Hard Machine

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PREVIOUS: Ecstasy and Exorcism

FIRST: The Chosen Few

The world is black. The only thing telling me that I'm alive and awake is the sharp pain in my head. I can't see or feel a damn thing. For I don't know how long, the only thing I can do is dwell on resurfaced memories that I paid a few thousand dollars to suppress.

Then I sense a low hum. Feeling returns to my neck, first a slight resistance — and then a sharp pressure in my neck bones. I'm spinning. My neck is being crushed. My windpipe is starting to give, but I can't say anything. I'm not even sure I'm breathing. Then I hear a clicking sound, and the pressure on my neck fades.

I silently sigh with relief.

The darkness detonates into an audiovisual explosion, hammering my brain with pulsing beats and seizure-inducing strobes. I can hear the roar of an excited crowd. I try to blink, and the world sharpens, like a camera coming into focus. Everything looks jagged and oversaturated.

Then my eyes adjust, throwing everything into a sharp 16K resolution. I can pick out individual hairs on peoples' bodies, and the sweat drops on those hairs and the pores they're growing out of. Reticles and symbols and flashing lights scream across my eyeballs. Closing them does nothing to stop it.

I can feel my brain shutting down in protest. Information floods my brain, but there's a sensation behind my eyes as though it's falling into a hole. My newly-calibrated subconsciousness starts filtering, compartmentalizing, and discarding information faster than a junkie buying scratch cards. Once again, my eyes adjust. The world finally resolves itself: sharp enough to make 8K look soft without completely pummeling my brain into sensory overload.

I look down at my new cyborg body. My limbs are light brown; an experimental wringing of the hands tells me they're coated in a rubbery artificial skin, with electrodes just under the surface to give me the sensation of touch. I don't have feet any more, just brown legs that end in silver boots. More silver paint denotes where clothes would normally go. Distinct black lines on the back of my palm separate each knuckle and joint. My tits are shockingly tasteful for MachineGod.

I take a closer look at my hands and see that I'm lashed to a metal cross, suspended in front of MachineGod's dais. Then the metal latches around my limbs release and I fall onto the ground.

"Arise, my champion!" MachineGod's voice booms from the top of the dais.

I struggle to my feet. Vents hiss on my knees as I take a few tentative steps. My body feels heavier. More deliberate. More powerful. It's foreign and familiar at the same time. Like wearing your girlfriend's hoodie.

I feel around my chin with one hand and my face with the other. There's a neoprene sleeve covering the connection from head to neck; underneath, I can feel the beginning of a helical ridge that disappears into my neck. That explains the neck pain: my head was being literally screwed into place. If I had to bet, MachineGod probably severed my spine and installed a variant of Anderson's spinal replacements.

"Weird," I say aloud and immediately regret it. My voice sounds tinny; I run a hand over my mouth and realize I don't have one. There are small speaker ports to replace it. I can feel vibrations running up my throat, hitting the base of my tongue, and then stopping. My tongue feels wrong: when I move it, there's resistance and a sensation like nails scratching across a chalkboard. Makes sense — cyborgs don't need teeth. Or mouths. But the nerves are still there, and the feeling of nails against a chalkboard has spread through my entire body.

I don't even want to contemplate what he did to my crotch.

To distract myself from those horrifying thoughts, I continue feeling up my face. My hand closes around a metallic semi-cone protruding from the side of my skull, and a quick examination reveals another one on the other side of my head.

I have cat ears.

This is an extremely unwelcome development.

MachineGod doesn't give me the chance to ponder it further. "I have bestowed upon you my blessings. Your body, hewn into a war machine from a fallen angel. Your mind, blessed by my ophanim."

"And the cat ears?" I ask.

The corner of his mouth upturns. "A bonus."

I'm about to tell him what he can do with his bonus when he snaps his fingers. The crowd pulls back, and his apostles slide from the throne to surround me. Katanas slide out of their arms.

"What's this about?" I say.

"Do you think I would let you leave without knowing my ophanim's work with my own eyes?" MachineGod says with fake indignation. "I would have you demonstrate its prowess — and yours. My apostles shall test your steel."

He leans forward over his turntable and pushes a button. A scratchy voice plays. "Fight!"

The beat drops. The apostles lunge.

Information streams into my eye. I see the composition of my foes' katanas and an overlay showing their predicted movements. I sidestep the first apostle's swing and slam a palm into the flat of her blade, shattering it. Then I elbow her in the face. She falls back and another apostle leaps over her.

I feel my tongue vibrating in that awful way again, but no sound comes out. Information explodes into my face and is then immediately siphoned away. My subconscious tells me that an acoustic analysis of the apostle has detected a structural weakness in his sword shoulder. I step into his lunge and throw a cross at it. His sword arm falls right off his body.

The apostle doesn't even flinch before throwing a one-handed haymaker. I duck under it easily. Unlike the rest of him, his neck is made of neoprene for more flexibility. It's also more vulnerable. I could easily tear out the coolant tubes inside. With the kind of power MachineGod's packed under his hood, he'll boil himself alive in moments. All I have to do is jab.

Two hours ago, I would've done just that. Instead, I wrap my hands around his waist and suplex him into the ground with a CLANK. Then I push myself over him into a backflip and let it carry me into another apostle. My entire pelvis pivots with a hydraulic hiss, sending four spinning kicks into her face in a quarter of a second.

She hits the ground before I do.

Eight more apostles rush me at once. Their movements are perfectly synchronized; each swipe of their blade occupies an arc in space that together completely lock me out of any place to dodge. If I parry one, three more will skewer me like a kebab.

But the rush I'm experiencing is different from demonarcotics. When I'm under the influence, everything around me runs slower. But as Cyber-Rukmini, I'm simply faster. Fast enough to detect the minute defects in their manufacturing, predict the trajectories of their perfect slashes, and determine the optimal points to lash out to disrupt their offensive.

A twitchy energy floods what's left of my nervous system. The voice in my head becomes a spider, scratching at the roof of my brain and demanding to be let out. So I do.

The vents around my waist roar. My entire upper body becomes a top. The spider puppets my limbs, steering them into precise jabs and bounces that deflect the apostles' perfect strikes and let me dash to safety. In an instant, a perfect pincer becomes a trampoline: the apostles having lodged their swords in each other's shoulders, creating a steel web that I crash down upon.

Eight arms are wrenched from their sockets. Eight dismembered androids take a shocked step back. The spider's eight invisible legs dislodge themselves from my limbs. I pick a sword and arm from the ground and raise it in the air.

I lock eyes with MachineGod. He cocks his head. Then, two perfect arms stretch out. One thumb goes up, the other down. The crowd waits with bated breath.

"Your mercy is wasted on my apostles — and dishonors the skill of my ophanim," he says.

"What I do, with my new body, is none of your business," I retort.

MachineGod sneers. "So be it." He snaps his fingers, and a figure emerges from behind his throne. It's me.

Or at least, my body. The thing that used to be me is dressed in a simple white sling swimsuit and high heels. Its limbs are mine — MachineGod looks to have sliced them off at the joints and deboned them — but my new eyes can pick out lumps on the chest that betray the endoskeleton inside, and see burn marks where MachineGod peeled my skin off to get at my fleshy bits.

I feel a phantom dry-heave when I realize that he's probably stitched my junk to that fucking thing.

"Your old one will serve me well."

The gynoid plants herself on the armrest of MachineGod's throne. She rests her head against his shoulder and watches me coldly. Her eyes and hair are all too real — I realize with disgust that they're mine.

I narrow my eyes. "Fine," I say. "I don't need it anymore."

MachineGod chuckles. "Then be off with you."

The crowd parts to let me through. Alliott meets me at the exit, and we step outside into the light.

The bouncer closes the doors behind us. As we climb up the stairs back into normal society, Alliott gives me a wry look. "You think maybe you should have asked him how to use your new bod?"

I shrug. "Yeah, well… that's what I have you for."

She exhales through her nose. "You'd better hope you come with a man page. Let's get you home and make sure MachineGod didn't install a crypto miner in your head."

We climb more stairs to the elevated maglevs. I swipe a prepaid card through the turnstile.

"Speaking of bods, Jesus Christ," Alliott says. "I thought he was gonna sell your bits off or something, that's what he did with mine — not build a fucking RealDoll."

"Fuck, don't remind me." I shudder. "Those were my limbs, and my fucking eyes — God, I'm gonna have to go back there later and blow her up. Him too."

"Count me in," Alliott says.

"New topic," I say. "What did it actually look like? When he took me apart?"

"Oh, uh…" Alliott pauses. "I dunno."

"Wait, I thought he dismembered me in front of that whole pack of psychos."

"Well yeah, he did that part, but then the whole surgical rig flipped underneath his throne," Alliott says. "Didn't want people to see how the sausage was made, I guess."

"So what, you all just danced around while he cyborgized me?"

"I mean… kind of?"

"Kind of? What do you mean kind of?"

The maglev pulls up with a faint puff of air. We step inside and take a pair of empty seats near the doors. A few people give the cyborg couple dirty looks, but we ignore them. My rave mask has been replaced with a faceplate and my cat-ear headphones with actual cat-ears, but we're still just a couple of weirdos in a city of thousands.

"What do you mean kind of?" I ask again.

Alliott chews her lip for a moment. "He broadcasted your memories instead. On the screens. About you and Natasha and Diya and all that. What happened between you."

My chest tightens. "Oh." A phantom memory resurfaces and suddenly the only thing stopping me from crying is my lack of tear ducts.

"Listen, Alliott — I don't, I don't know what to say, okay?" I mutter.

"Hey," Alliott says softly. "It's okay. It's okay. Look, it was fucked up. I'm not gonna argue that."

She clasps my hand between hers.

"But whatever you've done, Natasha's done worse. To you, to me… to Alex."

I pull my hand from her grasp.

"Look," I say. "Natasha and me… I want to hate her. But I hate myself more. I hate what I did and hate what — what I let happen and it's just all my fucking fault."

"No it isn't," Alliott says. She grabs my hand again. "Listen. You didn't make her tear out your heart. You didn't make her work for Oneiroi. You didn't make her kill my best friend. She did all that. You can't be your own worst enemy. If anyone knows that, it's me."

I don't mention that Alex shot first.

"You can't second-guess yourself, okay?" Alliott says forcefully. "That's what she wants. She wants you to trip up or slip up or go running back to her and you're better than that. Okay?"

"Okay," I say.

Alliott gives me a peck on the cheek. "We're going to find that bitch and put her in the dirt."

The train reaches our stop.

"Hold onto that hate, Ruku," Alliott says as we step out onto the platform. "It's what she deserves."

We walk back to KMZ hand-in-hand. The Inside Man is waiting for us in the reception area. The first thing he says when he sees us is, "Where the hell's my corset?"

I stop in surprise. "Ah, fuck."

"Aw c'mon, I liked that corset!" the Man complains.

"You were going to sell it!" I say as we step into the elevator. But I'm actually kind of sorry to see it go. I'd been wearing that thing for so many weeks it was starting to melt into my skin. Now it's just gone, like the rest of my body.

But I have something a lot better than a combat corset to show for it, and that something is the whole reason we're at KMZ. The moment we step into Alliott's room, we start poking around my new cyborg body. The Inside Man discovers an assortment of ports under my armpit. Alliott scrounges around for a suitable cable to plug into her laptop. She finds it under her bed, blows the dust off, and plugs it into my arm. "Alright, now let's see what software you're packing."

She taps away at the keys for a minute.

"Okay, hmm. Looks like MachineGod installed Archvile on you. It's an Arch distro, the ones he uses for his apostles. Super fast. Gimme a minute to run an antivirus."

While she's watching the screen, the Man gives my ear an experimental flick. Involuntarily, a loud mewl comes from the speaker on my face.

I immediately clap a hand over it. Alliott and the Man both stare at me like I have an arm coming out of my head. Then the Inside Man flicks my ear again. Again I meow like a cat in heat, and they explode into laughter for the longest twenty seconds of my life.

"God, this is so excellent," the Man giggles, flicking both my ears. Alliott sets the laptop down and pads over to me. I sit there, my face burning, as the two of them flick at my ears and burst into giggles every twenty seconds for the next five minutes. Finally, Alliott stops laughing long enough to check the antivirus.

"Looks — looks like," she says, snickering, "that you're — hehehehe — clean."

I tap my ears. "Can you like, do something about that?"

She smiles ear-to-ear. "No can — pfffftt — no can do."

I don't believe her for an instant.

"It could be a lot worse," she says knowingly. "MachineGod's a prick, but he's an honorable one. All your innards are in, there's no malware, all he took was your old bod. Now let's see if he left a README anywhere…"

As it turns out, he's left a lot of READMEs. My new body was apparently retrofitted from a cybernetic corpse that actually did survive an unprotected fall from orbit. MachineGod added new skin, swapped the skeleton for ceramics, and —

"Put a nuke in your chest?" Alliott says. "Okay, no, a nuclear battery. Jesus, who uses nuclear power? It's 2019 — wait, it is 2019, right?"


"Thanks. Yeah, it's fuckin' twenty-nineteen, has he never heard of the thaumelectric effect?"

The Inside Man frowns. "I have no idea what you're saying."

"Right, sorry, my inner thaumic engineer. Anyways, uh, let's see… nuclear battery, oooh, pulsed inductive thrusters in the elbows, frictional dampeners, a predictive combat engine, oh yeah, integrated arm-blades… Oh! Pull your left thumb back. Really hard. Left thumb!"

I grab hold of my left thumb, close my eyes, and yank. Instead of tearing my thumb off as I half-suspect, I hear machinery clicking about. I open my eyes.

My arm has refashioned itself into a wide, squat cannon. My fingers have splayed out along the edge into curved panels, sandwiching a silver barrel. Fins along my arm have popped open, and the underside of my arm has pushed itself downwards into a stock. My thumb has slid back halfway along the arm to the elbow. Six inches of dark black steel are poking from the top — likely those arm blades Alliott mentioned. It's one part musket, one part bayonet.

"Ohhhhh I do not like this. I do not like this one bit," I say.

The Inside Man looks almost green.

"Don't worry," Alliott says. "Push your thumb back into place."

I wrap my hand around my thumb and push. There's resistance at first, and I'm terrified my thumb will snap off. But then it slides neatly back into place. As it does so, my arm reshapes itself: the vents seal closed, the stock flattens itself, and my fingers slide back along the rails into position.

I flex my hand cautiously. It works fine.

"Thank God. Okay," I say. "Let's see how those arm blades work."

I flex my wrists experimentally. A pair of built-in tantos slide from my wrist and impale the sofa cushions.

"Ah, butts," I say. "Had to be tantos."

"What's wrong with tantos?" Alliott says.

"The Chicago Geist love tantos."

"Ohhh," Alliott says thoughtfully. "The weeb Nazis."


"I can fix that," she says. She digs through the bins and comes up with a pair of fat silver blades with flattened tips. "These are called khandas. They're basically broadswords from India. Here, take a look."

I reach over and grab the blade from her hands. It has a satisfying heft to it, and I quite like the idea of replacing my weeb-blades with Indian steel.

"Can you fit these for me?" I ask.

She nods. "Gimme a minute to find my tools."

"Oh, thanks!"

Alliott winks. "It's on me." She locates a drill and set of screwdrivers and gets to work, unscrewing the protective plates on my wrist to expose the wiring underneath. Just under the wires, we can see the thin translucent cases containing the taunts.

"The casing is too small," Alliott says. "C'mon, we gotta make bigger ones."

A few minutes later, we step out of the elevators into the fourth floor maker space. Two people step past us, carrying a full-scale MJOLNIR suit. There's a girl with what are almost certainly real fox ears flitting between a few laser cutters in the corner. In the center tables, some people are sewing Nomex into the lining of their streetwear. There's a cyborg sitting in a dentist's chair against the wall, illegally overclocking her own positronic brain. A few people are milling near a Pac-Man cabinet, drinking homebrewed ale.

It's nice to see some things never change.

Alliott guides me into the cosplay section of the floor. She has me sit down in front of a long table and lay my arm on it. She takes several measurements of my exposed arm, scribbling numbers down on a notepad, then slides over to a nearby computer and opens up CAD software. I watch her model a fat plastic box with a spring-loaded bottom, then send that data to the 3D printer. Within minutes, it spits out a pair of translucent khanda-sized cases with screws that perfectly align to the holes in my arm.

Alliott dumps both cases onto the table and starts performing electronic surgery on my wrist. As she unplugs wires and bundles them together to access the tantos, a frown forms on her face. "Hmm… the casing attachment is tapped into your sensory wiring. This is going to hurt, but it can't be helped. I'll be as gentle as I can though, okay?"

I make an exhaling sound. "Just do whatever you need to."

"You said it, not me," she replies. She takes a screwdriver and starts unscrewing the corners of the case. I feel my arm coming undone and inhale sharply. Alliott pauses and squeezes my good hand reassuringly.

"Why does this feel so weird?" I say.

Alliott shrugs. "MachineGod doesn't really think like us - his Roman emperor shtick is just a personality wrapper. I couldn't tell you what he was thinking when he designed the weirder bits of this bod."

Alliott takes a screwdriver and pries the case up. It slides out partway. Surprisingly, my arm feels much better when it's done. I exhale with relief. "Fuck me."

She snorts. "Hold this down, would you?"


"The khandas. We gotta put 'em in the cases."

"Oh!" With my good hand, I pin the fat blade to the table. Alliott gingerly slides the case into place around it, stopping once we hear a click. Then she pushes the khanda into my wrist and snaps the case down. It hurts like a motherfucker.

"Fffuck!" I hiss.

"Sorry!" Alliott exclaims. "Sorry - sorry!"

"It's… it's fine," I say weakly. "Don't worry about it." I didn't even know cyborgs could have throbbing pains.

Alliott carefully screws the case into place, reconnects the wires in my arm, and slides my protective wrist plates back on. "Give it a try?" she says.

I stand up gingerly and flick my wrist. A half-meter broadsword slides out of my arm. I swing it experimentally. The weapon feels much heftier than the tantos; it's satisfying without being unwieldy. Fifty centimeters of Hindu steel versus thirty of Japanese? Hindu steel wins.

"Worth it," I say.

We repeat the process with my other hand. It's a bit trickier, what with the arm cannon inside, but Alliott's good at what she does. I'm even used to the pain.

Alliott nods approvingly as she watches me practice with my new hand-to-hand weaponry. The moment I retract the blades, she reaches over and flicks my ear. I pout, or do my best impression of one.

"You're cute when your arms are crossed," she says.

"Oh my God, just get a room," the Inside Man says. I didn't even realize he'd come up with us.

Alliott glares at him. "I did."

"Well, go use it."

She sneers at him and grabs my hand. "Fine. Come on. This is MachineGod we're talking about — he must have installed some bedroom augments. I want to see what kind."

"Huh?!" I say in surprise. "Shouldn't we — I mean, aren't we — shouldn't we be planning how to break into the Moon?"

"If it's all the same to you," Alliott says, dragging me towards the elevator, "I'd rather get right to the shagging."

NEXT: Prey and Obey

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