I was facing an imposing wall of stiff-backed, silent individuals. My hand was clutching the metal railing by my side with a fierce determination, my knuckles turning white and the muscles in my arms burning from the strain. Mum stood next to me, that half stern, half sympathetic look adorning her face.
"C'mon sweetie, you need to let go. It's for the best, you know," she pleaded.
I tried to refuse, tried to coax some excuse, some reasoning out of my mouth but it was glued shut. Every time I tried to speak some invisible force pushed back, preventing anything but a tiny squeak from escaping. Frantically, I began hyperventilating, and Mum took advantage of my distraction to manoeuvre me into the line that had formed in front of us. I swung my hands furiously, pointing to my throat, but Mum just smiled and nodded, leading me forward as if nothing was amiss. I glanced around wildly but the press of bodies hid everything besides the dark concrete roof and the metal grating floor beneath our feet. I swept my eyes over the crowd, trying to find someone I knew, someone who could help me, someone who wasn't brainwashed like Mum seemed to be. But every time I tried to look at their faces my vision went haywire, their features distorting into an indistinct silver blur that I could not focus on no matter how hard I tried. Even so, I was inexplicably certain that we were all of the same age. Mum was the only exception.
Up ahead I could just see a bright light streaming in from outside. We were approaching the end of the tunnel. As we stepped out into a sea of shuffling bodies, each and every head craned up to look upon the monstrosity in front of us. I followed their gazes, struck frozen and dumb by the obscure shape of the enormous silver ship docked at the end of the platform. It resembled a giant medical syringe, with fat engines at the rear, a long transparent cylinder for its body, and an elongated proboscis extending from the cockpit. The ship towered above us, scaled as if to accommodate giants twenty-feet tall. Through the transparent walls I could see dozens of amorphous blobs rushing to and fro, occasional sparks of rainbow light bursting into and out of fleeting existence.
As I gazed in awe at the incredible sight, Mum continued to drag me along with the rest of the crowd. A large steel gangway bridged the gap between us and the ship, and we were ushered upwards by cloaked figures mumbling incoherently under their breath. I turned once again to Mum, hoping for her to see the desperation in my eyes and to come to her senses, but she had disappeared, swallowed whole by the blurred-face crowd. I tried to retreat but it was like swimming against the waves, an endless sea of bodies crushing me backwards every step I took. I was swept along with the current, victim to the will of the masses. Finally, when there were only a few people left between me and the top of the gangway, I was able to see above the crest of the horde, and I managed to locate Mum. She was being escorted from the edge of the swarm by a pair of the cloaked figures. The trio stepped onto a small, raised plinth in the corner of the platform and turned around. I threw my hands into the air and started waving and jumping furiously, doing everything I could to attract Mum's attention. I opened my jaw wide and pushed hard, struggling to force something, anything out of my mouth.
"Rlllggagghh!" I managed to growl.
Mum appeared completely oblivious to my efforts and continued to smile blankly. As I gestured hopelessly the two figures beside her sprouted hideous wings, grotesque throbbing veins woven across a tapestry of sickly translucent skin. One of the abominations leaned in towards Mum and scooped her into its arms before launching into the sky, carrying her off so impossibly fast that in the span of a few seconds all that was left was a dot in the sky, no bigger than a grain of salt. I stood with my mouth agape, my hands limp at my side, confusion and horror battling it out in the pit of my stomach with no qualms about collateral damage. An icy chill washed over me from head to toe and my knees turned to jelly, no longer willing or able to support my weight. My vision turned to haze and I started to spin, around and around, down and down, a slow-motion dance, its climax a full body embrace with the floor. I spiralled at half-speed, watching as the platform below me transformed into a grotesque grey mass, its slimy bulk pulsating with a gloomy, unnatural light. I closed my eyes and braced for impact.
I awoke to a face full of grey carpet. I was lying on the floor beside my bed, the sheets tangled around my feet and my top halfway up my chest. A chill breeze was drifting in through the window as the automated alarm system gradually reduced the tinting of the glass and began letting in the air from outside. Living thirty-three stories up meant that mornings had the potential to deliver quite blistering winds, which was why most sensible people did not open their windows. I was clearly an idiot. That realisation aside, I had good reason for wanting to avoid the usual snooze button temptation this morning. It was my twenty-first birthday, and that meant it was time for my ascendance test.
The law stated that, after turning twenty-one, you had forty-eight hours to get your ass to an Ascension office. Well, maybe it didn't use those exact words, but it meant essentially the same thing. The ads for Ark City made it clear that this rigid time constraint was for our own benefit, ensuring 'optimum results' in the test, but there was no denying that it was kind of an odd requirement to make legally binding.
An Ascension office is one of the few places where you could be assured of seeing an ascendant, catching them during their brief downtime before they disappeared into the city to conduct whatever business they had here in Sallustria. The offices also served as gatehouses for the only means of travel to the floating utopia above - assuming you could find a way to obtain authorisation. As far as I know, the only time 'normal' people are allowed up there is for their ascendance operation - if they're lucky enough to pass the test. Passage is provided by the colossal stalk lifts connected to the buildings, the spires catapulting upwards to pierce the sky-scape projection covering the surface of Ark City's gargantuan hull. The ascendance test itself is apparently a series of non-invasive body scans that can determine whether you are capable of achieving 'ascendance', and thus the right to travel to and reside in Ark City. They say it's not compulsory for ascendants to live there, but I've never heard of any spending more than a few days down here before returning, even when they're visiting family!
And I'm not just basing my assumptions on the scant few ascendants I've personally seen. I have actual data that backs me up! I remember watching a newscast projection on the face of the See-Worlds building - Tired of Earth? We can take you to the Stars! - where some expert said that of the estimated 0.05% of the population that had been deemed viable and received the ascendance operation, less than two hundred were present in Sallustria at any one time. The data reportedly came from APT logs, and the list of IDs recorded one day would often be completely different to the next. While this validated my theory that ascendants were reluctant to stay here for an extended period of time, it gave me no clue as to why. I would love to get the chance to ask an ascendant face-to-face, but they all seemed to avoid us 'regular' people like we had the plague or something.
Only once had I ever seen an ascendant walk down the street alone. He had appeared completely oblivious to the world around him, his eyes locked forward and his arms swinging mechanically. Other pedestrians had stopped and stared in awe or tried to grab his attention, but he ignored them with unflinching resolve, striding onwards as the crowd's eager cries faded into whispered disappointment. As would be expected, this kind of behaviour had spawned much suspicion and distrust towards Ascension, alleviated in no way by the heavily scripted interviews and speeches they had presented over the years. Yet despite the regular smear campaigns that ran like clockwork every few months, Ascension showed no signs of leaving anytime soon, and Ark City remained a constant presence in the sky above, as ubiquitous as real grass had been, so many centuries ago.
I struggled to my feet, unravelling the sheets and heaping them back onto the bed. I pulled my shirt back down and started to leave the room, pausing at the threshold as goose-bumps started to rise up my arms. I decided that it was far too cold to be strutting around half-naked, so I grabbed the sheets back off the bed and threw them over my shoulders as a makeshift cloak. Huddled within, I emerged from my room into the hallway and made my way into the kitchen and living area. Mum was already up, sitting on the couch and watching the morning show projection on the wall. She had her Comp in one hand and a coffee in the other, and was so preoccupied with checking her messages that she didn't notice me enter.
"Hi Mum," I announced.
She jumped from the unexpected noise, and her coffee sloshed over her robe and onto the couch cushions.
"Crap! Liz, you scared the hell out of me! Damn it! Look at the bloody couch…"
Mum stood up and frowned disparagingly at the brown stain slowly spreading across the blue cushions.
"Sorry Mum!" I rushed into the kitchen and retrieved the multi-purpose cleaner from the top shelf in the pantry. I ran back and handed the can to her, shuffling around to get a good view as she squeezed the trigger and a fine mist settled onto the couch fabric. It was always fascinating to watch the cleaning substance take effect, and an unconscious smile spread across my face as the coffee stain began to rise from the cushion, solidifying into a thin brown cake that slowly contracted in on itself like a burning sheet of paper. Once it had compressed into a small, crinkled ball, Mum picked it up and deposited it into the trash receptacle in the kitchen. As she returned the can to its shelf, I caught sight of the flashing slogan playing across its side. Spray once, problem solved! Mum sighed as she returned to the couch.
"Urgh! Cleaning is such a chore. Hey Liz, do you think you could do me a favour and go collect the laundry? The notification came through on my Comp a couple of minutes ago." I nodded and spun on my heel, eager to atone for making her spill her coffee. I dragged my blanket coat down the hallway and made my way to the laundry. It was more of an alcove than a room, just a slight depression in the wall with two square silver hatches. One was labelled Dirty, the other Clean. The control panel set between them was currently glowing green, confirming that the laundry had indeed been returned from the building's central cleaning system. I opened the Clean hatch and slid the tray out, dumping the fresh clothes into a basket which I picked up and started lugging back out to the living room. The system was pretty easy: you threw your soiled garments into the Dirty chute, waited for a couple of minutes, then retrieved them from the Clean chute, ironed, cleaned, folded, and ready to wear. As I carried the basket down the hallway, my nose picked out the fragrant raspberry-lime odour that had been infused into the fabric of the clothes. I smiled and closed my eyes, breathing in the succulent scent and savouring it as a shiver ran down my spine. Mum always knew how to make the most boring things enjoyable.
I stepped out from the end of the corridor and stared in awe at the fantastical transformation the living room had undergone in my absence. I was so shocked that the laundry basket slipped from my fingers and hit the ground with a blast of displaced air. Mum obviously hadn't expected me out of bed so early this morning, and had used the laundry as an excuse to get me back out of the room for a few minutes so she could enact her devious plan. She had turned the normally tepid space into a commotion of vibrant colours and frantic movement by setting the living room Comp to render a scene straight out of a swords and sorcery fantasy novel. A miniature castle stood in the middle of the room, with hundreds of tiny archers patrolling the ramparts as a swarm of hideous orcs assaulted the walls. A dragon screeched down from above and filled the room with orange flames and billowing smoke. After a minute or so the scene slowly faded away to reveal a tranquil grove buried within a dark forest. Mum wandered forward and wrapped an arm around me, squeezing my side affectionately. I reciprocated and we both watched as a parade of faeries fluttered through, their bodies constantly morphing into new and exotic forms. This elaborate vista eventually faded too, and we found ourselves inside a massive hall, towering statues arrayed between columns and an elevated dais in front of us bearing a proud oak throne. A velvet throw embroidered with twisting golden flowers adorned the seat, and a rug extended beneath our feet and back down the hall. A tall figure shuffled toward us, head lowered in deference.
"Your Grace, would you allow me the honour of bestowing your magnificent head with this simple crown?" With this the man produced a glittering golden circlet, inset with gems of onyx and sapphire - anything but 'simple'. I giggled, turning to Mum. She beamed at me, clearly seeing through my twenty-one year old façade to the innocent eight year old daughter within. I smiled back and knelt to receive my crown, knowing that Mum had spent an inordinate amount of time putting her heart and soul into this. While it might be kind of cheesy - and I had no plans to voluntarily share it with my friends - it was something I would cherish for the rest of my life. Mum and I have had to rely on each other since Dad left, taking it in turns to make dinner, clean the house, and look after the other when they get sick. In truth, I saw Mum less as a parent and more as a friend. My best friend.
After spending a few minutes basking in the roaring applause of a people adoring their queen, the virtual began to shut down, the projection collapsing back into the Comp like a star about to go supernova. The room returned to its decidedly more mundane appearance and Mum rushed down the hallway, her fading footsteps tracking her progress as she ran to her bedroom. I was still smiling, stunned that Mum had managed to craft such a wonderful virtual based on my love of fantasy stories. It was infinitely more complex than the educationals and playhouse 'sitters that she built for work. It must have taken her weeks! My friends were always boasting about getting huge transfers from their parents, but that was the sum total of their birthday celebrations. I pitied them. I really did. I had a Mum who genuinely cared about me, who knew what I was interested in. Mum sauntered back in with a coy look on her face and her hands behind her back then gestured for me to sit down by nodding her head in the direction of the couch. As I sat, Mum approached and revealed a small plastic box wrapped with a bow.
"Go on, open it," said Mum eagerly, the grin on her face tempered with a slight hint of uncertainty.
I untied the bow and fumbled with the box until I managed to get the lid off. Inside, resting on springy black foam, were two pass cards for a short orbit of Earth.
"Oh my God Mum! These must have cost a fortune!"
Mum smiled back, her tension subsiding in the wake of my delight.
"Now, you don't have to, but I was thinking, if none of your friends wanted to go, well, we could go together?" asked Mum warily.
"Don't be silly! Of course we'll go together!" I shouted, throwing my arms around her and pulling her onto the couch with me. We both smiled and laughed as we hugged. It was a tremendous gift from Mum, not only because of the cost of the passes, but because she was an extremely nervous flyer. Riding around in an APT (the generic descriptor: All-Purpose Transport) didn't cause any problems, but the few times we had taken a cruiser intercity Mum would get a bad case of claustrophobia. Her hands would begin shaking, and it would take a lot for her to push thoughts of the miles of open space between us and the ground to the back of her mind. So this was a big sacrifice she was making, and it wasn't the first time either. I grinned and squeezed Mum tighter, thanking every heavenly body I could think of for giving me everything I could hope for.
After wolfing down a banquet breakfast - courtesy of our top-of-the-line KitchenMate - it was time to finally take the plunge, grabbing my ticket, crossing my fingers, and hoping my number came up on the evolutionary wheel of fortune. I'd been dreaming of this day for months, my unconscious brain entertaining the remote possibility that I could join the ranks of the intellectual elite, the vanguards of human evolution, and play a pivotal role in shaping Sallustria's future. I grabbed a self-heating sachet of Chicken Munchies (one of my favourite snacks of late), kissed Mum goodbye and nearly made it to the door before I realised I was still wearing my pyjamas. I turned to see Mum grinning at me from the kitchen doorway, and I waved her off as I wandered dejectedly back to my room.
"Shut up. Don't. Say. A. Thing." I mumbled. Mum tried unsuccessfully to suppress a giggle as I stumbled past her.
After leaving my bedroom this morning, the house Comp had retracted the bed into the wall and replaced it with a couch, desk and desk chair according to my current daily routine. I swiped my hand over the wall next to the window, now closed but fully transparent and displaying a cityscape just starting to wake, and a panel ejected and slid sideways to reveal the closet. Inside was a neatly arrayed wall of blank grey outfits, a sight that never ceased to disappoint me. I understand that it's to save power, but still...
I swept my hand through the mass of grey fabric, playing the outfits like strings on a harp, and watched as a cacophony of colour exploded before my eyes. From each point of contact kaleidoscope ripples pulsed, life blooming into the dull grey material. Sleeves shrank down or puffed out, forming t-shirts and woolly jackets. Some outfits split apart and reformed with multiple layers, others adopted pre-programmed wear and tear to flavour their design. I stared at the now resplendent wardrobe and smiled proudly. Much better! I pulled out a cotton t-shirt and jacket combo with a long skirt. My jacket depicted a dark forest with multiple sets of eyes peering out of the shadows. Occasionally they would blink, and sometimes shift places. It was sufficiently unnerving and suited my sadistic side quite well.
I walked back down the hall to the bathroom and dumped my clothes on the bench before turning the shower on. The building's regulations limited the shower length and pressure, and after removing my clothes and stepping in to the enclosure the jets began a steady stream of room temperature water. I swiped my hand across the control panel and the heat gradually increased. Just before it got too hot I swiped again and the temperature stabilised. If I had wanted to I could have extended the length of the shower, but that would have incurred an excess charge on our bill and at any rate, I wasn't interested in dawdling. The shower ended and I dried and dressed as briskly as I could, remembering at the last minute to apply this month's treatment of green colouring to my hair. It had been starting to fade in the last few days, and I didn't fancy I could pull of the whole half-green, half-brown style. There were already too many kids running around with dozens of colours in their hair, and some were even getting those injections that caused the strands to alternate hue every few seconds. Seriously, sometimes I just didn't understand fashion.
After letting the spray work its magic for a few seconds, I swung back out to the kitchen to say goodbye to Mum, this time for real. Another quick peck on the cheek and I was out the door and into the lift at the end of the apartment hallway. The lift was walled with c-spex panels - the ultra-thin, durable, transparent material that was used for everything - and afforded quite an agreeable view of the city, with the early morning APTs buzzing through a jungle of sleek, towering edifices and flashing, multi-coloured projections. I skimmed my eye over the ads for the latest virtuals, the hottest actors, the most powerful portable Comps, all the wonderful excesses of our consumer driven society. Ark City loomed overhead, its dominant bulk tattooed with a clear sky-scape forecasting the perfect day ahead. Not for the first time I wondered what life must have been like before the cloud farming stations, when the weather was wild and uncontrolled, and rain would fall unimpeded from the sky. The water preservation scheme had been in place for so long that not even Mum had known true rain. The closest either of us had come had been during our trip to Kitaki forest, one of the few remaining nature reserves that wasn't hidden under an enviro-dome. During our closely guarded trek, a hydration drone had strafed us with bullets of chemically altered bio-fluid. It had been an interesting experience, but it was still a far cry from the raging storms depicted in many of my fantasy stories.
The lift settled on the twelfth floor and the doors slid apart to reveal a smattering of early risers wandering back and forth across the main plaza. Access to the public boarding platforms that jutted from the building was provided by a broad set of doors on the other side of the room, so I began negotiating my way through the congestion of tables and chairs, planters filled with synth-forestry, and harried office workers chugging their steaming hot coffees. I waded through a sea of fluctuating dialogue, overhearing conversations about the mech-fights - Did you see the arena semi- last night? Phwoar, I've never seen c-spex melt that fast! -, lunch plans - You reckon the boss'll spring for pizza if I tell 'im it's me birthday? - , and complaints about the cleaning drones buzzing around above us - Lazy bastards! What does a guy have to do here to get a clean table, dammit!? I tuned out the relentless drawl and continued to fight through the tangle of toppled chairs and discarded trash that the drones hadn't gotten around to yet. Man, if Mum caught our house looking like this I think she'd kill me!
With the terminal doors in sight, I sidled around a woman attempting to shovel breakfast into her rioting children and strode towards the APT panels set just inside the exit alcove. I commandeered the nearest one and punched in the address of the local Ascension office. The screen prompted me to sync my Comp to complete the request, so I slid the cool, slim rectangular strip out of my pocket and pulled the corners apart. It unfolded into a large empty rectangle which immediately filled with a vibrant projected display. I flicked my hand across it to initiate the connection. Once established, the panel confirmed that an APT would arrive for me within the next minute, so I bounced through the doors and into the chilly morning breeze. The boarding platform was completely open to the elements, with only a stubby perimeter railing and a line of benches that offered no protection from the wind's icy tendrils as they tunnelled through my clothes. I pulled at the collar of my jacket and peered at the micro-Comp display embedded inside. The temperature read eight degrees Celsius. I toggled the lock switch and swiped my finger across the sensor, feeling the fabric begin to vibrate almost imperceptibly as I increased the setting to a comfortable twenty degrees. A gratifying rush of warmth caused me to sigh in relief, and within a matter of seconds I was toasty warm, my shins the only remaining victims to the bite of the stiff morning currents.
I walked along the platform, past the rows of benches and a life size projection of a handsome male model beckoning to me, trying to persuade me to purchase a copy of a romantic vampire virtual that he insisted was 'better than sex'. The Comp controlling the projection must have polled the one in my pocket for my personal details: name, sector of residence and a couple of other things that the corps had pressured the government into making public access. I guess from there it must have picked up on my shopping history, despicably associating this wannabe piece of garbage with my plethora of fantasy fiction. I managed to resist the blatant attempt at appealing to my primal urges, only sparing a brief second glance as the model began to caress his body, a leering glint in his eyes. Damn, these ads don't hold back now that I'm classified as an adult!
I stepped up my pace and reached the end of the vacant platform, retrieving my Comp from my pocket, unfolding it and lifting it to face the sky. An arrow bulged on the display, indicating the direction of the APT I had booked, and I spun around until it was pointing dead ahead. I switched to augmented reality mode on the Comp and punched up the zoom until a small dot appeared, growing steadily larger every second. After a few seconds I didn't need the Comp at all, and watched with my own eyes as the bulbous blob revealed itself as one of the Beetle APTs - flat on the bottom with two c-spex bubble cabins protruding from the top. I peered into the fore compartment as the shuttle descended and saw the driver's gruff, lined face, the journal of a man who had dealt with his fair share of irate and rowdy clientele. He set his ship down in front of me and the rear bubble slid away into the vehicle, prompting me to quickly leap up the small stairs that had extended from the compartment's side. I've had the 'pleasure' of dealing with a few grizzled APT drivers before, and they'll quite happily fly upside down if you take too long getting into the vehicle. Fortunately, after sitting down and strapping in, the driver took off smoothly and shot into the sky, deftly avoiding a convoy of mobile projection platforms orbiting a nearby shopping complex.
It wasn't a long trip, but by the time we touched down near the Ascension office the sky was filled with morning commuters. After authorising the fare payment on my Comp, the bubble retracted and I disembarked. Twin suits bustled past and clambered into the rear compartment and the APT drifted back into the traffic and off to its next destination. I flipped my Comp back up to get my bearings, and I noticed that I had a new message in my inbox. I threaded through the crowd of waiting passengers so that I wouldn't be knocked down in the rush, and found a reasonably vacant spot near a small café stall. The 3D projection of a large honey bee happily slurping a coffee and buzzing around conflicted with the openly unenthusiastic staff who manned the stall, and I couldn't help wondering whether any of them had actually seen a real bee before. During the trip Mum and I had made to the Kitaki forest we had been lucky enough to stroll through a small glade that was home to a wide range of flowers, and we witnessed a number of bees extracting nectar from them. Here in the city all you got were the synthetic varieties, engineered for form over function, a trend that had pervaded nearly all of Sallustria's flora and fauna. That was a pretty depressing thought, and I spent a moment lamenting the verdant landscapes long extinct, living on only inside the virtual worlds of our Comps. I shed the misery with a rough shake of my head and returned my focus to the display in my hand. Settling into one of the cheap plastic stools outside the stall, I flicked open the message icon and began reading.
Sender: Error 3135 - variable 'sender' cannot be NULL
Subject: An Urgent Plea for Your Assistance
Happy birthday! You are now legally an adult, and we would like to congratulate you and wish you all the best.
Since you will be taking the ascendance test within the next forty-eight hours, we felt it prudent to inform you that there may be more to Ascension than they want you to know. Their claims of leading humanity into a new age are admittedly noble, but there are many lingering questions that they refuse to answer. What does the procedure involve? Why can't they establish a laboratory down here to conduct it? Why do so few ascendants return to Sallustria after their operation?
In order to uncover the truth, we have established an enclave of dedicated and hardworking Sallustrians, each seeking answers to those difficult questions, and we like you to consider assisting us in our quest. We do not ask that you devote yourself to our cause, but simply that - should you pass your test and earn passage to Ark City - you provide us with any information that could help quell our concerns. We simply want to know the truth, which is something every citizen of Sallustria deserves.
If you are interested, please send a blank message to [ADDRESS PROVIDED] and we will contact you with further information.
Thank you for your time.
I stared quizzically at the message for some time, confused not by the content but by the missing sender address. I had thought it was impossible to communicate anonymously; at least, that's what the EDU-VI they showed us in high school had claimed. Electronic accountability was pretty darn important when you could live your entire life on the net and in virtuals. I shrugged and flipped the message into my archive. The plea for assistance wasn't anything new. It seemed like every other week a new petition was raised to get the Bureau to investigate Ascension, but they always failed. These guys were obviously fed up with the endless rejection cycle, and had taken it upon themselves to helm the inquiry. Oh well, good luck to them. I had zero interest in becoming a political activist and besides, Ascension had been a permanent fixture in Sallustria for decades. If they were up to something nefarious, it would have been discovered long ago.
I loaded up the quickest route to the Ascension office on my Comp and left the café, ducking through the stream of scooter pods that now dominated the street traffic and joining the comparatively scant number of pedestrians as they filed towards the auto-path. I spared a longing look for the clear bubbles whizzing past us. They were the smallest form of personal transport in the city; a malleable, body-conforming bubble that would shrink to the size of your palm when you weren't using it. Mum wouldn't let me buy one though, insisting that the walking was good for me. Too many kids waste all their time in those bloody IN-VIs, never getting any exercise! You know, some parents have actually complained about all the songs and dances in my virtuals? They say it's too tough for their kids! Can you believe that?
I dragged my eyes away from the procession of sleek, multi-coloured pods and boarded the auto-path. I gripped the railing as the fast-moving platform shot us through a short tunnel and spat us out at the end of a broad avenue. The street was walled with dull, monolithic towers, each responsible for managing different aspects of everyday life in the sector. Waste management, power distribution, construction and renovation, education: not exactly the most desirable jobs, but necessarily nonetheless. While undeniably imposing, these buildings were utterly dwarfed by the titanic stalk leering down from the end of the avenue. I let my gaze trail down the immense structure and settle on the lurid edifice of the Ascension office. Even from this distance I could spy the company logo projected above the doors: the word Ascension gradually curling upwards in a visual manifestation of their name. Having confirmed my destination, I returned my gaze to the street and began marching forward.
Bisecting the road was a lengthy strip of shops and stalls, their myriad vibrant projections offering visual reprieve from the greys and browns of the corporate valley walls. Neon logos and pastel mascots pranced overhead while assistant drones twisted in and out of the bustle of people, hoping to entice them to exchange their hard earned currency for entertainment or a moment of relaxation. An old, one wheeled drone with a vaguely human torso spun around and around, flinging sparkling cylinders into the air. They would fly high above the crowd before exploding into shimmering fragments that formed and reformed various shapes as gravity pulled them down. Before hitting the ground, the tiny fireworks would coalesce into the original cylinder, primed and ready to go again. The slogan claimed: Good for five-hundred launches! A popular children's virtual was being projected above an open air café. Various anthropomorphic characters were singing and beckoning a group of children to dance with them.
I let myself get swallowed up by the crowd, my mind wandering to the story I was currently reading. The author had adopted the recent trend of episodic chapters, where a chapter would be released and feedback and reader interest would influence the subsequent chapters. It created a very communal story - though many traditional writers considered this sacrilege to the art - and it would occasionally produce some extremely engaging fiction. Of course, there had also been many cases where a story turned to complete crap because a writer tried to please too many people at once. I was contemplating whether I wanted the protagonist of The Vertical Slice to try and save his traitorous associate or not when I realised that I had arrived at the Ascension building.
Squeezing out of the flow of bodies, I stepped underneath the main archway and onto an illuminated path lined with super-scale projections. Each one depicted a stylised human figure looking upwards with a smile on its face, while cloaked figures descended from above to lift them up. Bold primary colours and beatific smiles presented a real image of hope, and I found my face had subconsciously shifted to reflect their radiant visages. Tearing my eyes away from the magnificent artistry, I strode toward the entrance doors. They were shaped like two hands grasping one another, the fingers interlocking when closed. They released their grip as I approached, and I wandered into the reception area. It was a brightly lit, heavily carpeted room with a curved desk sweeping from wall to wall in the opposite corner. Couches and benches lay unoccupied along the side wall, while a set of double doors beside the reception desk provided access further into the building. Two men were sitting behind the desk, one muttering something into a headset and the other staring vacantly at a Comp display. The rest of the foyer was vacant, so I stepped up to the desk and cleared my throat uncertainly.
"Hi, I'm Elizabeth Finlea. I'm here for my ascendance test?" I prodded politely, the rising inflection in my voice intended as a way of masking my nerves and endearing myself to the other party, a habit I had inherited from Mum.
The man looked at me with the same deadpan stare he had been giving his Comp and nodded slowly. He glanced back down and traced lazy arcs across the display for a few moments before finally addressing me.
"Okay, I've just notified the doc that you're here." He paused for a moment and yawned without covering his mouth. "You're first up today, so you shouldn't be waiting too long. Take a seat." The man gestured to the benches on the far wall without lifting his eyes from the Comp in front of him.
"Uhhh…thanks," I chimed, brushing off his rude attitude and turning to sit down on the proffered bench.
The light shining from the illuminated ceiling panels was far too intense for this time of morning, so I hung my head slightly as I shuffled into the seat. With my eyes boring holes into the floor, it wasn't until my name was called out that I realised I was no longer alone with the reception staff. I snapped my head up and recoiled in discomfort from the sudden, devastating glare. As my eyes adjusted, a new figure came into focus, standing with arms crossed in front of the interior doors. It was an ascendant! The realisation caused a minor flutter of my heart and my hand instinctively gripped tight on the arm rest next to me.
He was completely bald, his head instead inscribed with complex symbols in perpetual motion; the shapes ebbing and flowing, expanding and shrinking, almost impossible to resolve. Multi-coloured lines threaded across his scalp, forming spirals and clefts, cross-hatching and prisms. Some were pulsing, changing colour and luminosity in patterns impossible to discern. It was magical, spellbinding, like staring into a raging fire, both beautiful and deadly, his head a furnace lit with a thousand dancing flames. When I finally managed to tear my eyes away, I saw that he was staring at me, an expectant look on his face. I jumped to my feet and began stumbling towards him, wonder in my eyes but trepidation in my heart, the culmination of months of anticipation mere minutes away. I tried to clear my mind of concern by focusing back on the ascendant. He was clothed in a tight, form-fitting grey outfit, strikingly similar to the unpowered garb I had seen in my wardrobe earlier. He held the door for me and I stepped through, waiting then following as he led me further into the complex. My mind was spinning like a centrifuge, trying to separate the dozens of questions demanding to be asked. It proved futile, with my nerves continuously drowning my thoughts in cold waves of fear, and the ascendant and I walked on in mutual silence.
The ascendant led me into a bleak room of grey walls, a raised plinth in the centre of the room surrounded by a mess of expensive looking medical equipment. He turned to face me and gestured to the plinth.
"Please stand atop the raised platform, lower your arms, and try not to move too much. Thank you."
The entire line was spoken without a single change in tone, emotionless and dismissive. I stared at him in bafflement for a moment, startled by his odd voice, before following his command and climbing a small set of steps to stand in the middle of the platform.
"Do I need to, uhh, remove any items, you know, my Comp or anything?" I asked.
The ascendant shook his head very slowly, as if he was scanning the room. He retreated to the far corner and a panel extended from the wall at his touch. He flicked at the display for a few moments, and the ceiling above me made a whoosh sound and slid away to allow a mechanical arm to descend. It lowered until it sat just above my head, a long black bar with a thick strip of light across its underside. The device began to spin slowly, and I had to look away to avoid making myself dizzy. Returning my gaze to the room revealed that the ascendant had disappeared and the door had closed, leaving me alone and suddenly quite scared. Before I could react, that droll, monotonous voice barked from a speaker hidden somewhere in the corner of the room.
"Please stay still. The test will begin in a second. It should only take a couple of minutes."
I focused on my breathing, keeping it steady and slow to suppress the jitters in my hands. The arm above me spun faster and faster, lowering and rotating around my body from head to toe. An involuntary shiver ran up my spine, a terrible sense of vulnerability permeating my fragile calm. I was sure I was being observed, through cameras in the walls or the ceiling or somewhere, but there was nothing I could do except wait it out. True to the ascendant's word, the arm finished scanning after a couple of minutes and the door opened to let in a red-haired woman. She was wearing a shimmering white coat over her silver body suit, and she smiled warmly as the device retracted into the ceiling.
"Miss Finlea? My name is Jane Drewer. I was just monitoring your scan," she cooed.
She thrust her hand out for a handshake, which I accepted with significantly less gusto than she offered.
"Is anything wrong?" I asked, my voice dipping into tremulous territory as butterflies assaulted my chest from inside.
"No, no, no, nothing wrong at all! Quite the opposite! The test has indicated that you're eligible for ascendance! You're going to take the next step in human evolution!"
I was stunned. My mouth dropped and my brain locked up for a few seconds as it attempted to cope with the magnitude of Jane's words. Did she really say I was going to become an ascendant? See Ark City? Was I dreaming? As the gears in my mind began turning once again, I regained my composure and closed my mouth. Jane was staring quizzically with an edge of concern before I finally managed to respond.
"Urrgh. Uhhhh. Are you sure?" I managed to choke out.
"Quite sure!" the woman replied, her face again breaking into a smile, albeit one significantly tamer than before.
My head was still reeling but I was beginning to piece together the consequences of this revelation. My life was going to change completely. All the advertisements I had seen presented a Utopia of science and discovery in Ark City. Technology decades beyond that of Sallustria. Claims that ascendants perceived the world in more than three dimensions. It was pretty much the combination of the best parts of my favourite fantasy stories rolled into one and made real. Mum was going to flip! I wonder what we'll do once we get to Ark City and I've had my operation. Do we need to get jobs? I know they claim that citizens of Ark City are working to further the advancement of humanity, but what does that mean exactly? Will I become some sort of scientist? An inventor? There were so many unknowns, so much possibility. My imagination had not only run away, it had boarded a shuttle and left Earth!
"This is amazing!" I exclaimed. "Can I call my Mum?" Jane frowned for a second before her smile returned.
"Certainly! But it will have to wait until after we're on our way. We have so many things to do, and so little time!" She started waving her hands towards the door, beckoning me to move.
"Umm, can't I just call her now? I've got my Comp right here." I reached into my pocket and began sliding it out. "And wait a minute. What do you mean 'after we're on our way'? What about Mum? I'm not going up without her!" I was starting to get agitated, confusion begetting anger and briefly suspending my manners. What she was saying didn't make sense. What the heck was so important that we had to get going right now? They had waited twenty-one years to test me, what was another couple of hours? Jane's mouth and eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly, another crack in her steadily crumbling facade. My hands were beginning to tremble, and I felt my heart flutter as it skipped a beat and fought to catch up.
"Sure dear, what was I thinking? We'll just head out to the lobby and contact your mother. Once she arrives we'll all go up the stalk together. How does that sound?" She strode over with a broad smile and wrapped her arm around my shoulders, gently manoeuvring me towards the door. With her free hand she tapped at a panel on the wall next to it.
"Th-that sounds much better. W-w-what are you doing?" I managed to bumble out amidst a cloying fog of confusion.
"Nothing dear. Come now, let's head back to the lobby and you can contact your mother." Her tone was soothing, but there was something in the way she had said 'mother' that sent a chill up my spine. No, I must be imagining things. My mind was probably just overloaded from all the new information and possibilities that had sprung up in the last few minutes. I shook my head to dislodge any errant thoughts and we swung left out the door and into the hallway. I eyed the door in the distance and took a couple of steps before I realised that the pressure on my shoulder had abated and I was walking alone. I stopped and turned to see where Jane had gone. As I swivelled I felt an icy sting shoot through my right shoulder and numbness began to creep along my arm and neck. The shock threw me off balance and my spin developed a noticeable vertical decline. As I spiralled down to the floor I caught sight of two silvery figures approaching from behind Jane, too distant for any features to resolve. Jane, however, was front and centre, crystal clear even as my vision began to fade. She stared at me with razor sharp eyes and a wicked keen smile, revelling in whatever inexplicable joy my fall had given her. She opened her mouth and bellowed furiously to her cohorts, her venomous tone shifting and distorting as my senses failed and a sudden, overwhelming fatigue dragged me into oblivion.
"Hurry up you two, we haven't got all day! And now I have to go deal with the mother before sh-" Darkness overwhelmed me.
"Doooooonnkey Kong!" screamed Jimmy. He was standing atop the church spire on the other side of the courtyard, waving dramatically and pointing to the blazing barn on my left. Swarms of flaming zombies were stumbling and falling as they tried to escape the burning building, forming a grotesque mound of charred and smoking death. I smiled grimly. The zombies had been a great idea (one of my best, if I don't say so myself) but the smarmy bastards on the other team had lit up their hiding place, sacrificing their superior cover but driving out my weaponised corpses. It was time to end this. They couldn't remain in the barn for long - the raging inferno would be draining their HP at a phenomenal rate - so Jimmy and I had to take advantage of their panicked escape, and fast. I pulled out my grapple gun, holding it up so that Jimmy could see and follow suit, and aimed it at a gargantuan, half-decayed redwood - according to the description in the codex - looming from behind the barn. I fired, a distant thunk confirming that the shot had struck home, and yanked on the ejection trigger. The wire popped out and I quickly wrapped it around an air-conditioning vent protruding from the roof. I threw my hands over the taut line and leapt, holding tight and gritting my teeth as I careened towards the thick, rotted trunk. I let go at the last second, gracefully landing on a thick branch and immediately scanning the rear of the barn for movement. At the edge of my vision I could see Jimmy whizzing by against a backdrop of suburban ruin, dismounting and disappearing into a patch of dark green scrub on the other side of the barn.
I slipped my hand behind my back, rolling my fingers from thumb to pinkie to scroll through my inventory. Flares, medical syringes, ah, binoculars, there we go. I clenched my fist, and as I opened my hand a pair of binoculars materialised in my palm. Raising them to my eyes, I scanned the dim yard that extended from the rear door of the barn. Nothing yet. I swung my gaze to the roof and peered through gaps in the smouldering wood, but all I saw were the ravenous orange flames as they continued to consume the structure. A sudden mournful wail snapped my attention to the empty blackness beyond the barn. I squinted slightly and caught sight of a shimmer of movement, a black-on-black river flowing between the trees. Another novel idea blossomed inside my skull. The restriction on conventional weapons made for some truly excellent and harrowing experiences, and this was definitely one of the better matches I had played. I flicked through my inventory once again, settling on a hunk of rat meat I had found stashed in a barrel earlier. The wet slab coated my hand in grimy juices, and shook it dry as best I could before transferring it to my other hand. I selected a small flask of lighter fluid from my pack and coated the meat completely. Lining up my trajectory, I lifted my arm and pelted the meat into the middle of the yard. Finally, I pulled out the closest thing to a weapon that I had - the flare gun that all players started out with - and settled on my haunches, waiting anxiously, the binoculars trained on the rear door of the barn. I spotted Jimmy's head emerge from the brush and scan the area, and for a moment I considered scrapping my plan, but I shrugged the thought aside and refocused on the door. This was about the team, not the individual, and if I needed to sacrifice Jimmy, he'd understand.
A piercing creak shattered the night air and I squeezed the trigger, watching as the flare sailed through the sky and embedded itself in the chunk of meat. In a matter of seconds the slab had become improvised steak, extra crispy. I cupped a hand to my ear, eagerly awaiting confirmation of my ingenuity. A lone, unearthly howl quickly escalated into a chorus and I grinned, creeping to the edge of my branch to get a closer look at the impending bloodbath. A swarm of human figures burst out of the barn just as a black cloud seemed to emerge from the forest opposite. The burning meat clearly stumped the figures exiting the barn, as most stopped and swung their heads or span on the spot as they tried to locate their foes. One of them eventually spotted the approaching pack, and a bellowing cry ignited a flurry of confusion.
The figures darted in all directions, desperately seeking refuge but finding nothing but crumbled walls and rusting machinery. None proved quick-witted enough to attempt to scale my tree, and one even attempted to run back into the barn, meeting his fate at the hands of a rain of flaming timber. A text message popped up in the corner of my vision.
Kai_Master has been burnt alive by Donkey_Kong.
I pumped my fist and grinned. Sweet, credit for the kill! The readout started to scroll as the rest of the group succumbed to the ferocious wolves and their limitless appetites. I leaned closer, observing through the binoculars and trying to get a clearer view of the massacre. I heard a tiny crack and a second later the branch gave way, sending me plummeting face first towards the ground.
"CRAAAAAP!" I bellowed.
I hit the dirt with a deafening thud, my HP severely drained from the impact. I rolled on to my side, hoping to crawl back into cover, and froze. Gleaming teeth with fresh drops of blood still dripping from their tips filled my vision. I had less than a second to contemplate my fate before the world snapped to black with a sickening crunch.
"You're a bitch D.K.!" shouted Jimmy, jabbing me playfully in the shoulder. He was standing by my side with his IN-VI helmet in the crook of his arm, the smirk on his face relieving his eyes of their irritated glint. I lifted my own helmet from my head and jumped up, dumping the helmet on my seat and gently shoved Jimmy in retaliation. Strands of my shaggy brown hair were stuck to my forehead, and as I brushed them away I felt the sweat that had built up during our IN-VI session. Damn, that was some workout!
"You know you love it! 'Sides, we won didn't we?"
He smiled back at me and shook his head.
"Yeah, but we both died! We lost a shitload of points for that!"
"Awww, suck it up! We'll win them back next time!"
Jimmy pouted for a second, then shrugged and slapped on his usual goofy grin.
"Another match?" he asked, eagerly shifting into a fighting stance and bouncing on his toes.
"Mmmm, nah. I'm feeling pretty hungry, how about you? I'll even shout you to make up for the points we lost," I replied, stretching my arms and legs to awaken them from their slumber. The arcade's IN-VI chairs were comfortable, but sitting anywhere for such a prolonged period of time always left my muscles cramped and sore. It didn't help that my body was so awkwardly shaped and bulky - hence my nickname - that I often had to contort myself just to fit into some of the smaller chairs.
"Yeah!" Jimmy's eyes shone even brighter, and he started punching the air like a maniac. He had chugged down three boosters before the match, and he was literally vibrating with kinetic potential. "So Kong man, where we going to go?"
I glanced up at the time displays projected on the wall above the payment desk: 11:15. The night was young.
"Swing by the market, then hit up Gregor and see what he's working on?" I suggested.
Jimmy nodded, bounding towards the arcade entrance and swaying back and forth to music only he could hear. I rolled my eyes, shook my head, and smiled before following him between the rows of IN-VI chairs. We passed flashing projections of explosions and alien spaceships as we walked, and Jimmy stopped as he spied a pair of cute girls in the adjacent aisle. One had long pink hair hanging down to her shoulders; the other sported a half-white, half-black cut spiked three inches long. Jimmy whistled suggestively.
"Hey ladies, how you doing tonight?"
Both girls laughed and flipped him off, turning their backs on us and walking away giggling.
"Nice work dipshit," I said. Jimmy took it all in stride, his grin broad and unwavering.
We passed out of the cramped neon playground into the flickering confusion of the street. We stood under a multi-layer canopy of living projections, exotic and unreal forms undulating in an explosion of vibrant colour, each replaying its brief existence loop in an endless cycle to garner more attention. A bright red phoenix swooped down from above, showering the crowded street with glittering flames. As it passed overhead, the words Phoenix Energy Booster- Burn bright for 36 hours straight! sprang from its tail and grew to dominate the sky. The phoenix swung around and looped through the letters of the slogan. Jimmy and I ignored the advertisement, shielding our eyes to avoid the impending detonation. BOOM! A smattering of applause rang out from a small crowd of enthusiastic onlookers. I rolled my eyes. I'd seen the projection at least three times before, and it no longer impressed me.
We passed the gathered spectators and ascended a flight of pink strobing stairs, arriving at the restaurant plaza where a steady swarm of patrons flittered about the food stalls even at this time of night. A sleek archway passed over our heads, adorned by projections of various foodstuffs with coloured rays of light extending over the plaza. The trails split and curved through the air, ending their arcs at the food stalls that served that particular fare, making it somewhat easier for consumers to find what they desired. I was feeling like pizza, but it didn't boast a place on the arch, so I clambered onto one of the pillars and scanned the plaza keenly. The stalls here changed position fairly regularly, since none of the proprietors technically had permission to be there and had to pack up when the Enforcers decided to crack down and raid it. Jimmy stared up at me hanging on to the archway and smiled widely.
"Hey man, you going full monkey now? Ooh ooh, aah aah! Don-key Kong!" he shouted, scratching his head and his side in the timeless representation of a chimpanzee.
I sniggered, waving my free arm animatedly to mimic my namesake. This caused Jimmy to break into laughter, and a few passers-by stared at us dismissively. I returned my gaze to the plaza and spotted a portly projected man spinning a pizza next to a golden fire-breathing dragon, and jumped back down to the ground.
"Onward ho!" I shouted, slapping Jimmy on the back and surging into the mass of bodies ahead.
After sating our appetites on a few slices of teriyaki chicken, Jimmy and I exited the plaza and crept through the gloomy streets towards Gregor's emporium. The closer we got, the darker the shadows grew and the more furtive the people surrounding us became. At one point the ground beneath our feet got damp, and I looked down to see a pool of some muddy substance leaking from a doorway to our right. Glancing up to the windows on the second floor revealed periodic flashes of light, and I could just make out a slight buzzing sound that peaked and ebbed rhythmically. A cowled figure bustled past both Jimmy and I, grazing my shoulder as they went past. A cold flash sparked where he contacted me, and I caught a glimmer of metal on the figure's shoulder before they were swallowed by the inky night. As we drew closer to our destination, pushy stall owners began trying to hawk their wares on us: hacked Comps, hovering assistance drones, portable scanners that promised they could access the secure details of Comps within a 20 metre radius. I deflected their advances with waves of my arms or, when necessary, a forceful push and a polite fuck off! Jimmy, being considerably slighter in build, had to duck and weave his way past an especially avid seller of illegal virtuals.
"Young man like you, you want pretty lady! You buy this, special discount, special ladies you find nowhere else!" the old man barked. Jimmy wasn't going to rise to the bait. He had sworn off purchasing street-side virtuals after the last time, when Party Night had been so poorly coded that all the girls' heads had glitched out and been replaced with the words NULL POINTER EXCEPTION floating disembodied above their necks. That had given Jimmy nightmares for weeks!
After successfully navigating the gauntlet of disreputable salespeople, we rounded a corner and found ourselves bathed in glowing red light from an old-fashioned neon sign. Gregor's Emporium - Your 1 Stop Sho. The 'p' had been busted for some time, but Gregor had stressed the fact that most of his clientele were regulars and the sign only remained for posterity. Inside Gregor's cavernous warehouse were rows and rows of cutting edge tech, most of it somewhat illegal or at least highly dubious. Glowing Comp terminals lined one wall, where you could flash all sorts of custom software onto your personal Comp or access various restricted databases under the cover of anonymity. Assistant drones projected product details in front of interested customers, while the deactivated drones sat on a shelf behind the counter at the back, available for purchase at a steep price. We wandered in amongst the scattered individuals browsing wares. There were very few parties of more than two, as the nature of the business here discouraged unnecessary social interaction. Off to the side of the sales counter was a heavy steel door, Gregor's custom humanoid drone serving as bouncer for the private section of the emporium. Jimmy and I approached casually.
"Hey Ay-Bee, what's been happening?" I asked cheerfully.
"Please state your name and business," the drone uttered emotionlessly.
"Derek Kwei and Jimmy Lauman, here to see ol' Gregor," I announced.
A-B was little more than a simple piece of authorization software wrapped in an old drone body, but it fit the atmosphere of the shop quite well, and served to dissuade troublemakers once they caught sight of the powerful mechanical arms A-B sported. The drone stepped aside, and the steel door slid away to reveal a beige hallway of cracked and peeling paint.
"Welcome Derek and Jimmy. Gregor will see you now," intoned the mechanical man.
We stepped through the doorway and it whispered shut behind us. Light and sound blasted from a doorway to our right, but Jimmy and I ignored it and strode down to the end of the hall and up the creaking stairwell. The second floor was a large open space divided by shimmering black curtains. It sort of resembled a hospital wing, with beds and blinking medical displays visible in the open compartments, though the emphasis on black lent it an almost morgue-like air. A few of the beds were occupied, and from behind closed curtains the sounds of various implements hummed and buzzed in earnest concert. Women and men clad in silky black bodysuits bustled in and out of the compartments, some carrying trays of food, some lugging large boxes or assisting clients in getting accustomed to their new states. This was the most illegal segment of Gregor's business: human augmentation. The law strictly limited augmentations to those with the valid reasons and the appropriate licenses, such as the disabled, or those working in the heavy labour industries. However, that did little to curb the overwhelming desire to achieve super-human strength, and Gregor's emporium was one of the few currently active parlours where - for an absurdly high cost - people could have a mechanical arm grafted to their body, or replace their skin with a far more resilient nano-machine compound. More extravagant options were available, though augmentation was not abundant enough legally to allow for a person with wheels instead of legs to pass unnoticed in the street. This didn't stop everyone, but those procedures were still a rarity.
I spied Gregor standing over one of the beds to my left, his broad shoulders and ample stomach accentuated by his tight brown jacket, and tapped Jimmy on the shoulder before setting off down the aisle of cubicles. As we drew within earshot, I heard Gregor reciting a list of complications that could arise from the procedure that the prone man was about to undergo.
"-and you have to keep washing it every single day or you risk spreading infection. Your partner not be too happy about that, now would she?" Gregor chided.
The man lying on the bed blushed slightly, and nodded his unders