NOSEDIVE (Chapter from Joseph MacKinnon's 2017 cyberpunk thriller, Archetypal)
Metal on metal screeches riff on the ruh-re-re bass line blaring from an incoming jet’s exhaust nozzles. This destructive refrain is neither normal nor desired; the norm would be a low, pulsating hum, and even the most confident pilot would desire total silence. Signalled by a pop, there is a crescendo in the brutal score. The doomed jet bleeds smoke and flame over the partitioned city of Los Angeles like a meteor gravitationally hugged to death.
The commotion overhead drowns out the sound of the medical tent’s quavering and finds Dr. Oni Matsui, dazed. She has blood on her hands and a mangled body on the medical gurney before her. She does not recognize the patient. She does not remember scrubbing-in, trying to stitch the pieces together, giving death another victory, or much else for that matter. It’s alright, she tells herself. You’re at Camp MUD, your home away from a home away on the RIM’s eastern border, a canyon away from the walled-off PIT.
A thunderous burst seizes Oni’s attention and pulls her into the scene and out of the tent. The jet—an Outland meat transport, full of subversive subscribers, unconscious hackers, and enemies of the Outland Corporation—is on a crash course with the easternmost edge of the RIM, the Rift: a deep secondary fault line halving Los Angeles that marks the RIM-PIT border.
The jet—designed with the presumption of perpetual thrust—does not have the aerodynamics necessary to keep it up let alone permit it glide gracefully to some RIM airstrip. Three out of its six engines are ablaze. The other three are groaning, attempting to compensate. The attempt is no good, though; the massive black-and-white-striped transport rolls Oni’s way, glinting in the dying evening light. Although it might be a fatal progress, any Outland pilot would take a RIM-side death and a Rift-basin burial over a PIT-side landing.
Oni quickly surveys her surroundings. In addition to the braindead RIM jocks pointing unloaded rifles at the corporate comet and a few patients walking about on their own volition half-naked, there are several nurses tending to the infirm. Among them and leading by example: Emily and Constance. Of all the people in her woeful life—barring Father Edmund Barros and her exiled mentor, Dr. Paul Sheffield—these two women are the closest Oni has to friends and the most knowledgeable about Camp MUD’s security protocols.
“Emily!” Oni screams, directing her voice to the leathered nurse with the saffron-coloured hair. “Throw up the concussion shield, double-time! I’ll try to reboot the cannon.”
Emily does not register the order. In fact, she does not react at all. Her fingers are linked, vaulted, and shaking. The rest of her body is eerily still as if set in marble by epic disappointment.
The meat transport sags in the direction of Camp MUD.
Tarnation. With an intended Pygmalion effect, Oni screams sense into the statuesque nurse: “Em! Come on! Get the shield up! Then get everyone you can gather into the compound, yourself included. Do not open it for anybody.”
Emily turns a vacant stare Oni’s way, revealing a grotesque aberration: her nose is crushed and her mouth is sealed without any evidence of so much as a crease having ever been there. A sympathetic cry forms on Oni’s lips, but she stops, noticing the iconoclastic vision of Emily begin to flicker. The terrible state her friend finds herself in is not plausible, Oni decides. She silently diagnoses herself with sleep deprivation to account for this unprecedented hallucination. The alternative—instability of the variety suffered by her mentor, Paul Sheffield—is loathesome: seeing things; forgetting things…Can insanity be transmitted mind to mind virtually? Returning to real time and faced with a monster and a falling star, Oni concludes: The most dangerous of all diseases: one that targets reality and dismantles it, brick by brick, byte by byte. “Em, just do it,” Oni yells, re-committing to her self-diagnosis. She points with an authoritarian firmness. “Damn the cannon. I’ll get the shield. Just get these people out of here.”
Oni races to the security tent. The balls of her feet barely touch the ground. It feels like her mind is lifting her body—as if will alone dictates her course. An implant-scarred patient, dragging his IV along like a blind man his dead dog on a leash, stumbles into her way, just feet shy of the security tent. Oni miraculously makes no contact with the skeletal CLOUD-addict despite traipsing right through his immediate path. Untouched, she drives into the tent, compulsively muttering, “Sleep deprivation,” under her breath.
The rainfly chaperons her inside a dim theatre. Dust lends shape to the inconstant glow of a stack of monitors and holofields whose pale light blasts a pair of greasy chairs, a few utility crates, and some ammo boxes on the other side of the tent. Camp MUD pulsates on the screens, divided into conceptual and literal feeds; some drone-mounted and others composites of granular-sensor readings. The words, “INCOMING PROJECTILE” strobe in bold red across the spider-eyed array.
Oni slaps in her biometrics and activates the concussion shield. The shield will absorb one-third of the impact’s energy, which it will repurpose to deflect smaller fragments and slightly reduce the larger projectile’s speed. That is the idea, anyway. It is not in the same league as a plasmic shield, but the best MUD can muster.
The Outland meat shuttle’s roaring engines now sound more human than machine; their message to the hapless and helpless voyeurs below: that this peril is mutually felt and personal. Oni refuses to be wowed by the noise. She doublechecks her digital request as well as the shield’s stats. A readout on the top-right screen suggests a success rate of seventy-five percent. The passing B-grade and the meaningless glyphs cycling behind it restore Oni’s confidence in this first- and last-ditch effort. It is enough to tinge her cheeks rose.
Additional alerts overlap the previous warnings: “PROJECTILE FRAGMENTATION POSSIBLE.” In tandem with the bad news, seventy-five drops to thirty-eight percent, and on that dire note, the spider eye of screens blinks and—with a punctuated flash—fades to glossy black.
Oni jolts forward, tapping furiously on her control tablet. “What the hell?”
A stream of two-dimensional symbols runs down the spider eye diagonally, lighting screens en route to bottom-right. Another message appears, defying and finding space in the chaos: “Oni, are you there? We have to get out. Can’t keep doing this. They are coming for you.”
The spider eye goes dark again. This time, the CPU pops, sending gizmos hissing every which way. A spark arcs from the smoldering sphere to Oni’s hand. Pain climbs up her arm, and realizes its full, agonizing potential in her shoulder. Stifling a cry, she reminds herself that pain subsides, death abides, and dashes out of the tent to face the Icarian menace plaguing her cripple castle.
Stepping into the shadow of the jet, Oni clasps her hands behind her head and sighs. The screaming engines dub the sound of her shock as the jet penetrates Camp MUD’s air space. Surveying the prospective collateral damage, she notices that the camp is empty. Good job, Emily. That’s my girl.
Oni jerks forward in advance of the collision, feeling a chill push through her core. Ghostly outlines swarm her and disappear into the bullet-riddled compound west of the clinic. They wail and moan as they cut through, by, and around Oni, leaving imprints of their motion in the air behind them like smokescreen Polaroid’s. Righting herself, Oni zeroes-in on the jet. Whatever is causing these visions, sleep deprivation or not, can likely be cured by a ninety ton weigh-in.
There is another crack and a massive boom.
The ship’s other three engines erupt into flame two-hundred-yards out. Whatever push was orienting the meat shuttle RIM-side and towards Camp MUD disappears, and the zebra monstrosity rolls east towards the Rift. Debris from the jet is splashed away from the clinic by MUD’s shield.
Although she lacks both her former mentor’s faith and her parents’ superstition, Oni silently expresses her gratitude. To who or to what, she is not sure. Luck? A blessing? Divine intervention? Her prayer transforms into admiration. Dependable engineering and, for lack of a sword, sturdy shielding.
Gone is the threat, but so too the threatened: the ghosts that frenzied about the camp before are nowhere to be seen. In fact, Oni’s team and the few patients who were mobile—hell, even the ones strapped down to gurneys clogging the tent alley—have vanished. Under the concussion-shield’s protective dome, Oni Matsui stands alone.
A dull thud announces the Outland meat shuttle’s destructive end. Absent some secondary bang or explosion, Oni is imbued with a sense of hope and urgency: to rescue the slaves and enemies of the Outland Corporation, and salvage some life-saving technology from the crashed jet for her clinic.
Head on a swivel for stragglers, Oni returns to the security tent. Inside, the screens are still offline and the processor sphere is damaged beyond repair. In the darkness opposite the defunct stack, Oni seeks out her shotgun. After rummaging through three empty crates, she cracks open a fourth containing a variety pack of brutal implements, including her shotgun and a BFG on-loan. Right arm paralyzed with inexplicable pain, she reaches in for the chrome tri-barrel with her left. As she grips it and her index finger finds its groove, myriad voices start on her like an all-consuming static. The pleas and attention-grabs cancel out one another’s meaning, becoming nothing more than an incoherent scream. This scream is short-lived, however; one voice humbles the rest: “We going to go through the motions again? Alright then. After you.”
This auditory hallucination is as convincing as the surrounding reality, jeopardizing Oni’s relationship with it. That being said, the shotgun in her hands feels awfully genuine. She opens it and examines the action, deliberating on her next.
Something’s seriously off. “Monocle,” she says, feeding the shotgun shells, barrel by barrel. Her subdermal implant projects an overlay one millimetre in front of her eye. “Schedule a full self-diagnostic. Doublecheck connectivity between prefrontal cortex and substantia nigra. Submit all observations to Father Ed for review…Block all chat and mute all incoming comms.”
Satisfied that she has at the very least officiated her intention to tackle her sleep deprivation, Oni recommits to finding and making the most out of the crash site, Outland be damned. She activates a live-holographic map of the area and pinpoints the crash via Monocle. The makeshift bridges and piping hanging out over the Rift have prevented the wreckage from falling to the bottom. Wet, septic overflow from the eastern walled city slicked the ship’s touch-down so it did not explode into a million unsalvageable pieces.
At the head of the Rift trail, a worn American flag struggles to flap, but has folded in on itself. An accidental knot in the halyard has caught higher up the pole, hiding at least twenty of the fifty-five stars. Beneath Old Glory waves the RIM’s defiant bear and its Kingsnake necklace with the motto: “N’ne more ready. N’ne more free.” Passing the colours, Oni grimaces. She cannot identify with this place let alone with the thoughts in her head. Who or what deserves her loyalty, she wonders. My friends? No. Perhaps the cause: destroying the Outland Corporation for my friends. That is if one can be loyal to such a cause—loyal to a proposed absence. Paul would call me satanic. She thumbs back two of the gun’s three hammers and smirks. “Fitting,” she says aloud for only her benefit, “that I should be headed for the PIT.”
It would take the uninitiated hours to find a safe way across the Rift where it widens to a proper canyon near Camp MUD, especially at twilight, but the acrobatic routine takes Oni no time at all. Swinging from an old power line to a cantilever bridge, one rainfall away from slipping into the marsh far below, she completes the cross. Monkeying over to the PIT-side has left her right arm throbbing. She takes a moment and a painkiller, and zooms in on her objective, dwarfed both by the cliffs and the Partition wall above—sealing PIT rats in and keeping the prying eyes of the world out.
The crashed ship’s black and white armor has buckled back, accordioning to about midway down the fuselage, revealing a white-hot honeycomb girding the cabin walls. Pronged flames pitch out of the cockpit, which is half-buried in the canyon’s yellow side. Thick smoke pours out the tail-end hatch, which opened automatically on impact. Fortunately for Oni, other scavengers have yet to descend on this Blue Zone prize.
Panicked and muffled hollers inside the wreckage advertise impending doom. An explosion jettisons a section of armor from the rear of the jet with a shockwave and teases the Rift with a flash of light. The deafening report reverberates throughout the canyon, quaking the ground and shaking shopping carts, skeletons, and other antiques free of their museum molds in the walls.
Tumbling rocks from the cliffs above slam into the soft refuse surrounding Oni. One boulder nearly decapitates her as it passes overhead and chews off the nearest ledge. Although she does not vocalize her relief, something else does. A squeaking, tumor-laden rat emerges from the muck. It presses the metal leaves strewn about the surface aside and brazenly crosses Oni’s path, dragging behind it another rat. Oni mimes a trigger pull, annoyed by the rat’s presumption of pardon, and then presses onward, keen on dodging the next avalanche.
The smoke pouring out of the rear hatch is thick enough to lean on. One foul breath is all it takes to convince Oni to don a medical respirator. She tightens its straps so she is as snug as a Martian miner, and takes a clean breath despite the wooly aerosol barraging her face.
Fogging her vision with excited breaths, Oni starts inside, however something blocks the hatchway. A fire-branded Sentinel stumbles forward, trying desperately to feel his way out with charred hands. His moaning and flailing chases Oni back out into the twilight.
He passes Oni—too blind to notice her or too pained to care—and wades through the barbarian sludge. “Tower, do you copy?” he mumbles into his comm. The heavplast components of his suit sizzle. “Tower, MAT Trans 107 is down.” Tapping his temple, he tries to hail his imperial betters. He misses a step and somersaults into a rocky cleft that catches him before an otherwise fatal fall. Resting his head back on one of the two rocks pinching him, he finds dialogue over the comm: “Yes! Most of the stasis pods are intact…Coordinates?”
Can’t risk the unwanted company. Oni targets the Sentinel. She pulls the trigger and corrupts his brain with one-hundred-or-so electrically-charged pellets. He didn’t see it coming, Oni thinks to herself. It’s better that way. More humane to have him with hope on his palette just before the taste of iron floods the place.
Celebratory squeaks indicate the body will not go to waste.
Having made certain she will not have to rush on account of an Outland retrieval team, Oni enters the wreck, finger on the trigger. The smoke immediately forces her onto her hands and knees even with the respirator working overtime. Crawling deeper into the wreck, she spots a neon-green flame. The ship’s batteries are going to explode.
A squad of Sentinels lie paralyzed near the batteries, blanched and contorted like plaster Pompeiians. They are still alive, but their cybernetics and exosuits are toast on account of electronic distortion from the misfiring engines and weapons systems. They silently beseech Oni to save them. She couldn’t even if she wanted to, and she doesn’t.
An ambient voice finds her in the inferno: “A fiery womb and a clean slate...”
Sleep deprivation, Oni reminds herself, trying her best to ignore the voice.
She examines the stasis pods immediately past the Sentinels. They are filled with nothing more than organic rust and humanoid pastes, all definitively dead. Growing more and more restless with each fleeting autopsy, she finds one with some promise. Red mountains and valleys track across the heart monitor on the corresponding pod panel—it has a living occupant.
On reaching the stasis pod, she checks to make sure the hatch is still unobstructed. Seeing that her exit is assured, she checks the pod’s embedded tablet, which provides her intended rescue with a name: “BOOKER TALIAFERRO GIBSON.”
No longer fighting her déjà vu, Oni blurts out: “I’ve gotta save Booky.” Booky? Suppressed enthusiasm breaks its fetters and claws Oni’s insides. Booker…
Her Monocle synchronizes with the pod’s interface and runs through pod-code combinations to unlatch the lid. Waiting for a match with the ship caving-in around her, Oni reads file fragments concerning the pod’s occupant: “Booker Gibson: six feet five; African-American; A-positive blood; two hundred and forty-five pounds; assassin; remotely convicted under the Calgary Accord for terrorism…”
My macho merc…Oni palm-wipes the glass to get a glimpse of the occupant advertised as Booker Gibson. There is too much smoke; she can’t see much of anything.
Her Monocle has found the right combination. The latch on the stasis pod fires back, and the door jaws open. Oni frantically looks in—
On the verge of exploding, the batteries feed the neon-green flame and throw it the width of the fuselage. The flames coat the bodies of the Sentinels pre-emptively sent to Hell and reveal the contents of Booker Gibson’s pod: a raven-haired Japanese woman with ribs exposed over a mulched stomach, a boney residual of a right arm, and metal fragments embedded in her skin from head to toe. Even under all the gore, there is no mistaking the woman’s identity: Oni Matsui.
Oni falls back, overcome with bodily horror and pain at the sight of this false likeness spoiled by violence and sin. “No…It can’t be.” The first of the battery packs explode, throwing sparks overhead and showing Oni her double reflection in the glass of the pod’s concave lid. “What the hell is going on?” Definitely not sleep deprivation.
Panicked, Oni hurries back to the hatch. The batteries explode behind her, licking her feet with corrosive tongues. She pulls herself out of the crash just as a fireball squelches the dreamers unwittingly entombed by and for Outland.
Metal and plastic pelt the cliff side, peppering Oni’s head and back. Wheezing, she slithers across the warm muck, pulling herself forward with one hand and avoiding a roll off the ledge with the anchorage of her shotgun.
Monocle begins feeding Oni images mentally, bypassing her retina and transforming the data directly into light impulses. Her former lab at the Outland Corporation materializes along with her mentor, Paul Sheffield. He spins in a desk chair at the centre of their old lab, impressed with a large smile. Sensing Oni’s gaze, he stops spinning and stands up, wobbling until his dizziness passes. Paul, eyes clear of the insanity that had once darkened and recessed them, opens his mouth as if to speak, but nothing comes out. He tries desperately to convey some sort of meaning, which looks more like gagging than anything else.
A sonorous voice—certainly not Paul’s—falls down on Oni, interrupting Monocle’s specious feed and reintroducing Oni to the Rift, to the crash site: “He was a good man, all things considered.”
“What? He was a good man?” Oni asks blindly, muck now creeping up her sleeves.
There is a tug on her shotgun. Nearly asphyxiated, she has only the energy to point at her weapon, lifted from her by a knot of leather digits. Giant boots shoring up two massive legs background the weapon’s ascent.
Although the fire bleeding out of the meat shuttle into the borderland sky illuminates the stranger’s armour and hefty limbs, it fails to reveal his face. “We have to finish what he started—what we started. Otherwise we’re all damned and he goes down as the devil of our time.”
Oni drags her knees through the muck to her chest and leans back on her heels. “I don’t understand.”
The stranger loses solidity and transmogrifies into an elaborate wire structure. “The path will find you,” vows the scaffold of a man. “It’s treacherous as Hell, but all doors made by angels can be opened by one. And besides—I am here if you need me. Now, wake up.”