The obsidian sky is pulled taut as if a bow ready to release. It’s about to tear itself in half, like a scribbled to-do list there was never time to complete, but Severum Rivenshear adjusts the sky’s appearance just in time. Now, the doughy clouds are stretched fonts detailing the day’s headlines, fading like the events into wispy nothingness. The jaundice light of languishing fireflies flickers through a jar beside his bed.
Severum's apartment hallway seen through augmented reality (vHUD)
He projects the universe on the ceiling and counts the stars through vHUD. Raising his hands, he zooms and frames Gliese 581g between them, half of the tidal-locked planet forever enveloped in darkness and half baking in eternal sunlight. Studying the uneven distribution of light, he swipes the entire display away in frustration, the cosmos cowering in disorganized pixels.
“Come, let us dream of the future!”
He raises his eyebrows twice to replay the recording. Her voice plays through his aural implants as if each word is a polished pebble gathering into a heavy feeling in his stomach. “What future?” he murmurs as another alarm rings. Late.
Rushing out to the station, a hard panning of whooshes crosses his ears as an airbus zooms along his left, right, and then left side again. Losing his balance from the sounds vacillating from ear to ear, he jerks his arm out to catch the railing. The back of the airbus ruffles his clothes and vanishes down the tube. He jostles, catching his last jar of fireflies before it breaks. Filmstrips of sepia memory rip at either periphery while the air compression fires another round of passenger cabins back and forth.
Cheap Dayburn knockoffs, he scoffs at his aural implants, slamming his hand against his ear, resounding like a tunnel tossed in rough seas. He excels at anger management, but has no employees to delegate it to, so he pops a neuralmod, purchases another recycle bin for his emotions. He brings up the implant manufacturer in his virtual head’s up display, or vHUD, proving it was made on Dayburn by wage slaves that war against the technology they pirate for trade.
The augmentations make it easier to hunt Bioluminaries—thieves who steal light, the primary currency in Evig Natt’s densest districts. Three Bioloonies gather in a distant alley, spot him, and vanish into crooked concrete cracks that pass as tenement doors. He wrinkles his gun-barrel nose at the sight of their bioluminescent skin, veined with bile-colored rivulets like stillborn lightning. Altering one’s body to produce its own light with the Lumidermis mod is the last desperate attempt for these fallen Icaruses to have enough light to live by. It also makes them easy targets, and he would net a nice little bonus for capturing the three of them, but he turns away. Receiving the letter is more important—an entire mission could be compromised if he’s late and the courier auctions off the information. Worse yet, he would be dishonorably discharged and broke.
Two minutes left. He misses the airbus, picks up speed, nears the drop-off point. A man with a wrangled, drooping face grabs him as he turns the corner, digging yellow nails into his shoulder, leaning close enough that his beard scratches Severum’s face, his words spittle on his lips. “You gotta glitch with us, you gotta glitch with us! It’s how the Divine communicates! All will hail the glitch goddess; the eVenki know, they know!”
“Back off. Glitches aren’t ghosts, they’re just organized noise,” Severum replies, raising a hand and resisting the urge to break his arm, but remembering the Forever Glitched are unable to afford anti-virus for their implants, unable to obtain jobs or even avoid accidents, desynchronized with the real world. He pulls away and cradles his jar of fireflies like a football.
He runs past two boys playing tug-of-war with a firefly’s wings as it rips in two, its tiny body dimming on the pavement. One child pushes the other and says, “Look what you did! Now I can’t buy any mods!” They pursue him, holding toy spaceships in the air and following the amber streaking of fireflies in his jar as he sprints.
When the planet was colonized, the fireflies were not only useful for light, but also occurred at just the right frequency to be the perfect currency, being accessible enough that most people could have some, while still rare enough to be used for trade. Those in power accumulated stockpiles of them and resisted the manufacture of new light sources and competing currencies. Soon, fireflies became the only legal method of producing light on Evig Natt, even fires being outlawed.
Buzzing and the smell of seared flesh fill the air, Fort Lux blurring as he rushes past. The Forever Glitched tear at the electric fence to get at the sterile fireflies being cloned within, the charge knocking them back across the street. A metal security bird lowers its angle of attack and soars towards the youngest ones, hitting the fence instead. The boys applaud the fireworks and shake off the sparks. A siren grows in intensity to warn them the security gate is recharging. They climb up the fence.
Severum stops. The shortest boy won’t be able to climb over before it recharges. He checks the time—a minute to spare, too risky; he needs the letter, but the deafening siren is nearing full charge. He draws a utility blade and activates it, the heat of its red glow flushing his face, and rushes to the boy’s aid, pulling him down by his belt, cutting a hole in the fence, and shoving him through the fort entrance. “You’re on your own from here; one felony’s enough for today. You’ll make it kid, I had to grow up just as fast,” he says.
Holding the spaceship, the boy catches up with the rest of the Forever Glitched.
Severum hands the jar to the courier, one of nature’s trial and error children, in exchange for the letter, receiving it with seconds to spare. He pockets his last firefly in a matchbox with four wings of change. He sweeps a dark wave of oil-slick hair away and sighs with relief, but hesitates before opening the missive, churning it in his hands.
Anything sent by hard-mail to avoid digital interception must be valuable given the expense, since couriers are often robbed while waiting for the recipient. Paragraphs can kill. They can start, prevent, or end revolutions. Phrases are even worse, with single words a prime culprit indeed, less discriminate and more open to interpretation, taking on their keepers’ lives. A single letter is fragile, fleeting, floating in a glass balloon of ambiguity. Silent letters never scribed are truly unpredictable, repressed, like the flood of thoughts he dams, wondering what war disguised as mere duty is sealed within the envelope, another Pandora’s box. The boxes were never more than what began as a simple request and ended with half his friends’ faces being scraped off by Aphorids, the rest of them buried alive for later consumption.
A hooded man in his twenties stands at the edge of a stunted shop roof above him. He bends his knees, leaps down, swipes the letter from Severum’s hand, and jumps atop a stack of shaky wooden pallets. Pulling himself atop a trash compacter and hitting a button to make the platform rise, he rides it back to the roof. The dumpster compresses the trash, the platform lowering to complete its cycle.
Shit! Whatever war that letter contains is about to enter the underground market to be used by whichever corporation would profit the most from it. He has to get that letter back. By the time Severum arrives, the top of the compactor is too low to the ground to reach the roof and follow suit. He smashes the button repeatedly, pounding his palm, but the grinding continues. He can wait a minute for the compression cycle to begin again, or find another way to the roof.
He right-mind-clicks on the thief above in vHUD, sets his occipts to trace him, and runs through the street below to keep pace. The thief’s body becomes outlined in augmented reality and reconstructed on a red grid based on partial visibility. Rounding a corner, he loses sight, but vHUD projects his last trajectory and the maximum perimeter in which he can be found based on his speed, age, weight, and height.
The thief activates Chameleon as his appearance dissolves to onlookers, visible only as a translucent current of grey sand across the concrete rooftop. The Enforcers could nail him but Severum doesn’t know the letter’s contents, so he keeps them out of it. He primes his Pulser, heat increasing, but firing a weapon in the dense city would risk civilian lives, and being off-duty, his job, too. The red-painted outline climbs over a ventilation system, the steam from the air ducts disrupting the image.
Severum races through the alley below, keeping track of the thief by focusing on the three-story rooftops where he leaps from building to building. The culprit passes near Trahiro’s apartment, a fellow operative. Knowing he won’t betray the letter’s contents, he calls Trahiro for help through vHUD phone.
"Hello?” Trahiro replies, out of breath and alarmed.
“It’s Severum. Requesting assistance!”
An airbus comes to a stop along an elevated railway close to the rooftop with a long, pronounced hiss. Severum hears hissing through the phone at the exact same time. At first, he thinks it’s another glitch then he opens a new window in vHUD and rewinds the scene to the beginning. When Trahiro answered hello, the thief also hesitated on the rooftop, chest heaving and mouthing hello.
“What is this, some sort of test?” Severum asks as he puts together that Trahiro, his fellow operative, is the thief.
“No, that’s not it. You’re on something. Your moves during the swipe were way too fast and even I didn’t see you coming. You robbed me for what? To pay for these mods you’re addicted to? And because I’m a friend you think I won’t turn you in, right, in case you get caught?”
“Mods are survival. You gotta stay on top of your game in this line of work,” Trahiro replies, peering down at him and sliding off his hood. “Not like you don’t do ‘em.”
“It’s not survival when you betray your comrades and let addiction rule your life. Since when was that the goal? What if you were caught by the enemy and transported to Dayburn? No neuralmods to rely on. What if your goods were confiscated? Or your supplier ran out? There’re a thousand scenarios where you wouldn’t have access to them. What you need just makes you weaker,” Severum says.
“What’s your point? That even the mods will abandon me? Everyone I hunt is using ‘em and you want me, me, at a disadvantage,” Trahiro replies, his facial muscles pinching themselves with every word.
“You can’t rely on them, and now you can’t rely on me either, so what you got?” Severum yells to the rooftop.
“Right now I don’t need anything. I got it all, man, and you’re the one looking up to me for a change,” he says, leaning over the building’s outer edge.
Severum fires his Pulser, taking out the catwalk below Trahiro’s feet. Debris explodes in every direction. Trahiro falls, opening his mouth and waving his hands but finding no purchase.
Severum anchors a foot behind himself for support and readies his arms. The bulge of weight hits him as he lowers his arms to absorb some of the impact. “Hopefully, you broke something, but something like your head. In other words, nothing too important,” he bends over to snatch the letter. “See you at work.”
“Go hack yourself, Sev! Sev? Hey, wait, my HUD’s out. I can’t phone for help! I can’t move! My leg…” he pleads, trying to bend it.
“I’ll make you a deal. I can either call for help and turn you into the Enforcers; I have the video right here,” he says, pointing to his head. “Or I can keep both the Enforcers and their medics out of this if you get some help for this addiction.”
“I don’t bargain. The law doesn’t allow you to shoot me down the way you did and I’ll turn you in. How about that?”
“Then maybe I should erase your datafeed,” Severum bluffs, bending down next to him with his Pulser drawn to his temple and grabbing his crumpled jacket.
“No, no, you’re right. Just leave. I’ll get help,” Trahiro replies, biting his lip until it bleeds.
“Tryin’ to assist here. No one’s answering your screams yet. City don’t care, see? But here, this’ll get you by for now,” he says, throwing him a couple temporary neuralmods the military offers so he doesn’t completely lose his mind. “I don’t want them. Have the pills call the medics for you.”
Trahiro’s fingers jump into Severum’s open palm, grabbing the mods as if they’ll vanish and popping them with a gulp. He clears his throat, jerks his head thrice, and says, “Medics? I don’t need no glitchin’ medics now. I don’t need your help or nothing, not nothing at all, not—”
“Look, you’ve been doing a lot of overtime, even in your dreams. I’m uploading a contact who will keep this quiet for when you change your mind. Tell her I sent you. On second thought, don’t, I don’t need this broadcasted, I’ve got enough oversight as it is.” He peels opens the envelope and walks away.
The generic billing statement mocks his ambitions and he’s about to throw it out, but something is off about the way light hits it at an angle. He runs deCrypt in vHUD. The program counts the number of letters in the first word and deletes words that are multiples of that number. It performs similar calculations, reversing some words and rearranging others, until few words remain. A date appears two weeks hence in 3,085. The time 21:00 is spelled out beside the phrase The Towers, meaning the only ones prominent enough to be known without further detail. Military time suggests being prepared. He surveys his personal archives for mentions of the date, time, and location but has no idea what the meeting might entail, and though he easily forgets faces, he is not the type to forget numbers. He grips the letter tighter until his fingers poke through it. Three letters in the decrypted signature encapsulate his being:
Not I, or me, but a less personal pronoun as if referring to herself in the disconnected third person. He stares hard with glacial occipts emerging from a glassy sea. His memories are usually watertight packages, but the seas between them are foggy, bound by a horizon that he walks like a tightrope, separating stormy skies from tranquility. Waves spill into the folds of origami boats, once seaworthy, but now leaking while the storm’s pressure grows in intensity at the mere implication of her existence. The strength of the storm mirrors the force of the night of his discovery, many years ago to this day, the day that defined his life.
While waiting for the airbus home, he distracts himself by downloading books from a kiosk, checking to see how close his brain is to the Beckenstein Bound of maximum storage. He’s in the mood for literature that leaps between disparate synaptic gaps and twists each neural connection like someone wringing out dirty dishrags until they run clean and are useful again, literature that churns the nebulous skies of memory until the clouds are pristine, something stream of consciousness—the raw data file of the human experience. In-between the lines, he searches for something he can fill with his own voice, but finds no container to house it.
The Forever Glitched stand like speechless podiums, watching him browse before they return to gather at the frozen river that fails to bloom into the landscape, like a hose squeezed tightly building societal pressure. The city is a blind sculptor that deceives its citizens with promises of being a self-made person. The sharp edge of a city’s skyline is known by its buildings, not its sky, but the horizon is just a broken set of hyphens for the Forever Glitched, connecting orphaned clauses. Above the skyline, the galaxy’s swirling sherbet gases coil into an umbilical cord connected to nothing at all. Severum wants to help them, but barely has enough flies for food, or food for the flies. But listening to their free laughter makes him want to condemn them as well, his right lip upturning, face tight.
A headline runs across the windows of a dilapidated building: Governor Borges appoints three former generals to his cabinet. Holographic emotes of all shades project from the citizens’ faces filling the cityscape with reactions to this revolving door of power. Severum turns to the nearest person, a middle-class man with a choking tie and trash bags of exhaustion under his eyes. “I’ve worked under those generals. They’re great with a Pulser but they’re not legislators. They know nothing of social welfare. He’s just ensuring the war with Dayburn never ends to keep himself in power. Something’s gotta change.”
“I’ve got bigger things to think about, quotas to make,” the stranger replies, tightening his tie further and walking away.
With the rotting flesh of Aphorids fresh in his mind, Severum emotes in one long virtual ejaculation a raging devil, rising from the streets to wake his neighbors, but the citizens walk through the fiery glow of augmented reality unaffected. Ships rise between tight buildings, their exhaust channeling downward. He coughs from the smoke and gazes down the lengthy street flanking the station as if it’s a static waveform collapsing into no possibility at all. The streets seem to converge from the trick of perspective, but they’re just as distant as the citizens. Behind sunken occipts something raw and primitive and utterly human has been fighting to free itself for a long time, to set forth into the unknown world of himself.
He takes the flat line to nowhere home, sitting in a torn Aphorid-hide seat. Color drains from the city as he leaves the commercial district, rows of street merchants fading like Flamenco dancers in black and white. Passing Fort Lux, a tiny rusted spaceship that never took flight sits inside the cut gate, abandoned. He marks the meeting date on his calendar in slow, precise motions, wondering if he’s desperate or poor enough to ever return to The Towers, or to her.