unchanged.
"Well if you think you can avoid it, that'd be best." Said Rembert as if they weren't rules he was responsible for enforcing- as if avoiding touching anything here was for her own good; but it didn’t really matter to him what she did either way.
He led her through a convoluted maze of hallways to what looked like a pointless column stood in the centre of a senseless cavity of a room. Then her uncle hummed the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the column seemed to unravel from the top, spitting out sturdy concrete stairs.
Kether made a face at her uncle Rembert, wondering what sort of absurdist, cat-infested shit-show she'd just been dropped into. And then something strange happened: Her Cortis finished its reboot and registered an external conflict.
The man in front of her didn’t register- there was no wet-ware in his head.
There was no Cortis in his skull.
His eyes were both a matching beady black in the shadow of crepe hooded lids.
They looked at her with a knowing, almost malicious humour.
"Go on then, get settled." He nodded at the stairs. She took them slowly, one at a time, fighting the urge to look back over her shoulder at her uncle and only half hoping they'd collapse and kill her.
Kether couldn’t sleep in the attic.
There were crates stacked up, crowding most of the room with enormous wooden bulk. The floors were rough and unsanded, and everything else seemed to be made of concrete, which contributed to the room being incredibly cold.
She lay in the bed provided, which was rectangular, much too soft, and smelled faintly of cat piss.
Kether tried to connect to the NSN, but apparently the roof was led-lined, so her Cortis couldn’t get any signal at all.
She'd thought she'd been fairly miserable before, but she rolled over onto her back and reached a new low.
There was a dart board nailed to the ceiling above the bed, and a face she didn’t recognize pasted to it.
She spent the next half hour blowing very hard to see if she could dislodge a cobweb. This went very poorly, but the rhythmic blowing sent her eventually to sleep.
She woke to a fit of sneezing and the scent of badly burnt toast. Light leaked in through a crumbling gap in the joints of the concrete, and she wished it would've stayed dark. The room looked much better in complete darkness.
She hummed the Battle Hymn of the Republic and watched the floor open up. Her uncle was singing to himself in the kitchen over a thick, over brewed cup of tea.
She walked over to him, ignoring his age-spotted face and his nose swollen with redness and blood pressure. She only tripped over two cats on her way over.
She opened the pantry to look for something to eat, and found that the doors had no preservation locks on them. He kept food in there, and it had the properties of a warm armoire.
She then saw something pickling in a jar that looked of suspicious origin, so she closed the door and decided not to look at anything in there ever again.
Rembert was ignoring her, singing happily over the burnt bread on his plate, wet crumbs gathering in the angry lines that cut down from each end of his mouth.
She narrowed her eyes at him and wondered how the hell he'd managed to ruin toast. Then she turned to look at the rest of the kitchen and swallowed a scream. A brushed steel refrigerator was humming with wired electricity, no display on its front.
"Your fridge," she said in a gentle whimper.
"Oh, they don’t make ‘em like they used to, do they?" He seemed to relish her appalled disgust.
She tried not to throw up and decided to skip breakfast in favour of searching through the convoluted house for a bathroom.
She got lost a few times, but eventually she found one.
This time she didn’t manage to swallow the scream.
She screamed long, and she screamed loud, and she kept on going until she got it all out.
There were twist taps.
She felt prickling in the back of her eyes, black and white tiling twisting and stretching sickeningly under her feet.
Where had her parents sent her?
"What is it?" Demanded the loud, crackling voice of her uncle.
"Is it Slocum? Is he here?" He asked with an insane sort of fevered urgency, barrelling around the corner, half a piece of toast held sticky side down in the swollen joints of his old hand. He looked left, and then he looked right. When no 'Slocum' appeared, he calmed down.
"Don't scream like Slocum's here if he isn't, it's misleading." Kether was shaking.
"What in gods green dick is this?" She asked, not angry at him personally, but he was the only one close enough to lash out against. It wasn’t as if she hadn't seen old fashioned bathrooms before, but she had never been expected to use one.
"It's a bathroom, hambone."
"How the hell am I supposed to get dry?"
"Use a towel?"
"Do you know how much bacteria those things carry?" She demanded of him and his health hazard.
"Do I look like the sort who's concerned about bacteria?" He asked, the soul of reasonability. She couldn't argue with that. He did not.
Rembert went back to his breakfast, but Kether could still feel sick roiling suspiciously high up in her gut, which wasn’t ideal for her first day at school.
Ignoring her uncle and his lack of human decency or socially acceptable hospitality, Kether dressed in her most intimidating sleekly lined city styled blacks and went out to the curb to summon transport.
It took her a long minute to fight her way through the aggressively dense shrubbery, but once she finally made it out to the patchy, badly maintained tracks, she felt an odd sense of accomplishment.
This was before she realised that her Cortis still wasn’t connecting to the NSN. She looked back to the chaotic mass of front yard and wondered if all this was on purpose- Rembert didn’t have a functioning Cortis. Even his chip was ancient and outdated- which was usually the hallmark of untreated paranoid schizophrenia or attempting to hide from the government.
People might have even thought he was a Contra.
She wondered what he was trying to hide as she climbed a sturdy looking tree high enough to get a signal.
She requested a transport to the nearest schola.
This task could probably have been easily achieved by walking up the road a little bit, but she was so used to her implant that she wasn’t all that good at complex thought once she'd been disconnected- purely on the basis that she'd never needed to develop the skill.
So she hailed her transport, and immediately wished that she hadn't. If she had been being polite, she'd have said that the transport wasn't what she was used to. If she were being honest she would've said that it was a shabby piece of shit and it had brought her a full step closer to having a crisis.
The thing was old and musty and the upholstery felt damp, untreated, and vaguely sticky.
She closed her eyes and tried not to smell anything- and just waited, hoping that the thing would jar to a halt sooner than she was expecting. She occupied the time by downloading media for when she next went back to the hovel and was forced to go offline.
Finally, she arrived at an aged cell block, just outdated enough to look tacky, but not quite old enough to be fashionable.
It was a small town, probably all of its residents and stores and apparently a schola were contained inside.
Kether screamed gently inside of her mouth.
And then she mustered whatever well-adjustedness and feigned adolescent apathy she had, and stood from the transport. She looked at the schola entrance to the cell block.
It had mould growing on it.
She realised that she would be attending for a year and a bit here, barring her accidental death or suicide.
If she hadn't regretted fighting her parents’ decision on her sea-change before, she well and truly did now.
She may have been being dramatic, but it was the greyest, most dilapidated cell block that she had ever seen. She had fostered the hope that she may have been able to bunker down and remain unnoticed by anyone for the remainder of her education- but by the looks of the place it only had about ten students- and they were all related.
She could already tell that she was not going to be having much luck avoiding notice.
The first people she saw upon entry to the building, were a very similar looking pair- a good looking girl and boy- the boy half of which was actually wearing corrective frames.
She hated him instantly- she hated anyone who was pretentious enough to play into nostalgia trends with such vivacity that they would actually push the lenses out of corrective frames to use age old impairments as a fashion statement.
The Cortis could take care of muscular and focal issues with the optic system- and quick surgery could take care of the rest.
Her first, cautious step inside the facility made her frown even more intimidating. She hoped that anyone who saw it would know well enough to stay away. A gaggle of girls no younger than Kether herself were clustered around the boy with the pretentious glasses. She rolled her eyes hard enough to feel the oculus attachment shift and then correct.
She was not sure that she could do this.
She swallowed a deep breath. At least no one knew her here. And the Cortis connections here weren’t really efficient enough for anyone to want to waste any time finding out.
No one knew who she was.
No one knew what she’d done. That was why her parents had sent her here. She breathed in a heavy breath, and walked forward. It was better than back home, this at least was a fresh start.
So she squared her shoulders, straightened her neck, and made her way towards her first class of the day. She sat down in an empty seat and waited for a download menu to unfurl in her right eye.
“Hello!” Said someone, altogether too brightly. They sounded like the voice over of a training video. Kether turned her head to give a glare over her shoulder, but was foiled by the culprit, who was smiling with an incredible cheer. This confused her deeply.
Kether had no idea how to combat cheer.
No one had ever been this happy to see her.
Feeling at a complete loss, she recognised the girl from the hallway outside, the one who had been walking with the pretentious boy. She had dark brown hair that fell in smooth waves, and honey brown eyes that confronted Kether with far too much open friendliness.
“Hello?” Said Kether, hoping dearly that the word, said with enough aggression, could end the exchange. The girl offered a hand to shake.
“I’m Apple.” Said the girl. Kether wondered if she was being made fun of. Apple was certainly pretty enough to have proper influence, but not quite pretty enough to be augmented.
“Kether,” said Kether, shaking her hand. It was warmer than she’d expected.
“You’re new! That’s exciting in a place as small as this- I hadn’t seen you around the cell block, but I suppose I didn’t hear anything about a new arrival either; I’m not very observant you see, but it’s so good you’re here!” Her happy tone felt like an assault; Kether was doing her best not to flinch.
“I’m staying with my uncle, Rembert.” She said, hoping the tie to the psychotic town outcast would be enough to draw the conversation to an awkward close. Apple’s face faltered, but it didn’t fall.
“Oh- um, wow. I didn’t know old Remy had any family. How are all of his books going?” She asked, excited to have something more to talk about.
“Well, they’re going.” Said Kether in a sentence that she wasn’t sure really made sense. She was wishing dearly that this day would be over. And then the door to the room swung gently inward, and the boy with the corrective frames who Apple had been walking with earlier entered the room.
Up close, Kether could see that the frames actually did have corrective lenses in. He looked at Apple, and then his eyes swept to the side to see Kether. When he saw that she was looking at him, his eyes turned swiftly to the floor, which he then tripped over. The tips of his ears went red through his rich brown hair, and he looked back up over to Apple, whom he gave a pleading, almost desperate expression. Apple shrugged at him, to which he answered by shoving his way to the back of the room, staring hard at his feet.
"Did I take his seat?" Kether asked, nodding in his direction.
"Don't worry about him, he's shy to the point of disability."
"Okay?" "All the girls flock anyway, he's a bit clever, see- they think he's going to be the next Luke Clancy."
"Luke Clancy? You never heard of him? Well he was some local inventor, made up some new sort of cathode relay, just a small bit to go in Cortis compatibility cartridges, nothing too exciting really, but he made a lot of money off of it."
"Nice." Said Kether, hoping how much she really didn't care showed. The girl continued to happily ramble on, smiling more times in the duration of this than Kether was sure she ever had in her life.
One very relaxing thing about the girls' conversation, was that she was expected to produce very little of the other end, giving her the opportunity to relax. Eventually the class started and Apple shut up. This was a relief until they reached lunch. Kether tried to leave the room to find somewhere to sit alone, but to her abject horror, Apple followed along, pulling on a hideously bright jacket as she did so.
"Do you want me to show you around, there are loads of good places to sit- trust me I've lived here my whole life, I know them all." She stared forward and took a long moment to sigh. It seemed as if Kether had the misfortune of happening along someone who was genuinely- and actively- nice.
There would be no escape.
Kether followed Apple to the lunch aisle, where they picked up their food and exited through the back door.
Everyone around was brightly dressed, Apple the brightest of all. The happy girl led her outside, to an abandoned field coated in thick, untrimmed grass.
They ate their food, and Kether realised that the only time the girl ever really paused in speech was when she was swallowing.
Kether only half listened as the girl prattled about the time she'd seen a bird last week.
As Apple talked, Kether realised that the girl was happy.
Not just at the moment, but as a whole. She wondered when it was that she'd last seen that in reality.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the tall boy with a mess of rich brown hair. Her Cortis scanned him as he sat down next to Apple.
He looked over and caught her watching him. He flushed and looked at his knees. His eyes were incredibly light under the lenses of his glasses, which struck her as incredibly strange.
"Hello." He greeted quietly.
"Oh, Kether, this is my brother, Soos." Said Apple. Kether got the impression that he was often overshadowed.
"Please call me Jorkin." He said, a plea that was trying its hardest not to sound desperate. He was prettier than his sister in an almost feminine way- and she was pretty as it was.
They made quite the pair; she tried to imagine what their parents must have looked like. Kether and Jorkin were silent, listening to Apple as she spoke. After a while her ramblings became a little less irritating and a little more relaxing. Kether, entirely against her will, started to feel as if this place may not be so bad after all.
This feeling did not last.
Lunch ended, and she had to go back to class.
Hoping it would improve things later swiped a few extra data transferral packs from the schola's storage, hoping they'd help boost her Cortis signal on her uncle's property.
But as soon as the transport delivered her home, she found the new extension completely useless.
Attempting to download the last of what Kether deemed essential data, (two reality shows and a collection of augmentation tutorials,) she climbed the tree that she'd had success with that morning.
Half a meter up and she got a weak signal.
The download would take a while if she could hold her position. Her limbs started to ache, and her brow was starting to sweat when she heard a faint clicking sound from underneath of her.
A jab of primal terror pushed her further up the tree, her mind running along illogically. The clicking grew louder, and she climbed higher, until she had a bird's eye view of Rembert's property- from the 'BO Ks' sign to the overgrown thorny rose bushes refusing to flower, studded through with curious cats. And then she saw the aftermath of something shifting. She saw a huge cluster of leaves moving like they were bent in an isolated wind.
Moving toward her.
And then the largest, shiniest modernist transport she'd ever seen in her life drew up and ploughed through Rembert's disaster of front yard. She stared at what she could see from above, at the transport that had disconnected itself from the tracks smoothly, as if it had never been connected in the first place.
The transport was glossy black and looked to play into another era. For something from a nostalgia trend, it was beautiful.
With a short little sucking sound that Kether could hear from up the tree, the door opened. Through the gaps in the leaves, she saw a man step from the vehicle.
He had jet black hair and was dressed in a savage suit, the sharp lines of the thing trying to cut the air around it- the jacket of which was made of light absorbing fabric, the stuff that was blacker than black.
People had stopped using it in clothes because human brains couldn’t process it right. It looked like a hole cut out of the universe.
He didn’t turn as he approached Rembert's door, so she didn’t get to see his face, but by his aggressive stance and the instinctual feeling of overwhelmed panic that she got from seeing him from a distance, she was glad of it.
He knocked on the door, four short wraps.
"I know you're in there, Rembert." He said in a voice that made her knees soften and her fingers turn weak and gelatinous.
"Get off my yard, Slocum," said her uncle. She'd previously thought of her uncle as a harmless old nut, but the aggressive growl that came from him then proved her wrong.
He sounded like an old, gnarled beast.
"Let me in." Said the well-groomed man in a voice that rivalled Rembert's.
"I don't have her, you know I don't. Go away."
"With all due respect, you wouldn’t even know if you did. This house has more secrets than you'll ever be able to uncover," he said, wedging his hand in the door and forcing it open.
Kether wondered who they were talking about- a woman? Her fingers were starting to slip, and she wished that she'd chosen a tree with rougher bark. Her sweat was making the smooth surface slippery. Her legs scrambled for purchase, but weak branches gave way.
"If you'd just let me in," he forced the door the rest of the way open and then slammed it behind him. The conversation continued, muffled behind closed doors. The clicking sound happened again, this time terrifyingly close, and her limbs released in a shaking fit of scared shock. Kether fell.
She hit the ground.
Her Cortis started an automatic reboot as she lay dazed on the ground. What she'd landed on wasn’t ground, though.
She knew this on account of it had made a screeching sound on impact. Under a thick strata of decomposing plant matter, and an even thicker layer of dirt, was a sheet of metal.
A lid that had been mutilated by her falling weight. A lid that was now barely managing to cover a door. Kether gasped for winded breath while she looked at the lock that held the horizontal door closed from the outside.
Without a second thought she picked up the closest rock and tried to smash the lock open.
Kether had always been physically strong, but it took her more than five hits to cave the whole aged structure inwards.
It had probably been incredibly sturdy in a past life, but it was well on its way to being ancient and delicate now.
Once the thing opened underneath of her, she peered into the dark cavern. It was huge, and as far as she could tell, empty.
She closed her left eye and turned the brightness and contrast up on her right.
She was waiting for the oculus to focus when she heard the horrible clicking sound, right by her ear. Without sparing a moment for rational thought or time to weigh her options, she launched herself into the old room she'd just dug up.
She landed face first on cold floor, and the doors that she had just bashed open swung stubbornly back upwards to automatically close, leaving her swallowed by darkness.
The ground underneath of her had been harder to land on than the loam-covered sheet metal above.
Kether wondered if she'd need reinforcement surgery now.
She breathed in stale, dusty air and wondered how the hell she was going to get back up to ground level.
She briefly speculated on whether this had been what the Slocum man had been talking about, a hidden basement?
She waited for her Cortis to adjust to the light. She then realised that it already had, the system was confused at the fact that she had her left eye open too.
She closed it, feeling a little stupid, and looked around the chamber she had just thrown herself into.
Bullet wounds dented the walls and pocked the ceiling in what appeared to be a random pattern of frustration.
Ancient weaponry lined the walls, old guns of sleek black that had accumulated an incredible layer of dust, hung at neat intervals on very sturdy racks. Ammunition was stacked in boxes pushed up against a back corner.
Kether wanted to scream.
Next to a crate filled with explosives, in the deepest, darkest corner of the room was a tiny desiccated corpse, surrounded by guns and used shells.
Kether fell over.
This may not have been what her parents had in mind when they'd sent her off to the country.
She started to hyperventilate for a moment before the regulators kicked in and she obtained perfect calm.
She took a moment to breathe, and then took advantage of her hyper clear mental state before the regulators backed off and she went back to normal.
She looked at the body, shrivelled and small, old skin stuck straight to bone. An archaic Cortis implant from the days they were still brain invasive discoloured the bone around the right temple. The thing was clunky and metallic, the bit of skull that had been cut open to make room for it was ragged and imprecise, the old oculus attachment hung loosely from its empty socket of the right eye.
This was the oldest Cortis system that Kether had ever seen outside of media. It couldn't have been any younger than third-gen, which meant that there would have been little to no wet-ware at all.
The body in front of her would have remembered a time before augmentation.
"Holy shit." Kether murmured She itched to scan the thing, its memory banks would provide ample entertainment for the hours she was shut up in her uncle's attic- recordings this old were almost always censured by the privacy act. She bit her lip and hoped that the data wasn’t corrupted.
Cortis systems were backwards compatible, but she wasn't sure they'd be this backwards compatible.
This was okay as she had the cathode cartridges that she'd swiped from the schola.
She thanked small-town pride for caring well enough about Luke Clancy to keep his inventions in enough bulk that she could steal without garnering any attention.
She had no idea if the system in her skull would even be able to read data this old, but she didn’t stop for long enough to care.
Holding the cartridge in a trembling hand- she pushed the insert adapter out, and then with infinite care, inserted the needle into the awkwardly large hole meant for the plug in the side of the dry skull.
She was glad that her regulators were still functioning well, she didn’t like to think of how well she'd cope with being this close to a corpse on her own.
The needle, far too thin, needed to be held upwards and immobile to connect properly.
A dull, dirty light started to glare in the empty left eye socket. She could feel her regulators backing off now, and she tried not to look at the body or breathe through her nose.
She could see the dried out remnants of skin clinging hideously to the thing. And then the data transfer finished.
Kether backed away from the body faster than should have been humanly possible, and then started stacking ammunition barrels under the trap door, which she managed to wedge back open to pull herself back up to ground level, dirt smeared down the front of her immaculate black first-day-of-school outfit.
The door closed as soon as she finished holding it open, and Kether kicked dirt back over the top of it.
The shiny black transport, and presumably the man who had shown up inside of it were gone.
"Come here Tesla you uppity little fuck," she heard her Uncle Rembert calling to one of his cats.
Kether pushed her way through the shrubbery and into the house, feeling dirty enough that she would have to use that hideous mistake of a shower and the towels that came with it.
Rembert's taught old face popped up in front of her.
He was holding an irritated looking tortoise-shell as if it were a baby. By the trail of blood dripping to his chin, the thing had just tried to strip his face of its skin.
"Good first day?" He asked. His cat yowled at him. He put it down on top of one of the dangerous stacks of books.
"It was interesting." She would've asked how his day had been but it would have been more of politeness than interest, and she wasn't remembered by anyone for her polite disposition.
That and she was reluctant to learn anything about the Slocum man. She felt like the less she knew about him, the better.
Plausible deniability and all that.
She thought about asking him why he was keeping an old corpse and enough weaponry to take on the Western Frontier under his lawn, but she didn’t actually consider it.
She figured it was best not to know.
Rembert hardly seemed the stable sort, she didn’t really want to let him know that she knew anything. That, and she was a teenager. She needed to be apathetic about everything that she possibly could. Even dried up, musty corpses. It was her duty.
So she had her shower, swiped some food from the kitchen, and then took to the attic.
She lay on the bed and considered what she might find when she transferred the data to her own head.
She considered going back down there and ripping the skull off of that body- a Cortis that old in functioning condition would be worth enough for her to buy her own cell. But she would have to sell it illegally, and she was too young to want her fresh record spoiled by being put on a government watch-list.
So instead she would go with her original plan. See what the data was. If the data was un-corrupted, there would probably be the last year of memory recorded onto it- which was certainly enough for her to see who the body had belonged to, and how they had gotten down into her uncle's basement with all of those guns.
She parted her hair and paired the device to the little bean behind her ear.
She started the copy and paste.
Her Cortis started to whir, warm and uncomfortable in her head as the conversion started, making the recordings readable.
She scrolled through the drop down menu and looked at the file sizes. She swallowed, throat thick, and stared at the dart board above her bed.
The compatibility conversion would be finished soon.
And then suddenly it was.
Something unpleasant clicked together in her Cortis- and then the whole system shut down.
Not like a manual reboot or a simple restart, but like a brick to the head.
The wet-ware in her skull clamped onto her nerves and her head filled with white noise.
She passed out.