Morphine Machine

rating: +71+x

FIRST: The Chosen Few

I jolt upright with a shriek.

The Inside Man almost definitely heard that — fucker's never gonna let me live this down. Honestly, though, I'm twenty-seven. I'm way too old to have nightmares. Especially ones about old flames.

Still, that was a vivid one.

My chest is buzzing. I look down to find myself wearing a vibrating black-and-red corset.

I definitely wasn't wearing this when I went to bed. I don't even wear corsets. But what really gives me pause is the IV drip feeding blood into my arm from a pouch on the bedside stand.

"Aweh! You're up." The Inside Man enters the room with a plastic and paper bag in his hands.

"What the hell did you do to me?"

He shrugs and sets the bags down. "Saved your life — you're welcome. The fuck happened to you anyways?" he asks, pulling out breakfast food and fluid pouches. "I went out last night to get a soda and came back with you bleeding to death all over your sheets. You're lucky I had that combat corset — don't touch it by the way, it's keeping your blood pumping in your body."

"Why is it vibrating?"

"It's on! Stopping your bleeding with ultrasonic vibration. It's also draining fluids from your chest, and you know, pumping your blood. Been sitting in the stash for bladdy ages — figured I'd sell it while we were here."

I nod slowly. Then the implications of the combat corset actually hit me.

"Fuck! My heart!"

"Ja. Your heart." The Inside Man passes me a danish and paper coffee cup. "Seriously, it's like you got it ripped right out of your chest."

In between nibbles of cherry danish and sips of coffee, I tell him about last night. His eyes narrow.

"What the hell did you do to this girl?"

"I kind of ghosted her."

He hooks a fresh blood bag up to my drip. "So she tore your heart right out your chest? What, did the market value of kidneys drop?"

"Ha ha." I try to get up but don't have any strength in my arms.

"I wouldn't move. You look like death warmed over."

I look down at the sheets. They definitely weren't red when we checked in.

"I feel like death warmed over," I admit. "Christ. Didn't think you cared so much about me."

"Course I don't," he says with mock indignation. "But you're an investment, and I take care of my investments. Here, have another danish."


I start nibbling at the danish and then pass out mid-bite.

When I wake up, the Inside Man is gone. The drip is feeding some clear liquid into my arm. I'm strong enough to retrieve my phone and the TV remote from the table. This is progress.

I gnaw on my cold danish while checking the news. There's no mention of the bar brawl on any of the TV channels, but the failed sting op at Midwich Valley is trending on Void. I still can't imagine what possessed Hersh to name his bar that. Of course, he probably didn't. I wonder if robots can even own property in Three Portlands.

I'm mulling over automated capitalism and bar names ("Lock, Stock, & Barrel" and "Beermageddon" are my favorites) when the Inside Man enters the room.

"I got nothing," he tells me. "Spent all day trying to track this girl down but her trail's gone cold. If I'd entered your mind earlier I could've traced her emotions through you but I knew you wouldn't — it doesn't matter. You have any idea where she could've gone?"

"I have some ideas." I lay out the details of my former relationship with Natasha to the Inside Man.

"You're a real domkop, you know that?" he says when I'm done. "But that's good. We can work with this. You look a lot better too. Corset's doing a bang-up job."

There's no mirror nearby, so I take a selfie to check. I look like I passed out on a toilet. Still, it's better than looking like I died on one. The Inside Man interrupts my vanity session.

"Here's what I'm thinking. We kit you up, you pop over to your ex's universe, kill her and pop your heart back in, and we get back to robbing Anderson blind. I know for a fact you weren't born with that thing in you, so you gotta know how to get it back in you. Am I right?"

"Mostly," I say. "The problem is I can't just jump between universes anymore."

"The hell you mean?" he asks incredulously. "Just snort some of that hellsmack or whatever you need and jump over, right?"

"If I even look at my drugs without my heart I'm pretty sure I'll disintegrate," I explain. "It's literally the source of my mojo."

"Tch." The Inside Man looks worried. "Alright. You get some rest. I'll figure out how we get back to Eurtec. We'll have to talk to Alliott Chao."

Eurtec is different when I'm not on speed — warmer and slower. Above my head, a dozen sleek white monorails zip across the elevated maglev rails that crisscross the city. They shoot through gaps in the skyscrapers, all glass, steel and concrete. There are viewscreens tacked onto everything, blasting advertisements for brand new augmented reality implants, bionic prosthesis replacements, and smart kitchen sinks. It could be worse — if I had VR implants the damn things would be right in my face.

At ground level, street vendors parade their pirated tech, while shopkeepers stare at them derisively through their storefronts. From their 5D stalls, anartists vape contemptuously at both. The buildings seem taller, the streets wider, and the people dicier when I'm not hopped up. As it turns out, having performance enhancers on hand at all times does wonders for your confidence. Without my heart, I feel naked. Weak. None of these people notice me — I can't shake the feeling that if they did, they'd pounce on me like rabid dogs.

The Inside Man and I push through the main thoroughfare and turn off into the concrete jungle of inner Neuneukölln. The warmth of the city dips off. This whole area used to be heavily industrialized. It housed all of Prometheus Labs' research and manufacturing facilities until the company imploded in the nineties. Then everything was gutted or sold off, and the place was left to rot.

The buildings here are squat, concrete slabs. The advertisement screens are cracked and shattered. There are no street vendors or shopkeepers. Anartists still vape at us, but with the contempt of a robber sizing up an easy mark. The maglevs still run overhead, but they don't stop here anymore.

Our hideout is on the upper mezzanine of an abandoned warehouse near the center of the district. The lock is keyed to our biometrics — unless one of us unlocks the door and opens it, the stairway up won't be there. The moment we get inside we both flop onto the couch. When the Inside Man turns on the telly and starts discussing the meeting with Alliott, I almost feel like myself again.

For most people, Eurtec at night is just Eurtec without a blue sky.

I am not most people. So before I head out, the Inside Man puts me in body armor and hands me two pairs of hollowed-out bones.

"What the hell is this?" I ask him, examining them. They're unpleasantly warm to the touch.

"Slide 'em over your pointer and middle fingers," he tells me.

"The hell does it do?"

"Point those at someone and shoot. It'll remove their spine."

"How do I do that?"

"Same way you shoot a finger gun."

I squint at him, but slide them over my fingers. They feel rubbery, and flex with my digits.

"Looking good," he says. "Alright, let's get this show on the road."

With that, I walk out of the warehouse and into the night.

At night, the concrete slabs come alive. Shattered screens light up, feebly advertising cheap karaoke bars and sex-robot brothels that are in the same rooms. Trap houses invite anyone or anything with a bit of cash to spend it on software cracks, DRM patches, or just regular drugs. And of course, the mass-market K-pop robots are out in force.

I hate the stupid things. They kick up and down the city with their perfect clock-synchronized choreography and artificial smiles, begging suckers to come sing karaoke with them and dragging them back here if they offer even the slightest give. Then they dose them up to their eyes in drink, so that by the time morning comes the suckers don't remember anything but the buzz of karaoke. And the next night, the suckers come back.

My kit is concealed beneath a patterned hoodie, but even the hoodie does work: the patterns on the back confuse the CCTVs and K-pop bots. Everyone around here wears one. But it's not just how you look for the cameras — it's how you look for the people.

This part of Neuneukölln is especially bad. It's full of pickpockets and thugs looking to make a quick buck off the unaware. The police are useless — even if they patrolled here, they'd be practically blind since everyone wears the concealment patterns. Normally, nobody would mess with the girl with green flames pouring out from under her helmet. But right now, I'm pitifully human.

All I can do is walk with purpose and hope the lowlife around here know my reputation. There's honor among thieves in Eurtec. Everyone knows everyone, but nobody tells the cops. To be fair, part of it is because ratting your rival out would tank your reputation in the eyes of the original Chicago Spirit — everyone knows Richard Chappell hated snitches — but I like to think that most of it is personal pride.

Unfortunately, racial pride trumps personal pride for some people. It's only to be expected; when the authorities pray to Nordic supercomputers you're bound to get a few Nazis in the mix. The local variety call themselves the Chicago Geist. The rest of us call them anime Nazis due to their special blend of racism and techno-weeb fetishism.

I'm just a couple blocks from Alliott's place on the edge of the district when one such specimen gets in my way. He's weird even by anime Nazi standards; I can tell by the smell and swelling that the bastard has custom tanto implants in his arms. He's at least smarter than the fucks who get wakizashis in their arms — those guys can barely swing the fucking things — but he still got fucking samurai swords put into his arms.

"Gimme your money," he spits at me in German.

I shoot him with my finger gun. Nothing happens. Prick must've had his spine replaced. I should've guessed the spine-blasters wouldn't work on cyborgs. They're thrumming with occult magicks, but magick with a K tends not to touch metal.

While I'm trying to determine why he didn't get his back blown out, the weeaboo-Nazi squints at me. "Gimme your wallet or I'll slice you into sushi. I can see the crypto wallet in your pocket."

For emphasis, he takes a fish out of his pocket and throws it into the air. Twin tantos extend from his arms and he effortlessly chops the fish up into a hundred pieces before it hits the ground. The prick apparently had his reflexes enhanced too. So much for making a break for it.

I want to kill him. I want to kill this idiot stalking around at night with a bloody fish in his pocket so he can frighten minorities with his disgusting sword hands. Not because he's a Nazi or even because he's trying to mug me. But because he's in my way. Because he's standing there while I'm furious out of my mind. Because nobody would care if I slammed his head into the pavement and drove my frustrations through my boot into his skull until it cracked and pink mush came out.

But I can't. My chest is killing me, my goddamn gun doesn't work and if I try to physically rush him he'll gut me like a fish. I can't run away either; he's clearly faster than me. I'm outmatched by a racist weeaboo and it pisses me the hell off. But I don't have time for his hate-crime theatrics, so I toss him the USB stick with my payment for Alliott.

Somehow he flubs the catch and drops it. The idiot doesn't think to retract his swords, so every time he leans down they bonk into the ground. I walk briskly past him while he struggles to scoop up the wallet. I make two promises to myself: one, to throttle the Inside Man when I see him next; and two, to track the anime Nazi down and fillet him with his own blades once I get my heart back.

As I turn the corner, a stylized neon logo of a cat's face smirks down at me. This used to be Prometheus Labs' flagship factory here. Then it was left to die until a rag-tag group of anahums purchased it. Now it's the focal point for a thriving fashion boutique and underground criminal empire: the Kemonomimi Zaibatsu.

For the front of a criminal enterprise, the reception area is surprisingly clean. Then again, it's also the front for a legitimate worker-owned fashion boutique. The floor is tiled, the lights are fluorescent, and the seats are plastic and fiber. The reception desk is that weird gray plastic you see in schools and hospitals.

The receptionist is a bored-looking Russian woman in a blouse and miniskirt. She has a segmented metal cat-tail sticking up like a lightning rod jammed into her tailbone. I recognize the tail; it's an early model, back when they hadn't quite fixed all the kinks with artificial neural pathways in brain-machine interfaces. If I had to guess, her consciousness rejected the tail, so now it just sits there. That's probably why she works for the Kemonomimi Zaibatsu. They're one of the few employers, even in Eurtec, who would accept someone with such an obvious body-mod.

"Alliott Chao says you're a bitch," I tell her. She raises an eyebrow in recognition of the code phrase.

"Likewise, cock sucker. Membership card, please?"

I hand her a thin plastic card with the letters "KMZ" engraved on it in red and black. She accepts it without looking up from her computer. Her hands fly across the keyboard. After a moment, she answers.

"She should be in the makerspace on the fourth floor. Will that be all?"

"Yes, thank you."

She hands me my card. I make my way to the elevators and take the first one up.

The fourth floor is a single, wide-open room and hotbed of DIY activity. As I exit the elevator, two people step inside it carrying a full-scale Power Suit. There's a girl with what are almost certainly real cat ears flitting between a few laser cutters in the corner. In the center tables, some people are sewing Kevlar into the lining of their streetwear. There's an android sitting in a dentist's chair against the wall, illegally overclocking their own positronic brain. A few people are milling near a pinball machine drinking beers — homebrewed of course; the bioreactors here aren't just for show.

I find Alliott Chao in the cosplay manufacturing section, assembling a sniper rifle out of black thermoplastic.

"That's a Barrett XM500, isn't it?" I ask her. "I didn't know they'd uploaded the schematics online."

"They haven't," she replies. As soon as the barrel snaps into place, she starts disassembling it. "It's custom. Designed it myself. Uses a new shock-absorbent type of thermoplastic. KMZ is thinking of adding it to their lineup of tactical fashion. For bulletproof vests."

Alliott rolls up one sleeve and pant leg, revealing full arm and leg prostheses with several slots in them. The pieces of the sniper rifle fit into the slots perfectly.

"I like a girl who knows her guns. You're the Rookie, right?" she asks, rolling her sleeves down.


"I've heard a lot about you. Jacking the Bank of Eurtec and the Phitransimun Combine? Pretty fuckin' cool."

"Thanks. What's the sniper for?" I ask her.

"My business," she says, rubbing her arm. "What're you looking for?"

"I need a bidirectional Way. Moddable one, that I can change the outlets for. I need all the information you can find on a witch called Natasha Tokyopop. And I need a way to get to the Moon."

She raises an eyebrow. "When do you need this stuff?"


"It'll run you about…" She pauses and then runs off a number with a whole lot of zeroes.

"Cool. Can I get back to you about that?"

"What? The Inside Man said you'd be bringing payment."

"I… had some trouble on the way here. I don't have the cash on me," I admit.

Alliott shrugs. "Can't do anything if you don't — hold on." She cocks her head for a moment, then starts jabbering into empty space in a language I'm not familiar with. Her facial expressions go from bemused to angry to conspiratorial and back again for several minutes. Then she hangs up and looks at me.

"Tell you what. I've got a job for you. You do this, we both get a fat payday and I get you what you need. You interested?"

NEXT: Loud, Lawless, and Lost

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